Sunday, March 11, 2012

John Carter of Mars

I don't go to the movies much. The last time I went was about five years ago, and that was to see a documentary about Carthusian monks.  But the opening of John Carter proved sufficient move me to hitch up the mules and drive all the way to the Big City. I'm glad I went. It was a delight to watch and faithful to Burroughs' vision of life on Barsoom. The imagery was quite evocative, better than I had imagined. And the plot was much closer than I had expected, too.

The trouble with movies made from books, though, is that the writers are apt to deviate from the plot for some reason or other (which can be justifiable given the medium), but usually leave everything else exactly as they found it, no matter how illogical or out-of-character. John Carter suffers from this quite a bit. If you try to sort out what's going on, none of the characters' actions really make a lot of sense. And that's too bad. I'm a fan of the Mars books, but it isn't as though A Princess of Mars couldn't have been improved on. Instead the filmmakers just succeeded in making it incoherent.

Take the changes made to Dejah Thoris' character. This is a Disney movie, and she is in fact a princess, so of course she had to become a clever free-spirit with a doting but buffoonish widowed father who must-just-must be free to follow her heart in matrimonial matters. Now, to me, the Dejah Thoris of the book was always much more than a damsel in distress. She's like something out of the Iliad or the Icelandic sagas. A great woman of the old school. But Disney, which vulgarizes whatever it touches (and, let's face it, the Mars books are already pretty vulgar), simply tacked on a few superficial attributes while discarding nobility. The Dejah of the movie lies to John Carter (more than once) in order to manipulate and use him. She abandons the duties that attend the privileges of her office, willing to let her nation be destroyed rather than marry against her wishes. Yes, they give her a new prowess in fighting (see, girls can disembowel their enemies, too!) and make her discover the ninth ray (see, girls can do pseudo-physics, too!), but these are add-ons that don't concern the plot (or her character) in the least. The writers were obviously a little uncomfortable with the moral implications, and make it out that Dejah just feels that something bad would happen if she marries whats-his-name. Again, typical Disney fare. If I were a woman (and I'm not), I'd be more annoyed by what Disney apparently thinks should please women than I would have been by a faithful representation of a great woman in a pagan patriarchal culture.

The mark of Disney is also felt in the movie's reduction of everything to a fight of good versus evil, with Helium fighting for the cause ("our cause! our cause!") of saving the planet, and evil represented by extremely annoying stock villains. The real enemy in A Princess of Mars isn't this or that nation or jed. It's the slow but inexorable death of the planet. The movie makes it out that the nation of Zodanga is somehow responsible for the state of the planet, but doesn't explain this in the least. It can't, of course. To do so would make nonsense of other things.

Finally, to wrap up this little rant, I'd like to say that I personally can't stand computer-animated special effects. It looks like a big video game and is about as exciting. (I don't play video games.) The graphics don't add anything and tend to look ridiculous. Give me backlot sets and models and painted backgrounds and ingenuity and Frank Oz. Has anyone ever complained about how hokey The Empire Strikes Back* was? Or 2001: A Space Odyssey? Or Alien? Blade RunnerMetropolis, for goodness' sake?

Well, and so that's why I don't go to the movies. I'm a cranky curmudgeon.

*Before being defaced by its maker!

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