Since the first John Carter work was published in 1912, there have been countless attempts at a film adaptation (chronicled so well in David Hughes’ book The Greatest Sci-fi Movies Never Made) that never quite fit the bill. The reasons for this void in the cinematic landscape always came down to two things: technology and money. Other than the very beginning of the first book, the John Carter universe operates entirely on the Red Planet and often involves lavish landscapes and extreme battles between two Martian races. Translating those scenes to the screen has long been deemed impractical and if it could be done, it would cost a ridiculous amount of money. This is why, in an industry that aims to suck the life essence out of every book ever written, the John Carter has gone unfilmed for 100 years. Enter Disney and its massive, overly expensive adaptation which opens in theaters today.
For the record, I don’t expect John Carter to be a bad movie. I’ve seen enough reviews that fall into the range of positive to mildly positive to expect that, as a fan of popcorn movies, I’ll enjoy this one to at least some degree. In addition, the novels upon which this movie is based are favorites of mine and their author, Edgar Rice Burroughs, is sci-fi royalty. It disappoints me greatly, therefore, to know that this movie is going to wind up as one of the biggest failures in the history of the cinema. What could be the cause of such an historic flop? Let’s break it down into three briefly detailed categories of screwiness.
As noted above, I love Edgar Rice Burroughs’ series of books. They represent perhaps the first real examples of mainstream science fiction and while they’re far from complex, they are exceedingly fun to read. But how many average moviegoers have heard of Edgar Rice Burroughs or, more importantly, John Carter? I would guess (without any research to back me up beyond informal polling among my friends) that the percentage of casual moviegoers who’ve heard of Burroughs, let alone read his work, is quite low. Again, we’re talking about a series that was first published 100 years ago and which hasn’t gone through a rediscovery renaissance in quite some time. It’s not that it’s hard to get your hands on one of the books if you want; in fact, Barnes and Noble printed a nice, inexpensive collection of three John Carter stories a few years back. But you do have to know what you’re looking for and seek it out. Unlike some more fortunate sci-fi and fantasy pieces from past decades, these aren’t books that get introduced in school (The Hobbit, Ender’s Game) or go through constant reprinting (Dracula, the Sherlock Holmes collection).
Moreover, if you have heard of Burroughs, it’s likely that you know him because of his other famous series, Tarzan. The similarities between the John Carter series and the Tarzan series are extensive but it is Tarzan who has enjoyed a century of notoriety. Everyone knows the basic gist of the Tarzan story; you can’t say the same for John Carter. That lack of familiarity with Burroughs, Carter, and the source material that brings the two together can be a tough hurdle to overcome. Keep in mind that we just came off of a year in which the top nine films at the box office were sequels. What that means is that now, possibly more than ever, familiarity with a film’s source material is crucial to box office success. Building a tent-pole movie around an unknown commodity is risky at best, especially when you consider our second category.
Remember that the issues which have kept John Carter off the big screen have always been technology and money. If you go see John Carter this weekend, you will see things that wouldn’t have been possible even five years ago. So the technology has come around. Unfortunately for Disney, the technology is absurdly expensive. How expensive, you ask? The estimated budget for John Carter is somewhere in the range of $250 million and I’ve seen articles that would suggest that’s a conservative estimate. To put that into perspective, Avatar, for which much of the technology used to make John Carter had to be created, cost “only” $235 million to make. To take that a step further, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, which featured some of the most amazing extended special effects shots I’ve ever seen, came in at a cool $93 million.
Spending $250 million on any movie that doesn’t involve Harry Potter, Batman, or Bilbo Baggins is essentially cinematic suicide. To make matters worse, while the source material is largely unknown to the general public, the cast of John Carter doesn’t exactly set the world on fire. I love Taylor Kitsch to the point that I may name my hypothetical, future son after his character on Friday Night Lights. But Kitsch is not a movie star (at least not yet). There are some known names within Kitsch’s supporting cast (Willem Dafoe, Bryan Cranston, Mark Strong) but none that are going to bring in the average moviegoer. To put that kind of money into a film without a well-known name is ludicrous.
Apparently, however, Disney has never heard the phrase, “throwing good money after bad.” I’d love to know what this project’s original budget was but regardless, this type of spending can only be classified as “stupid.” Movies go over budget all the time but at some point, someone has to say enough is enough and cap the sucker before it gets out of control. In this case, “enough is enough” should have come about $100 million ago.
Considering the unknown source material and the “could fund several small countries for a year” budget, you would think the marketing campaign behind John Carter would be dynamite. And you would be wrong. The missteps involved with this aspect of the filmmaking process of have been remarkable and could be considered a master’s class in what not to do.
For me, it starts with the lack of attention paid to Pixar’s involvement with this project. For a while I think John Carter was labeled in news blurbs and articles as, “The first live-action Pixar movie.” But when the first trailer and poster debuted, Pixar’s involvement was ignored. Sure, this is not technically a Pixar film. But director Andrew Stanton comes from the Pixar stable and is responsible for two of that company’s biggest successes, WALL*Eand Finding Nemo. Did you know that the director of John Carter directed those movies as well? Many of my friends did not, which begs the question: why wasn’t Andrew Stanton’s previous film history trumpeted throughout the marketing for this movie? Why doesn’t everyone know that John Carter is brought to you by the guy who gave us WALL*E?
Worse, though, is the way in which Disney has ignored the fanboy. Instead of embracing the key demographic for John Carter, Disney has gone out of its way to stay away from what should be the target market. There was no promotion at Comic Con, a grievous and confusing mistake that goes against the methods Disney has used in the past. Then there’s the title change that took the film away from its roots. The difference between John Carter and John Carter of Mars may seem insignificant but to me and many other would-be fanboys, it signified a shift in what Disney was going for. It’s a blander, all-encompassing title that I suspect exemplifies what we can expect from the film. This is what happens when you spend foolishly on a film: instead of focusing on the market that is most likely to embrace your film, you end up having to aim for every moviegoer and in most cases, the result is overwhelmingly disappointing.
By bringing all of these factors together, Disney has set 2012’s first blockbuster hopeful up against a tremendous mountain that it has no chance of scaling. And for me, that makes John Carter one of the most fascinating films of the year for me. I am both stoked to see Burroughs’ work brought to life on the screen and thoroughly intrigued by the (great) possibility of a trainwreck. Regardless of how it turns out, I’ll be in a theater on opening day, eagerly awaiting the unknown which is to come. Unfortunately for Disney, I expect I will be somewhat lonesome in that theater.
EDITOR'S NOTE: I got about halfway through this piece before stumbling across a similar column written by Anne Thompson over at Indiewire. Thompson has already seen John Carter and provides a much more in-depth look at the curious choices I touched on here. I highly encourage reading her article if you have an interest in this subject.