How “John Carter” “A Princess of Mars” should have gone

| March 11, 2012

UPDATE [3/12/12]: They should have let Brad Bird direct instead of Andrew Stanton. Bird did “The Incredibles” (and has since done MI-4); Stanton did “Finding Nemo” and “WALL-E”. Which director do you think would have done a better job with a swashbuckling retro-SF story?

UPDATE[3/16/12]: I went to see “John Carter” again yesterday, and pretty much stand by what I said below, with a few more additions.

First, I think the whole Tars Tarkas/Sola/Sarkoja story was poorly handled. First, it starts with a hard-to-swallow leap: Carter somehow guesses (“a father’s intuition”) that Sola is Tarkas’s daughter, even though Carter has been on Barsoom for only a day and he’s dealing with an alien race — and yet, none of the Tharks have reached the same conclusion. Second, it is too terse, rushed and obscure. If you’ve read the books, you know this has to do with the culture of the Tharks and that Tarkas represents a bit of a throwback to kinder, gentler Tharks. I suspect those not familiar with the books were mostly confused at why this was all significant. I would either drop this story line entirely, or I would have condensed it into a single, more detailed exposition after Tarkas takes Carter into the tent to ostensibly slay him (after the temple incident).

Second, the movie left it very unclear — even after two viewings — why Sola was branded. Was it because Carter broken his chains and escaped? Was it because she somehow implanted him with the Barsoomian language (itself a confusing sequence — was it due to the fluid she gave him, some sort of telepathic imprint, or both?). Same thing with the “9th Ray” — it’s referenced, but never really explained.

Third, there appears to be a massive chronological/continuity flaw in the film, as well as possibly some distance problems, due largely to the Hollywood habit of compressing events into as short a time period as possible. Working from memory, the film’s chronology appears to go as follows:

  • Day 1: Carter arrives on Mars and is captured by the Tharks; that night, he escapes, is chased by Woola, kills a Thark with a single blow; is generally accepted.
  • Day 2: the Zodanga v. Helium air battle takes place; Carter rescues Dejah Thoris; they go (with Sola) into the temple that night and are caught; Tarkas takes them into his tent to execute them, but lets them escape.
  • Day 3: Carter, Thoris, Sola and Woola ride across the desert. It is unclear how long they are traveling, but it is likely several days. I’ll be extremely generous and say that it’s two weeks (14 days), even though the movie never shows riding or camping at night, and it would also conflict with how long it takes Sola to later get from Iss to Zodanga.
  • Day 17: Carter and company reach the River Iss, go to the temple, come back. Carter and Woola fights the Warhoons (and how did Woola not get killed? A single short or two would have done it); Carter and Thoris are rescued by a Helium ship and taken to Zodanga; Sola is left on foot, as is Woola.
  • Day 18: it is possible that some time elapses here in Zodanga, though nothing indicated that. I’ll add another week just to be generous (and to give time for Sola and Woola to make it to Zodanga).
  • Day 25: Kantos Kan helps break Carter out; Carter visits Thoris; he is captured by Matai Shang; they watch the wedding procession; Woola helps him escape; he finds Sola outside the city; they all fly to the Tharks. Carter is taken prisoner; he meets up with Tarkas; he fights the white apes; he challenges and kills Tal Hajus. The Tharks mobilize and Carter leads them on thoat-back to Zodanga; he flies to Helium and disrupts the wedding; the Tharks arrive on flyers and help defeat the Zodangans; Carter and Thoris marry.
  • Day 26: In the wee, small hours of the morning, Carter wanders to another part of the palace and meets up with Matai Shang, who sends Carter back to Earth, where he finds that his body is covered with dust, his clothes crackle, and Powell’s head at least has been reduced to what appears to be a fairly clean skull.

In four weeks? All flesh is off of Powell’s skull, in a desert setting, in four weeks? And note that four weeks is a generous estimate; if you go by what the movie actually shows, you would think that the entire story takes place in about 4, maybe 5 days. The logical assumption would be that Carter’s “late night restless walk” is taking place months or even years after the marriage (which is what actually happens in the book, though it is a different type of incident that sends him back to Earth). However, when the camera closes in on Carter while he’s standing at the balcony, you can still clearly see the bruises and scrapes from the fight at the wedding.

On top of this, there is no clear indication of the relative locations of and distances between Zodanga, Helium, the River Iss, and the Thark city. Look at all the action and traveling in Day 25 above; for this to work out, the Thark city and Zodanga would have to be very close indeed (and note that Zodanga is always moving). Also note that Sola made it on foot from the River Iss to Zodanga during whatever period Carter was being held in Zodanga.

For a $250 million film, this is very sloppy continuity and plotting, and I think it’s yet another reason why a lot of people left the film with a vague (or not so vague) sense of confusion.

ORIGINAL POST:

As I said in my review yesterday, there was much I liked about “John Carter”, but there were some major flaws: too complicated, too slow in getting to Barsoom (Mars), and a poor characterization of John Carter himself (and corresponding poor casting). Since seeing it yesterday, I’ve formed a few opinions on how it could have been a better, shorter and more successful film. Keep in mind this is being written in one sitting, and that I’ve only seen the movie once, so it’s largely off the top of my head — but I think it points in a better direction.

First, the title. Those idiots at Disney apparently were so paranoid over the word “Mars” that they passed over the perfect title: “A Princess of Mars”, the actual title of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ first Barsoom novel. The immediate disjunction between “princess” — which suggests knights and chivalry and fantasy — and “Mars” — which suggests space and rockets and science fiction — provides a compelling hook. Princesses on Mars? Really? How can that be? It immediately tells you to expect the unexpected — as opposed to the title “John Carter”, which tells you nothing at all. It also sets up the storyline: John Carter meeting, being attracted to, defending, offending, protecting, pursuing, being rejected by and ultimately winning Dejah Thoris, the aforementioned princess of Mars, and in the processing causing — as an unintended side effect — great social, political, and (in the 2nd and 3rd Barsoom novels) religious upheaval in his wake.

Second, the characterization and casting of John Carter. In the Barsoom novels, John Carter is a polite, chivalrous, self-assured but self-deprecating swordsman and fighter, with a wry sense of humor. He is never quite so happy as when he in engaged in a challenging swordfight; while he does not kill for pleasure, he has no problem doing so when life or honor is at stake, and often smiles when he’s in the middle of a fight. Think of a melding of Will Turner (Orlando Bloom’s character) from the first “Pirates of the Caribbean” film and the Dread Pirate Roberts from “The Princess Bride”. Here’s ERB’s description of his “Uncle Jack” at the start of “A Princess of Mars”:

He was a splendid specimen of manhood, standing a good two inches over six feet, broad of shoulder and narrow of hip, with the carriage of the trained fighting man. His features were regular and clear cut, his hair black and closely cropped, while his eyes were of a steel gray, reflecting a strong and loyal character, filled with fire and initiative. His manners were perfect, and his courtliness was that of a typical southern gentleman of the highest type.

His horsemanship, especially after hounds, was a marvel and delight even in that country of magnificent horsemen. I have often heard my father caution him against his wild recklessness, but he would only laugh, and say that the tumble that killed him would be from the back of a horse yet unfoaled.

This, of course, is vastly different from the shaggy, sullen, angry, hostile, reluctant John Carter, portrayed by Taylor Kitsch, that we meet and have to endure through much of the film. Frankly, a clean-cut Gerard Butler or Chris Hemsworth would have been a better choice. Heck, simply a clean-cut and cheerful Taylor Kitsch would have been a better choice. Let’s leave it at that, so I don’t have to play “what-ifs” about casting.

Title sequence/prologue: drop the voice over, shot of Mars, early shots of John Carter, etc. Instead, start immediately with Edgar Rice Burroughs (ERB) riding in a horse-drawn cab to his Uncle Jack’s mansion on a rainy afternoon, with the title “A Princess of Mars” appearing and then fading away over the arrival sequence. We’ve now added a third source of cognitive dissonance, since the time and setting appears neither fantasy nor science fiction. We can then pretty much use the ERB arrival and exposition as filmed (perhaps tightened up just a wee bit), but with one exception: when ERB opens Carter’s journal for the first time, he opens it in the middle to Carter’s drawing of Dejah Thoris. He then turns back to the start and begins reading….

A (clean cut and humorous) John Carter walks into the saloon/general store to buy supplies. He tries to cajole the merchant into giving him more supplies on credit, but reluctantly takes out and places the gold ingot on the counter. The merchant holds it up to examine it — and the three toughs in the saloon suddenly get up, gather around — one drawing a gun — and ask Carter if he’s got more gold. Carter tries to talk his way out of it, but they don’t buy it. Carter then reluctantly digs into his pocket, pulls out another ingot — and flips it in the air up over their heads. As they all look up and grab for it, Carter whips out his cavalry sword, stuns one tough with slamming the end of the hilt into his head, disarms the one with the gun with the flat of the blade (breaking the tough’s finger in the process), and puts his foot on the fallen gun as he has the point of his sword at the third tough’s throat, drawing a bead of blood — this all happens just as the ingot clatters on the floor. Carter draws his own pistol with his left hand and suggests that the two conscious thugs take their unconscious friend and leave — and tells them that if he runs into them again, he won’t be so gentle with them. They leave, muttering threats. Carter picks up the ingot, turns, and finds the merchant hastily working to fill his order of supplies.

Next scene, Carter is riding somewhere outside of town and meets up with his prospecting partner, James Powell, who’s riding towards town. Powell is excited — he thinks he’s finally put together where the apparent source of the two ingots — the ‘cave of the spider’ is — but that the Apaches don’t want them going there. “Is it sacred to them?” “No…it seems more like it’s cursed or evil. And the Apaches aren’t in a mood to tolerate white folk right now.” Carter and Powell come around a bend in the ground and discover — the three toughs on horseback, with a few more friends. Both are startled, but Carter and Powell react first and light out, with the toughs pursuing and firing occasional shots at them. Some scenes here could establish Carter’s outstanding (and reckless) horsemanship. They come over a rise and run (full speed) into and through an even larger group of Apaches on horseback. Carter and Powell ride right through, and the Apaches and the toughs engage each other. Carter and Powell keep riding but Powell starts losing control of his horse, and it becomes apparent that he’s been hit. They can’t head back to town, so they ride in the direction (according to Powell) of the cave.

Here we can pretty much pick up the film more or less: they stop in the ravine below the cave, Carter sends both horse continuing up the ravine, he get Powell up to the mouth of the cave, the Apaches show up, are scared away, Carter goes in the cave, meets the Thern, gets transported, and wakes up in a strange looking desert, discovers he can leap high, meets Tars Tarkas, learns the language through Sola’s efforts, chafes a bit at being an amusement to the Tharks, fights one who mistreats Sola, and is accepted as an honorary Thark, and is grateful to have a sword back in his hands — though he’s curious that the sword they give him seems small for a Thark. He’s also curious why the Tharks don’t find him as strange and unusual as he finds them.

He finds out the next day when a Thark raiding party returns with what appears to be a human female. He tries to get near her, but is blocked from doing so by the Thark who led the raiding party. He uses his jumping ability to get to the (high) room where she’s being held. He meets Dejah Thoris — and now we can get a bit of the backstory about Barsoom and Zodanga. Thoris plays up her 9th ray research and says nothing about being a princess; she says she was ambushed by Tharks while searching for some ancient ruins that might hold the key she needs to make the 9th ray technology work. As is the film, she’s puzzled by Carter’s ignorance of all things Baroomian (such as flying ships) and treats as outright lies his stories about actual seas of water.

He and Sola help her escape (fill in great action sequence), Thoris proving her own fighting chops in the process, and it’s clear that mutual respect is growing. We can stick in the Temple of Issus sequence here — as part of her ongoing 9th ray research — but afterward, instead of more Tharks showing up (or, perhaps, as they show up), they are picked up by a Helium airship. (Sola and Woola are left off after a while, at Sola’s request; she wants to go back and see her father, Tars Tarkas). Carter learns that Thoris is actually a princess and heir to the throne of Barsoom, and that Helium ships have been searching for her. Thoris turns a bit formal on him, and Carter takes it with wry resignation. However, when she thanks him for his help in escaping and says, “I will always be grateful to you, my chieftain.” Carter inclines his head and says, “I was honored to do so, my princess” — and it’s immediately apparent by the shocked reactions around him that he’s committed some kind of major faux pas. Thoris gets very cold and formal, saying, “It is only because you are from — somewhere far away — that I do not have you thrown off this ship. Never presume to say that to me again.” And she stalks off.

Carter is at a loss as to what he’s done — everyone else is treating him coldly as well — but Kanton Kan, who is one of the ‘fighter pilots’ aboard the ship, takes Carter aside and explains to him that while Thoris’s use of “my chieftain” signified her gratitude and approval of his fighting prowess on her behalf, his use of the phrase “my princess” implied that she had, ah, pledged herself to him, body and soul. Carter sighs and says, “You know, I was never very good with women back on Earth, either.” He and Kan commiserate a bit [I really like how Kantos Kan was portrayed in the movie] and bond enough that Kan shows him how the one-man flyers work, giving Carter something to do, since Thoris refuses to see him or be around him. Carter, after a few stumbles, suddenly realizes how to relate riding a one-man flyer to riding a horse, and starts to improve, while delighting in the ability to move in three dimensions and taking risks that even has Kan shaking his head. (Carter: “The tumble that kills me will be from a flyer yet unbuilt. Besides — I can survive a much higher fall than you.”)

The ship runs into a few other Helium ships and Thoris is transferred to another ship. They then run into a Zodangan fleet, and a big aerial battle occurs. The Helium fleet is clearly losing due to the Thernian technology that Zodanga is using, and Carter uses his flyer to rescue Thoris from death, though their combined weight forces the flyer to the ground. (Kan, under direct orders from Thoris and against all his warrior ethics, flees the battle in his own one-man flyer to inform Helium about Dejah Thoris and the battle.) The surviving Zodangan ships land — and the fleet turns out to be led by Sab Than, Jeddak of Zodanga himself. He says that a ship carrying her father — Tardos Mors, Jeddak of Helium — is coming out to meet him in a few days under a flag of truce, and if she doesn’t agree to the marriage, he will allow Mors to return to Helium — and then he, Sab Than, will continue the war, with the obvious outcome. And he (Than) pleads a heartfelt appreciation for Thoris’s beauty, courage, and intellect. With a look of great internal struggle — and a pained glance at Carter — Thoris agrees only to make no decision until she has spoken with her father.

That glance did not go unnoticed by Than, who summons Carter to him late that night. Sab Than says that while his Thern mentor wants Carter brought back to Zodanga alive, Than is not so sure that’s a good idea. He pricks Carter with the point of his sword, sees the red blood, and says, “They say you’re from another world. I would not believe it but for your blood. No doubt you have a fascinating story to tell, and under other circumstances, I think we could be good friends.” (Carter looks skeptical.) “But I want no complicating factors where Dejah Thoris is involved.” He then nods at his guards — who drop the railing behind Carter just as the ship suddenly banks to one side. Carter vanishes in the darkness, and the ship levels off and cruises on. The next morning, on the Zodangan ship, Sab Than tells Dejah Thoris that Carter left the ship to find a way back to his own world.

Elsewhere, that same morning, Carter comes to, having clearly been unconscious and feeling quite battered. He gets up and looks around to figure out where he is and why he’s still alive — and sees that he’s on a very tall rise, a mesa a few thousand feet high, in the middle of the dead sea bottoms.  He sees ruins off in the distance that look familiar. He is able to pick (and jump) his way down the slopes of the mesa and heads towards the ruins — only to find himself facing an attacking horde of Tharks.

Big battle sequence, Carter is captured alive, we can plug in the whole white-apes-in-the arena sequence here. In fact, we can largely pick up the rest of the movie —  Thoris and her father agreeing to her marriage, Carter leading the Tharks to attack Zodanga, then going on to Helium, lots of swordfighting and great leaps, etc., etc., with various tweaks and changes for pacing and continuity. The Therns may need a bit more massaging as well. Also, we can have Kantos Kan show up again — perhaps looking for Carter at Thoris’s request — and help lead the Tharks first to Zodanga and then (in the nick of time aerial cavalry arrival of the Tharks) to Barsoom.

That’s my at-one-sitting, I’m-definitely-not-a-screenwriter take on how to improve the film. This film would have been a good 20+ minutes shorter; John Carter would have been a far more enjoyable and sympathetic character, and we’d focus more on the swashbuckling and romance.

So much for my $0.02 worth. Thoughts?  ..bruce w..

P.S. I’ll keep tweaking this as I think of other changes.

 

 

 

 

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About the Author ()

Webster is Principal and Founder at Bruce F. Webster & Associates, as well as an Adjunct Professor of Computer Science at Brigham Young University. He works with organizations to help them with troubled or failed information technology (IT) projects. He has also worked in several dozen legal cases as a consultant and as a testifying expert, both in the United States and Japan. He can be reached at bwebster@bfwa.com, or you can follow him on Twitter as @bfwebster.