Mention the name Edgar Rice Burroughs to many people and they’ll immediately recognise him as the creator of Tarzan, the popular pulp hero of novels and film who endured throughout the 20th century as one of the world’s most popular fictional characters. Less well known that Tarzan, however, is John Carter. This Virginian Civil War veteran travelled to the planet Mars in a string of pulp adventures, all written by Burroughs.
In Carter’s first adventure, A Princess of Mars (serialised in 1912 and published as a novel in 1917), Carter goes prospecting for gold in Arizona. While exploring a cave he is inexplicably transported through space to the planet Mars, known by its numerous inhabitants as ‘Barsoom’. Carter finds that in the lower gravity of Mars he has super-human strength and the ability to leap great distances. He rapidly becomes involved in the political affairs of the planet’s warring tribes, including the red-skinned humanoid Martians and the tall, four-armed Tharks.
Burroughs wrote nine more Barsoom novels in total: The Gods of Mars (1918), The Warlord of Mars (1919), Thuvia, Maid of Mars (1920), The Chessmen of Mars (1922), The Master Mind of Mars (1928), A Fighting Man of Mars (1931), Swords of Mars (1936), Synthetic Men of Mars (1940) and Llana of Gathol (1948).
While the Tarzan books were adapted to cinema as early as 1918 (in Tarzan of the Apes and The Romance of Tarzan), John Carter’s road to the cinema took almost exactly 100 years, three movie studios, six directors and countless writers, artists and designers along the way.
In 1935 animation director Bob Clampett wrote to Edgar Rice Burroughs, enquiring after the film rights to the Barsoom novels. ‘An animator can take a pencil,’ he explained, ‘and put the city of Rome or a strange planet on a small piece of paper and have a character do anything that comes to his imagination. There is no other medium that allows you to exert such control over every frame of film.’1 Clampett visited Burroughs at the author’s Californian estate, and was surprised to find him extremely receptive to the idea of an animated John Carter. Clampett said: ‘Edgar was smart enough to understand that one couldn’t just literally translate his Mars books page by page into animation; it just would not be cinematic. So, he gave me a great deal of freedom to dream up and be inspired by his writing and develop a cartoon story on my own.’2
Clampett and Burroughs’ son John Coleman Burroughs started animation tests on a proposed animated serial – what would have been the first of its kind. Clampett’s test footage raised the interest of film studio MGM. Since Clampett was at the time working for Warner Bros, the Barsoom test sequence was animated in the evenings, with John and his wife assisting from time to time. To achieve a more mature and realistic style of animation, Clampett abandoned traditional inks in favour of oil painting. ‘We would oil paint the side shadowing frame-by-frame in an attempt to get away from the typical outlining that took place in normal animated films. In the running sequence, for example, there is a subtle blending of figure and line which eliminated the harsh outline. It is more like a human being in tone. We were working in untested territory at that time. There was no animated film to look at to see how it was done.’3
A six minute test sequence was completed in 1936, and presented to MGM. Negative feedback from film exhibitors led the studio to back out, however, leaving Clampett’s vision as the first of numerous unrealised Barsoom movies. While MGM offered Clampett the chance to use his new animation techniques to create a Tarzan serial (which is what the exhibitors really wanted), the director elected to renew his contract with Warner Bros.
In recent years Clampett’s test reel was rediscovered, allowing fans of both animation and Burroughs to assess the footage for themselves. Placed into historical context, the footage is breathtaking: the rotoscoped sword-fighting is significantly ahead of anything else being animated at the time, while Clampett’s experimental use of oil paints on the colour sequences gives each scene an oddly three-dimensional, rich aesthetic. It has gone down as one of Hollywood’s greatest missed opportunities – had it gone ahead, it would likely have significantly changed the future of American animation.
In 1958 special effects designer and model maker Ray Harryhausen vainly attempted to stimulate interest in making a Barsoom movie, but the next proper attempt to film A Princess of Mars came almost thirty years later – and fifty years since Clampett’s attempt was abandoned.
In 1986 the Walt Disney Company teamed with Carolco Pictures to purchase the rights and develop a big-budget live-action movie. The film was something of a pet project for Disney’s head of feature film production, Jeffrey Katzenberg, and he was an enthused advocate for the project. Carolco’s Mario Kassar and Andrew Vajna were in the middle of a decade-long winning streak, releasing more than twenty films in a row to gross more than $100 million dollars (including the lucrative Rambo franchise).
The first writer assigned to adapt the novel to the screen was Charles Pogue, who had recently scripted The Fly for director David Cronenberg. ‘One reason this project appeals to me,’ he said, ‘is that it’s not hi-tech space opera. I refer to it as an interplanetary swashbuckler adventure. He has his own code of honour, so while he’s going through the whole Martian experience, he’s behaving as only a gentleman could, but he keeps tripping up.’4
Pogue was keen to stick as close as possible to the book, including retaining the book’s 19th century setting. This did not sit well with Disney and Carolco, whose executives envisaged a more contemporary take on the material.
In 1988, one year after Pogue had completed his screenplay, Disney hired Terry Black to undertake a rewrite. Black had come to Disney’s attention writing a zombie movie titled Dead Heat, and was a keen fan of Burroughs’ novels. ‘The studio wanted to change the whole story around,’ he said. ‘At one point, they wanted me to throw out the whole book – which I thought was foolish advice.’5
The tension between faithfully adapting the then-75 year-old property and producing a contemporary, audience friendly action film was one that remained throughout Disney’s development of A Princess of Mars. After the studio remained unsatisfied with the project despite Black’s rewrite, Jeffrey Katzenberg hired two more writers – Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio. While the duo would subsequently write a string of hit films for Disney including Aladdin and Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, A Princess of Mars was their first work for the company.
Elliott and Rossio’s script, titled The Chronicles of John Carter: Edgar Rice Burrough’s A Princess of Mars, was completed in March 1990. Their screenplay used Burroughs himself as a framing narrative, inheriting his uncle John Carter’s estate and learning of his adventures on Mars.
Early in 1990 artist William Stout was approached about the possibility of working on A Princess of Mars, although in precisely which capacity was never made clear to him. ‘The two producers were a man and a woman,’ he later recalled. ‘After talking to them for five minutes I could tell that these two clueless individuals had never produced anything in their lives. Plus, they were idiots. They began by asking me if I was familiar with the Burroughs books. “Yeah. I’ve read all of the Martian books about three times apiece. I’m currently re-reading them all to my kids.” They said, “You know those creatures that Burroughs described in the books?” I said, “Yeah. The tharks, the thoats, the zitidars – I’m very familiar with those animals and characters.” They said, “Yes; well, we want to see something different.” At that point I thought, “Oh my god. Right off the bat they’re already tampering with what may be the very thing that has kept these books alive for a hundred years.”’6
Stout was not hired in that instance, but he was later signed on as a production artist once Disney hired director John McTiernan, with whom Stout had worked in Predator (1987). McTiernan’s previous three films – Predator, Die Hard and The Hunt for Red October – had established him as one of Hollywood’s most talent directors of action and adventure. Arnold Schwarzenegger was briefly considered for the role of John Carter, but the muscular Austrian was a poor fit to play the 19th century Virginian.
McTiernan was not completely happy with the Elliott and Rossio draft, and hired Bob Gale (Back to the Future) to insert more humour into the script. He also considered shifting Carter’s origins from Virginia to either Alaska or Brooklyn, New York. Bob Gale’s draft, completed in January 1991, made several changes to the Elliott-Rossio script, including increasing Carter’s age from 20 to 35 and reducing the amount of time spent on Earth before Carter travels to Mars.
Still unhappy with how the screenplay was developing McTiernan hired a sixth writer, Sam Resnick, who had recently completed work on a made-for-television film of Robin Hood (1991; the film was distributed in cinemas internationally). At the same time Disney started negotiating with Tom Cruise to star as John Carter, and began sounding out Julia Roberts for the role of Dejah Thoris.
The original plan for A Princess of Mars was to recreate Burrough’s unusual Martian animals by dressing elephants and camels in elaborate costumes. This technique had been used by George Lucas in Star Wars (1977) and seemed the most cost-effective method available. McTiernan, however, was increasingly convinced that the only way to accurately bring the Martian wildlife to the screen was with computer-generated graphics. This plan was not particularly realistic: Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park was still two years away and even that film’s dinosaurs were mostly developed using macro-puppetry and animatronics. Jim Morris, an effects worker at Industrial Light and Magic who would later become one of the producers of Disney’s John Carter in 2012, said that ‘computer graphics really had not gotten to a point where you could pull this kind of thing off. So it needed to be a mixture of prosthetics and suits and stop motion and things like that. It just seemed like way too big to pull off.’7
Calculations made within Walt Disney Pictures placed the potential cost of McTiernan’s film at $120 million dollars, which would make A Princess of Mars the most expensive feature film of all time. Without an approved budget McTiernan resigned for the project in 1992. Under his ‘pay or play’ deal with Disney he received a multi-million dollar payout for his time and work.
Following McTiernan’s departure, A Princess of Mars lay relatively fallow. By 1994 Carolco Pictures was on the verge of financial collapse and had been forced to sell off their financial stake in a string of major action films including Cliffhanger (1993) and Stargate (1994). Continuing to support A Princess of Mars was financially unfeasible, and so the company sold off its stake to Disney in order to concentrate on two alternative projects: the Arnold Schwarzenegger epic Crusade and the pirate adventure Cutthroat Island.
In 1995 Disney hired novelist and script writer George R. R. Martin to write a fresh take on the material. Martin was by his own admission not a keen fan of Burroughs’ works. His screenplay was subsequently rewritten by Star Trek: The Next Generation story editor Melinda Snodgrass, but neither version of the script appeared to push the film back towards production.
In 2000, after fourteen years in development and eight separate takes on the novel, Walt Disney Pictures officially cancelled A Princess of Mars. The rights reverted back to the Burroughs estate.
In 2002 Alphaville Productions optioned the Barsoom novels with the backing of Paramount Pictures. The producers attached were Jim Jacks and Sean Daniel. Jacks had first become aware of the potential for a John Carter movie when reading the autobiography of film critic and webmaster Harry Knowles – a lifelong fan of the novels. Knowles was ultimately brought on board as a full co-producer on the film. The option agreement required Alphaville and Paramount to pay $300,000 up-front, and an additional $2 million if the film went into production.
A shortlist of lead actors was prepared, including Matthew McConaughey, Hugh Jackman and Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson – although Jacks was quick to assuage fan concerns that a deal with the Rock was not already in the works. ‘We and the studio are really excited. We are not casting it yet and so the reports about buying it for The Rock are untrue. Not saying he’s not on the list as John Carter – we love him and the movie world is about to discover that he’s the real deal – but truthfully as always first things first: a great script based on the first book.’8
Paramount’s head Sherry Lansing had been discussing for some time the potential of signing Sam Raimi on to direct a big-budget franchise picture for the studio. While Raimi was a fan of the novels and the character, and remained keen to work with Paramount, an agreement did not come together. Most likely it was Raimi’s work on Spider-Man and Spider-Man 2 for Columbia Pictures that put him out of the running.
Instead it was Robert Rodriguez who was offered the director’s chair. The Texas-based filmmaker had made his name on inexpensive, populist action films such as El Mariachi and Desperado. Having seen how Peter Jackson had produced the Lord of the Rings trilogy in New Zealand, boosting the local film industry at the time, Rodriguez proposed doing the same thing with A Princess of Mars and his home town of Austin. A set of soundstages had already been built there to accommodate Rodriguez’s forthcoming comic book adaptation Sin City, and Paramount and Alphaville’s representatives agreed that such a production location could be made to work. Rodriguez’s other early decision in the development process was to hire famed illustrator Frank Frazetta as the film’s artistic consultant. Frazetta had cemented a reputation as one of the world’s most popular fantasy artists with his lurid, muscular covers to not only Burrough’s Barsoom novels, but also Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Barbarian books. For many fans of Burroughs, Frazetta’s art was the most iconic representation of John Carter and Barsoom ever made.
In November 2002 Alphaville and Paramount hired Mark Protosevich to write the screenplay. At that stage Protosevich had only written one produced film, 2000’s The Cell, but he had developed a solid reputation as a genre screenwriter through screenplays for I Am Legend and an unmade fifth Batman film for Warner Bros.
The Rodriguez version of the film was ultimately halted when the director resigned from the Director’s Guild of America. He had directed Sin City in collaboration with writer/artist Frank Miller. DGA regulations did not allow its members to co-direct with non-members, and in protest of their ruling Rodriguez resigned from the Guild. As Paramount Pictures had an agreement with the DGA not to use non-union directors on their films, this left Rodriguez out of the running to direct A Princess of Mars.
In 2004 Paramount hired Kerry Conran as replacement director. His debut film, Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, was a CGI-intensive pulp adventure entirely shot against blue screens with sets and backgrounds inserted during post-production. Such a unique and inexpensive method of filmmaking likely appealed to Paramount Pictures, who would have been eyeing A Princess of Mars with one eye on the budget estimates. Also hired was screenwriter Ehren Kruger (The Ring), in order to rewrite the screenplay in line with Conran’s wishes. At this stage Paramount was planning a mid-2006 release for the film.
While Conran developed the film for some time, included making plans for a location shoot in the Australian outback and setting the story in the present day, he ultimately stepped away from the project to concentrate on other films. ‘I love Kerry,’ said Harry Knowles, ‘we all did. Ultimately though, Kerry found a couple of pulp properties that he was even more passionate about.’9
In retrospect it is not surprising that Conran moved on from A Princess of Mars. Even while developing the project at Paramount he seemed less than completely invested in the project. He told one interviewer: ‘In truth, Princess of Mars was something that I never could have imagined even agreeing to do, or wanting to do in that regard because I really only wanted to do my own stuff.’10
At the time of writing (early 2013), Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow remains Kerry Conran’s only feature film.
In late 2005 Paramount moved onto their third director: Jon Favreau. ‘I was sitting down with the people from Paramount,’ the director explained, ‘just having a general meeting… at the end of the meeting I asked, “So what’s happening with John Carter?” And they said, “I think it’s available.” They sent me the books, I started reading them, I came in with a pitch, and they were very excited. It’s a new regime over there at Paramount. They’re looking for a franchise; they’re looking for something in the PG-13 world.’11
Originally an actor, Favreau had entered into writing and directing films purely as a means of getting himself roles on screen. He made his first major impact on Hollywood with the 1996 comedy Swingers, which he both wrote and starred in. By late 2005 he had directed two films: the Swingers follow-up Made (2001), the Christmas-themed comedy Elf (2003). His third film, the science fiction adventure Zathura (2005), was nearing release.
Favreau relocated the film’s setting back into the 19th century, and pushed the production away from the extensive CGI characters and backdrops suggested by Kerry Conran. Instead he proposed shooting as much of the film as possible on location, and to use physical props, costumes and prosthetic make-up wherever possible. His proposed budget, however, was too high for Paramount to approve. With studio and director reaching a stalemate, Favreau made a sideways step and signed up for Marvel Studios’ Iron Man (2008) instead.
In August 2006, and with no fourth director in sight, Paramount let their four-year option on Burroughs’ novels lapse.
Once Paramount let the rights to Burroughs’ works lapse, it was Andrew Stanton who telephoned Walt Disney Pictures chair Dick Cook and attempted to persuade him to pick up the option. Andrew Stanton had been a fan of A Princess of Mars since childhood, when he had discovered the monthly Marvel comic book based on the series. Stanton said: ‘I place a lot of value in stuff that won’t leave my head, and those characters stayed with me: the Thark best friend, the loyal dog that was an alien creature, this woman he was fighting not to lose. The books seem to hook a lot of boys when they’re in the formative preteen years.’12
Since that childhood, Stanton had established himself as one of the central creative minds at Pixar Animation Studios, and had directed their biggest-ever hit Finding Nemo (2003). In 2006 Stanton was deep in directing his follow-up, the science fiction animation Wall-E (2008).
Dick Cook was keen to foster new franchise opportunities for Disney, and Stanton’s pitch of ‘Indiana Jones on Mars’ sounded like a potential money-maker along the lines of Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean. Cook was also wary of upsetting anyone from Pixar, who – after Disney’s successful purchase of the company earlier in the year – were now among the Disney corporation’s most powerful members. In January 2007, after negotiating with the Burroughs estate, Walt Disney Pictures re-purchased the film rights to the first three Barsoom novels.
Stanton envisaged A Princess of Mars to be his first live-action feature film, having only ever worked in animation. He was also thinking much bigger than a one-off summer blockbuster. ‘When I offered to do this property with Disney,’ he said, ‘I said I only want to do it if we can get the first three books and develop it as a trilogy. I was introduced to the books as an 11-book series, and I want to kick off like a series.’13
Stanton was signed on to write and direct A Princess of Mars as his follow-up to Wall-E. He commenced work on the screenplay while supervising Wall-E’s post-production.
Shortly after the production was announced to the press Stanton was contacted directly by Jon Favreau, who congratulated him on the job and wishing him the best with it. He also had one request: that he might cameo in Stanton’s film. Cameo he does, as the Thark who takes bets during the aerial dogfight between Zodanga and Helium.
As with Jon Favreau’s attempt at directing the film, Stanton was keen to ensure the period setting of A Princess of Mars remained intact. He said: ‘I mean, if I could be a kid in 1976 and fall in love with a book from 1912 for exactly its antiquated prose, then I had complete faith that somebody in 2012 could. To me that was what was somehow breaking the barriers of time about it. It’s not like you read Moby Dick and go, “Oh, we’d better put battleships and laser-guns in it, or else nobody’s going to want to watch this.” I just feel like that completely underestimates the intelligence of the audience.’14
Stanton has always developed his films with a single concept in mind; a phrase that sums up the themes and emotional core of the movie in a succinct and evocative manner. When directing Finding Nemo, he had settled on ‘Fear denies a good father from being one.’ For A Princess of Mars he wrote ‘We survive to fulfil our purpose for others.’15
In October 2007 Stanton accompanied co-writer Mark Andrews and producer Jim Morris on a trip to the offices of Edgar Rice Burroughs Incorporated. In a meeting with Edgar’s grandson Danton Burroughs, Stanton pitched his take on A Princess of Mars and received the family’s blessing in return.
To rework his and Mark Andrews’ screenplay Stanton hired novelist Michael Chabon, who had already written for several big budget Hollywood productions including Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 2 (2004). Being asked to rewrite the director’s own screenplay took Chabon by surprise. ‘Having a director who’s also a writer hire someone to rewrite him—firing himself, to some extent—is very rare,’ he later explained.
By the end of 2008, Stanton had a completed screenplay and the film had a change of title: A Princess of Mars was retitled John Carter of Mars. At this stage of development it was still unclear as to whether the film would be produced in live-action or wholly in computer-generated animation. When asked about this, Stanton remained non-committal: ‘We honestly don’t know, it’s clearly got to be a hybrid of some sort.’16
The film ultimately went ahead as a live-action film with extensive CGI characters, creatures and backgrounds. So complex were the visual effects that John Carter ultimately contained more computer animation than any of Stanton’s Pixar films.
The visual aesthetic of John Carter was a key concern. While the most famous renditions of Barsoom’s exotic characters had all been painted by Frank Frazetta, Andrew Stanton was keen to find a fresh direction. He said: ‘I love Frazetta’s art, but I felt that kind of imagery had been paid homage to so much, if we tried to depict that literally it would appear cliché. I wanted to treat it like a historical film, rather than making it like something a 12 year-old kid geeked out on.’17
Nathan Crowley was hired as production designer. Crowley came to John Carter after serving as production designer on four Christopher Nolan films in a row (Insomnia, Batman Begins, The Prestige and The Dark Knight) and had been working in set and production design since 1991, when he worked as junior set designer on Steven Spielberg’s Hook.
Crowley supervised a team of conceptual artists, including Wayne Barlowe (Avatar, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire), Ryan Church (Star Trek, Star Wars Episodes II and III), Michael Kutsche (Alice in Wonderland, Thor) and Iain McCaig (Hook, Star Wars Episodes I to III), in the development of Barsoom and its eclectic range of inhabitants.
One of the most challenging elements of the film to design was the Tharks, fifteen foot tall green aliens with four arms and fearsome tusks. Not only did hundreds, if not thousands, of Tharks appear in the film, two of the largest supporting characters were Tharks as well. Creature designer John Rosengrant said: ‘Andrew wanted Tharks to be true to the Edgar Rice Burroughs tradition – green, with four arms and tusks – but he wanted them to have a lean, African Masaai warrior build. He wanted them to be elegant, sinewy and strong; and their body type had to have that kind of strength and proportion.’18
Making the Tharks fifteen feet tall created a massive challenge for how the film would be shot. At that height the Tharks would dwarf Carter and the Red Martians, making two-shots (in which two characters appeared in the same shot) almost impossible. After some experimenting with visual effects pre-visualisations, a revised height of roughly nine feet was set: still much taller than Carter, but capable of sharing the screen with him at the same time.
At Legacy Effects, attempts were made to give the Tharks a realistic anatomy and musculature, which came in handy when developing the look of their four arms. Rather than simply place two chests on top of each other, which was the solution taken by most illustrators of Burroughs’ books, designer Scott Patton created a five-point pectoral muscle over the chest with the second pair of arms significantly shorter than the first. The result was a creature that looked significantly more believable than previous versions of the Tharks had been. As the actors who would portray the lead Tharks had not been cast, effects designers substituted classic film actors when designing the key characters. Clint Eastwood provided the inspiration for Tars Tarkas, for example, while his broken-tusked rival Tal Hajus was modelled on Jack Palance.
Early attempts to create the Red Martians with brightly coloured makeup ended in failure. Head of makeup William Corso settled on the concept of making the Red Martians deeply tanned compared to humans, but also giving them intricate bright red body tattoos – this would enable the ‘Red Martian’ name to make sense, but would also allow the characters to both seem realistic and suggest a sense of their culture.
For large crowd scenes actors were clothed in tan-coloured body stockings with tattoo patterns screen-printed onto the surface. Lead actors, and those extras who would be clearly seen, endured three hour make-up sessions every three to five days to achieve a more detailed effect. At its height, John Carter employed 118 make-up artists.
By January 2009 Andrew Stanton was actively on the hunt for a lead actor to play John Carter. Rumours surrounded the possibility that the role would go to Australian actor Hugh Jackman; Stanton was quick to shoot those rumours down. ‘I know everybody wanted Hugh Jackman forever,’ he admitted, ‘but he’s only getting older and more exposed now, so it’s a tough call. I’m your typical filmmaker, I want to find the next best unknown.’19
Actors that Stanton would admit to being on the shortlist included Josh Duhamel (Transformers) and Jon Hamm (Mad Men), but in the end he cast relatively unknown actor Taylor Kitsch. At the time, Kitsch’s most prominent role was as Tim Riggins in the critically acclaimed television drama Friday Night Lights. Producer Jim Morris said: ‘What we saw in the Riggins character and we saw in Taylor’s screen test was a certain damaged quality behind the eyes. There’s something a little broken.’20 By the time he was cast, Kitsch had also performed the role of Gambit in Gavin Hood’s superhero adventure X-Men Origins: Wolverine.
Kitsch’s casting was announced to the press in June 2009. It was seen by many Hollywood observers, and not incorrectly, that Disney was taking an enormous gamble proceeding with a comparatively unknown lead actor for their summer blockbuster. For his own part, Taylor Kitsch genuinely enjoyed the experience of playing John Carter. ‘I fight with my director on every film,’ he said, ‘fight out of passion – but I never had a fight with Andrew, even on day eighty in the miserable fucking desert, because I respect him so much.’21
The other leading role, that of Martian princess Dejah Thoris, proved a more difficult character to translate to the screen. ‘I thought that I couldn’t hide that she’s technically a princess,’ said Stanton, ‘but I can make sure she has as much investment and drive and as much of a goal if not more than Carter for why she’s in the story. That’s what I tried hard to do. But I wasn’t going to hide from the femininity. I feel like that would be a knee-jerk, small-minded, male way of approaching it.’22
Stanton’s preferred actress for the part was Texas-born Lynn Collins, who had co-starred with Taylor Kitsch on Wolverine. Collins was a trained martial artist as well as a Julliard graduate, providing Stanton with a good actor and a good action star in the one performer.
At this stage in pre-production, one would assume that somebody at Walt Disney Pictures would object, or at the very least gently raise concern. If any such concerns were voiced, it did not filter outside of the company to the press.
As the powerful Thark chieftan Tars Tarkas, Stanton cast Willem Dafoe. Dafoe had previously worked on his Pixar animation Finding Nemo and, to Stanton’s surprise, was genuinely keen to play the character – not despite the challenges of performing a digital character but because of them.
Dafoe’s extensive theatrical experience came in handy, as he was required to perform his role in the studio and on location wearing stilts. ‘It’s a work in progress,’ Dafoe said of the challenge, ‘but we got a little time before to rehearse and so you just keep it up. But each time it’s a new challenge because the terrain’s different, the quality of the sand’s different, but it’s very important because that height relationship not only helps technically with direct eye lines when mixing effect-oriented stuff with real actors, but also you find the voice much better and you play the scenes much better when you’re that character.’23
A specially mounted camera was attached to a helmet, allowing the visual effects team to capture Dafoe’s facial expressions on set and location and translate them to the finished digital character.
Tars’ daughter Sola was played by English actress Samantha Morton (Sweet and Lowdown, Minority Report), while Tal Hajus was played by Thomas Haden Church (Sideways, Spider-Man 3). Like Dafoe, both performers wore stilts and had their facial expressions captured for the visual effects team to manipulate.
‘I prefer being on the stilts,’ said Church, ‘I think Willem does too because it’s just become the character to me, to be 8’7’’ and still independently mobile. I spend a lot of time rehearsing on them by myself at the ranch where I live in Texas. They sent me stilts probably in November and I just started like a baby, just started getting up on them and moving around and getting better and better and better. Then at the stunt camp in January, I had a greater awareness of what was going to be expected as far as manipulating and movements, that sort of thing.’24
For her own part, Morton saw little difference between playing a computer-generated reptile and any other role in her extensive career: ‘I think that with every performance I do and every part I do, there’s either someone in a wig or a complicated costume. It doesn’t make a difference if it’s set in the 17th century or in the future, like in Minority Report. It’s really the same.’25
An impressive line-up of British actors played the other lead roles in the film.
Ciaran Hinds played Tardos Mors, the king of the Martian city-state of Helium. The Northern Irish actor had appeared in a range of film, television and theatre productions including The Sum of All Fears (2002), Road to Perdition (2002), The Phantom of the Opera (2004) and Munich (2005).
James Purefoy played Helium commander Kantos Kan. The English actor had, like Hinds, worked in a variety of media and in numerous films including Mansfield Park (1999), A Knight’s Tale (2001), Resident Evil (2002), Solomon Kane (2009) and Ironclad (2011).
Interestingly, both Hinds and Purefoy had previously worked together on the BBC/HBO television drama Rome. Polly Walker, who played the Thark zealot Sarkoja, had also starred in the series. A fourth Rome actor, Kevin McKidd, was considered for John Carter but could not appear due to his commitments to TV drama Grey’s Anatomy. One wonders if this is all a coincidence, or if Andrew Stanton is a particularly keen fan of Rome.
Dominic West played Sab Than, the villainous ruler of rival nation Zodanga. West remains best known for his starring role as Baltimore police detective Jimmy McNulty in the acclaimed HBO drama The Wire, but by the time of John Carter’s shooting had also appeared in Chicago (2002), Mona Lisa Smile (2003), Punisher Warzone (2008) and Centurion (2010).
Mark Strong played the film’s ultimate villain, the mysterious Thern leader Matai Shang. Strong had established a relatively lucrative career playing the villain in a range of Hollywood productions including Sunshine, Stardust (both 2007), Sherlock Holmes (2009), Robin Hood, Kick Ass (both 2010) and Green Lantern (2011).
One surprising addition to the cast was Bryan Cranston. The acclaimed dramatic actor was gaining rave reviews for his starring performance in the TV drama Breaking Bad, yet still managed to find time to appear in John Carter as Colonel Powell, an Arizona army officer who appears in a small but crucial role early in the film.
As the developing film neared production, executives at Walt Disney Pictures must have realised what an extraordinary financial risk they were taking. John Carter of Mars was an adaptation of a novel almost a century old, whose best selling points had already been strip-mined by George Lucas and James Cameron, directed by a man who had never helmed a live-action feature before, and starring two actors with no star profile or ability to sell the film to the public. Any actors who might be recognisable to a mass audience, such as Willem Dafoe, Thomas Haden Church or Samantha Morton, were to be hidden by computer graphics. On top of everything else, John Carter of Mars was set to be a stunningly expensive production, with budgetary estimates hovering around the $200 million dollar mark.
Despite these risks, not a single Disney executive visited the set or location for the entire original shoot. ‘They’re too afraid of me,’ remarked Stanton, ‘they want me happy at Pixar. So I thought I should use this for good, and make the movie the way I always thought it should be made. If at any one of these points if they were going to push back, I would have pulled out. It’s the best way to buy a car – I don’t mind walking away.’26 By all accounts the final production budget was set approximately $250 million dollars, making John Carter one of the most costly films of all time.
Why did Walt Disney Pictures acquiesce to such a large sum of money on an untested, troubled property? There are, basically, three explanations. Firstly, it is possible that Dick Cook and others at the executive level simply loved what they saw and anticipated the film would be a massive success. At the time Walt Disney was frustratingly short on intellectual property aimed at young boys, and other attempts at generating or reviving that IP was ending in failure.
The second possibility is that Disney was keen to keep its production partners at Pixar Animation Studios happy. Pixar generated vast amounts of revenue for the company, not just in box office dollars but also in terms of licensing fees and merchandise. If Andrew Stanton wanted to make John Carter of Mars and Pixar head John Lassetter was supportive of that, Cook may perhaps have seen the project as ‘the cost of doing business’.
The third possibility is that Cook and his fellow executives may simply have trusted in Andrew Stanton. Twice at Pixar he had pushed for and directed what were seen as ‘difficult’ sells: Finding Nemo was a cartoon about fish, and not a premise that anyone within Disney was initially that keen on. Wall-E was an even bigger gamble: not only did its robotic protagonist not speak, but no one spoke for the first half hour of the film. That both of these films not only succeeded but succeeded wildly could easily have weighed on Disney’s decision regarding John Carter. Did they fully appreciate the commercial potential of the film? Perhaps not, but they might have trusted in Andrew Stanton’s ability to appreciate it in their stead.
Due to all of the publicity surrounding the launch of John Carter of Mars, independent production company The Asylum elected to profit from public interest in Barsoom. The Asylum was a notorious producer of direct-to-video films known as ‘mockbusters’. The company took a popular studio picture, changed the story and characters enough so that it could not easily be sued, and rush-released their low-budget copy into video stores to profit from the interest in the more expensive studio film. As the first Barsoom novel A Princess of Mars was in the public domain, it was a simple task to undertake a direct adaptation of the novel and release it into stores across America.
For Barsoom enthusiasts who had waited decades for a film adaptation to come along, A Princess of Mars was – in 2009 – the first out of the gate. Starring Z-list actors Antonio Sabato Jr. and Traci Lords, it rapidly sank without a trace – forgotten by audiences almost as soon as it was released.
Of course a much more serious competitor for John Carter of Mars was Avatar. This massively expensive 20th Century Fox epic featured a broken ex-soldier travelling to another planet, encountering a species of tall, blue natives and saving them from an advancing human army. Not only did the film bear extensively similarities to A Princess of Mars (and Dances with Wolves, and Ferngully: The Last Rainforest, and any number of other texts), writer/director James Cameron openly admitted that it was a source: ‘With Avatar I thought, forget all those chick flicks and do a classic guys’ adventure movie, something in the Edgar Rice Burroughs mold, like John Carter of Mars – a soldier goes to Mars.’27 Avatar was released in December 2009 and became the highest-grossing feature film of all time. At the time of its release, John Carter of Mars had not even started filming.
On 19 September 2009 Dick Cook met with Disney chief executive Robert Iger and was informed his services were no longer required.
A few weeks after Cook’s forced resignation, Disney Channel head of global operations Rich Ross was promoted to Walt Disney studio chair. He inherited a considerable slate of in-development and in-production films, including the science fiction sequel Tron Legacy, the pulp western The Lone Ranger, a new adaptation of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and John Carter of Mars.
In the New York Times, Brooks Barnes wrote about Ross’ strategy for Walt Disney Pictures’ future: ‘Mr Ross is no longer interested in developing projects, big or small, that cannot be squarely branded under one of three banners – Disney (family), Pixar (animation) and Marvel (superheroes) – the better to cut through the marketplace clutter.’28
John Carter of Mars was left in a difficult position under Ross’ strategy: as a film directed and produced by Pixar personnel, featuring a superheroic protagonist yet aimed at a broad family market, it fell directly between all three of Ross’ banners.
Ross was also keen to halt production on any films whose budgets were looking too large. Both John Carter and Tron Legacy managed to escape the axe because both films were too far along the production process to easily stop, but 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea was cancelled and The Lone Ranger suspended until $50 million dollars could be trimmed from its budget.
Filming of Disney’s John Carter of Mars commenced at London’s Shepperton Studios in January 2010. Due to the scale of the production, additional shooting was undertaken 12 kilometres down the road at the Longcross Studios in Surrey as well as within a disused warehouse in Greenford. Prior to the studio shoot, an aerial reconnaissance trip was made by director of photography Dan Mindel of Utah, so that the studio lighting would match the harsh, desert light that would be captured on location.
After a near-four month studio shoot, the production relocated to Utah to shoot on location in Moab, Lake Powell, Hanksville and Big Water. Utah was the perfect choice for simulating the surface of Mars – NASA had tested its Mars rovers there for exactly that reason. ‘As much as possible,’ said producer Jim Morris, ‘we decided to shoot in actual locations and minimize the amount of digital set creation, so that the audience always feel like they are grounded in real places.’29
‘There’s something about the northern part of the Grand Canyon going into Utah,’ said Stanton, ‘you can just tell that the whole landscape was once underwater. That is pretty much the topography of Mars, and that is how it is described from a romantic standpoint in the fantasies of Edgar Rice Burroughs. It was the perfect location.’30
To create the vast cities of Mars, only the first floor of each building was constructed on location, with the remainder generated with computer graphics during post-production. ‘We are dealing with three main cultures on Barsoom,’ said Nathan Crowley, ‘Zodanga, Helium and the Thark culture. With three different cultures, we needed three different types of architecture.’31 The design of each culture was specifically tailored to the real-world locations, so that each culture and city visited during the movie would feel organically created and fully believable.
The crew worked to ensure that the film’s CGI-heavy photography never extended beyond what could be captured with an actual camera had the cities and Martian locations actually existed. Producer Jim Morris said: ‘We tried to be very careful in always having the camera be someplace that is credible. Maybe it’s on another flier or something like that. Could have been shot from a helicopter, but never an impossible point of view shot or camera staging. We didn’t want to break the believability. We wanted people to feel like they were there.’32
The location shoot wound up in July 2010, almost seven months after it had started.
As visual effects work commenced, one of the more unusual creatures required was Woola, a ten-legged alien dog that would endear itself to Carter as some sort of unofficial pet. Woola was required to run at near super-sonic speeds, which posed a serious challenge for the effects team. Scott Patton explained: ‘Andrew had a rough sketch of Woola with little spinning circles and a dust cloud under him, like a character from Peanuts. He said, “Woola’s got to feel like that.”’33
The finished creature was easily the most Pixar-like creation of the entire film, yet to the effects team’s credit this cartoonish animal still managed to fit in believably among other less outlandish creatures and monsters. Woola’s lead animator Craig Bardsley said: ‘We over-animated Woola at first, which can be a tendency in animation. Andrew said, “Pull it back.” So we stopped making Woola look like he could understand what John Carter was saying, and made him stare like a real dog – a little bit vacant, but he loves his master and doesn’t care what he’s saying. Suddenly the character came to life.’34
In August 2010 Walt Disney Pictures announced that John Carter of Mars would be released worldwide on 6 June 2012, right in the middle of the competitive summer period. Four months later, in December 2010, Stanton screened a lengthy rough cut of the film to Pixar’s ‘brains trust’. This was essentially a gathering of the animation studio’s directors and producers, including John Lasseter and Pete Docter. It was a standard process undertaken regularly for Pixar’s own films, and the brains trust had started to consult on a number of Walt Disney Pictures productions as well (including Tron Legacy and The Muppets).
By all accounts the consultation did not go well. The group found the film’s opening – essentially a lecture by Dejah Thoris on the wars of Barsoom – dull and confusing. The film as a whole felt cold and uninvolving. While they did appreciate the changes made to the character of John Carter himself, making him a more complex and pro-active person than Burroughs had envisaged, the film surrounding him did not appear to work.
In response to the meeting, Stanton undertook a comparatively lengthy reshoot. Some scenes were added, including an action-packed new opening, while others were adjusted to give the characters more warmth and personality. The new shoot took 18 days to complete in April 2011. As these scenes were primarily recorded against a green screen, the financial cost of the extended reshoot was not large.
Following the reshoots, a rough cut of the film was screened to 400 people invited from the public. The screening went exceptionally well, with 75 per cent of viewers polled rating the unfinished film as either ‘excellent’ or ‘very good’. A post-screening focus group identified John Carter himself as the most popular character, and his epic fight against several hundred Warhoon soldiers the most popular scene.
With Disney’s blessing, Stanton took the feedback from the screening and used it to inform yet more reshoots. He travelled to London to record a short scene between Dominic West and Mark Strong that he hoped would elaborate more on the film’s plot, and he reunited with Taylor Kitsch and Lynn Carter to revise part of the film’s climax. Undertaking a series of regular reshoots was something born from Stanton’s experience at Pixar: there a film would be assembled and revised on a near-constant basis as the production developed, and it was that constant development of the work that many in Pixar pointed to as giving their films such a high quality. In live action film, however, reshoots are generally a sign that a film is being desperately retooled because it is not working. While this was reportedly not the case, news of the reshoots led many in the entertainment press to speculative that it was.
In response to the test screening, as well as internal assessments by the company’s marketing department, Walt Disney Pictures retitled the film from John Carter of Mars to simply John Carter. Precisely why Disney chose to give their massively expensive summer blockbuster such an oddly generic name remains open to question. Many have pointed to Disney’s animated feature Mars Needs Moms, which had disastrously opened in March resulting in a $136 million dollar write-off. If that pricy Mars-based film had failed to find an audience, would John Carter of Mars fare just as badly? Even looking back to 2000, Disney’s expensive Mission to Mars had also failed to find its audience. Perhaps the company was simply Mars-averse.
A more likely explanation comes from Disney’s attempts to make their films ‘four-quadrant’ hits. Movie audiences are split two ways: male and female, and under-25 and over-25. The more quadrants a film can appeal to, the more successful it is likely to be. A violent action film typically appeals to men over 25. An animated film about princesses and unicorns will likely appeal only to the under-25 female quadrant.
In 2009 Walt Disney Pictures released The Princess and the Frog, a critically acclaimed animated film in the tradition of past hits such as Aladdin, The Little Mermaid and The Lion King. Despite great reviews and high scores across the board in test screenings, the film comparatively under-performed. Market research indicated the problem was with the title: by including the word ‘princess’ Disney had turned off boys from wanting to see the film. For 2010’s animated release, Disney retitled the film from Rapunzel to the more gender-neutral Tangled. They also emphasised both the female and male leads in the film’s publicity. The result was that Tangled, while receiving similarly high acclaim as The Princess and the Frog, significantly out-performed it: $590 million worldwide versus $267 million.
Jump back forward to 2011: market research was indicating that the word ‘Mars’ was discouraging female audiences from wanting to see John Carter. To ensure a four-quadrant hit, Disney simply removed the offending word. There was a certain kind of logic to the move, but it left their film with perhaps the oddest and dullest title of any science fiction epic ever made – like titling Star Wars as Luke Skywalker, or changing Avatar to Jake Sully. The problem was not helped by the fact that, as a literary character, John Carter of Mars had less brand awareness among audiences than John Carter of Chicago – one of the doctors in the hit NBC drama ER, played by Noah Wyle. (The ER character was, in fact, named in tribute to Burroughs’ John Carter by series creator Michael Crichton.)
In January 2011 Disney shifted John Carter’s release date, bringing it forward from June to 9 March 2012. The move briefly brought John Carter into competition with Prometheus, the big-budget science fiction thriller from director Ridley Scott. By the end of the month, however, 20th Century Fox shifted Prometheus from 9 March to 8 June 2012: the exact slot that John Carter had vacated.
Moving John Carter to March gave the film the advantage of stepping out of the competitive summer season, but it also meant the film was launching at a time of year when not as many people in the USA were going to the cinema. In a typical year, Hollywood grosses an amount in March roughly equal to 50% of its June take. John Carter would have less competition, but also less money to potentially earn.
What little competition John Carter had, however, was concerning. A week before its release, Universal Pictures was set to release The Lorax, an animated family film based on the book by Dr Suess. Two weeks after John Carter’s release, Lionsgate was set to open The Hunger Games, a widely anticipated action film aimed at the very same teens that formed John Carter’s core demographic. If The Lorax opened better than anticipated, it would cut into John Carter’s potential the following week. If John Carter’s box office faltered, The Hunger Games would ensure it had no second chance to attract an audience.
The second weekend in March was an odd one for Walt Disney Pictures. In 2010 it had gambled on releasing Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland on that date – a gamble that paid off with Alice grossing more than one billion dollars worldwide. The following year they attempted to use the same weekend to release Mars Needs Moms – creating the biggest money-loser in the company’s history.
By this stage the decision had been made to release John Carter in stereoscopic 3D. As the film had been produced on 35mm film, the footage was adjusted to simulate a three-dimensional image during post-production. Regarding the conversion, Stanton said: ‘I shot it intentionally as a 2-D film for people like me who go to 2-D. I just wanted there to be fair choice, because I know some people like their 3-D, and some people that don’t, and they tend to not cross over.’35
As 2012 approached, Andrew Stanton hired composer Michael Giacchino to develop the film’s orchestral score. Giacchino had initially developed his career by scoring the television dramas of writer/producer J.J. Abrams, but had since expanded his repertoire to work with Pixar Animation Studios and a number of other clients. In 2007 he had been nominated for an Academy Award for his score to Pixar’s Ratatouille, and two years later he actually won the Oscar for his score to Up.
Giacchino gave the film a highly traditional score, echoing earlier works by John Williams as well as giving the film a vaguely ‘Arabian Nights’ feel. Giacchino’s score was commercially released at the same time as the film. Along with the book The Art of John Carter, it was one of the few pieces of merchandise the film inspired.
While Stanton always envisaged John Carter as the first part of a trilogy, the risk-averse Walt Disney Pictures would not greenlight a second film until the first had proved itself in the marketplace. Given the extensive production and marketing costs, John Carter would need to earn at least $700 million dollars worldwide to warrant a follow-up.
Despite this requirement, in September 2011 Disney gave the go-ahead for Stanton and Michael Chabon to begin work on the story for a follow-up – to be based on Burroughs’ 1918 novel The Gods of Mars. Commissioning the storyline did not guarantee a sequel, but it did give Disney a head-start on producing one if audiences responded positively to the original.
A teaser trailer to the film was released in July 2011, and seemed to confuse viewers more than interest them. For an action film, John Carter appeared to be considerably lacking in action.
When Disney’s marketing representatives visited Andrew Stanton in the spring of 2011, they were shocked to discover that few finished visual effects shots were available. Typically a big-budget Hollywood picture will produce several key visual effects shots early so they can be used in the trailers and other marketing initiatives. Stanton, who was a newcomer to live-action cinema, had not allowed for this. The lack of the film’s most impressive shots made editing together a suitable trailer fiendishly difficult.
Things were complicated when Stanton insisted on personally supervising the trailers himself. He wanted to avoid the current trend for revealing too much of a film’s narrative in the trailer, and leave as many surprises as possible for when audiences sat down to see the finished film. It is arguable that Stanton held too much back, leaving Disney advertising a film with the bare minimum of context. He also insisted that the trailers not mention his work for Pixar, fearing that audiences would assume John Carter was for children.
A full theatrical trailer followed in November, and provided a better look at the titular protagonist, but it still failed to attract attention or build any hype. Entertainment Weekly summed up public reaction to the trailers as ‘Wow, pretty colours! Hmm, green people? Say, shirtless Tim Riggins! I have no idea what this movie is about.’36
Yet another trailer was released less than two weeks before the film was due to open, this time edited at a much faster pace and emphasising plot and action over tone or theme. For many potential viewers it would be a case of too little, too late.
In the lead up to the film’s release Disney’s marketing team made a number of other strange choices. They elected not to promote John Carter at the popular San Diego Comic-con, choosing instead to promote it at the more exclusive Walt Disney D23 expo – where it was immediately overshadowed by Marvel Studios’ The Avengers.
Also strange was the choice to commission a teaser and theatrical poster for the film from two different design firms, and then to design the in-cinema promotional banners in-house. This gave the film’s print marketing an inconsistent and confused look, further muddying Disney’s chances of developing John Carter’s audience.
An advertisement played during the 2012 Superbowl, purchased at a cost of $3.5 million dollars, misfired spectacularly. The 60-second advertisement was split 50/50 between a sweepstake competition to win a trip to the 2013 Superbowl and a 30-second advertisement for John Carter. When Disney’s assigned advertisement break was truncated on the day, the sweepstake was advertised but not John Carter.
It was one of the most disorganised and uncertain advertising campaigns in Hollywood history: three trailers in seven months, none of which appeared to match each other in tone, none of which properly expressed the movie, and none of which bothered to mention that the film was from the creator of Tarzan, the director of Finding Nemo and Wall-E, or that it was based on the novel that had inspired several of Hollywood’s greatest hits. In the words of one anonymous studio insider, ‘This is one of the worst marketing campaigns in the history of movies. It’s almost as if they went out of their way to not make us care.’37
Part of the trailers’ problems was that while they should have been evoking memories of Star Wars and Avatar, they seemed deliberately edited to evoke memories of other, recent Hollywood flops. The desert setting and romantic themes reminded audiences of Disney’s underwhelming 2011 fantasy film Prince of Persia. The 19th century American hero fighting aliens looked reminiscent of 2011’s box office disaster Cowboys and Aliens. Shots of an alien arena looked like outtakes from Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones.
Worst of all, the trailers appeared to have been made under the assumption that audiences would immediately know who John Carter was, as if he was as famous a pop culture icon as Tarzan, Sherlock Holmes or Superman. In truth, the majority of cinemagoers had never heard of him.
The shadow of Prince of Persia most likely cast a shadow over John Carter’s merchandising chances. Toys and collectibles released for the earlier film did not sell, leaving many licensing partners leery of gambling on another untested property that – superficially at least – shared many similarities with it. Lego, for example, had a contract with Walt Disney that would see them produce construction toys based on Toy Story 3, Cars 2, The Avengers, Pirates of the Caribbean and Prince of Persia – but not John Carter.
Everyone within Walt Disney Pictures seemed aware that John Carter was about to flop. Market research indicated that while awareness of the film was rising, interest in seeing the film was actually falling: in short, the more audiences learned about John Carter the less they wanted to go and see it.
Chief executive Robert A. Iger made it clear to senior managers in advance that there was to be no finger-pointing or attempts at placing blame for the film’s failure to the press. On the weekend of John Carter’s release, as the underwhelming box office figures came in, Disney’s chair Rich Ross simply stated that: ‘Moviemaking does not come without risk.’38
The weekend before John Carter’s release the Universal Pictures cartoon The Lorax opened to a $70 million dollar windfall, shattering industry projections and becoming the third-largest March opening in Hollywood history.
The following weekend, The Lorax’s forward momentum earned it an additional $38 million dollars. John Carter, saddled with weak publicity and an entertainment press obsessed with labelled it a costly flop, opened to grosses just north of $30 million. This was roughly half what it was required to earn if Disney was to have a hope of earning its money back.
John Carter’s second weekend saw it relegated to third place, behind new arrival 21 Jump Street ($36m) and the remarkably robust Lorax ($23m). John Carter suffered a 55% downturn in box office, earning just $13.6 million dollars. Including mid-week sales, it had earned just $53.2 million dollars. The third weekend saw the release of Lionsgate’s widely anticipated The Hunger Games, which smashed the March box office record with a haul of $153 million dollars. John Carter was down to fourth place, earning just $5 million dollars.
By the conclusion of its theatrical run, John Carter had grossed $73.1 million dollars in American cinemas. International sales were more robust, as they often are for genre pictures. An international gross of $209.7 million dollars brought John Carter’s total gross to $282.8 million dollars – roughly $67 million dollars short of the combined cost of producing and marketing it.
‘I would do John Carter again tomorrow,’ said Taylor Kitsch, ‘I’m very proud of John Carter. Box office doesn’t validate me as a person, or as an actor.’39 Kitsch’s statement seemed oddly prescient: his next film, Universal’s lavish board game adaptation Battleship, lost its studio $80 million dollars.
The reviews for John Carter varied, but were generally lukewarm. Entertainment Weekly’s Owen Gleiberman described the film as ‘a coma-inducing disaster of arid pulp storytelling and CGI overkill’.40 Conversely, in The Village Voice Mark Holcomb noted that ‘the achievement of John Carter is that it takes the elements worn to nubs by everything from Star Wars to Avatar to TV’s Fringe and makes them fresh again.’41 The New York Post’s Lou Lumenick described the film as ‘interminably long, dull and incomprehensible,’ writing that, ‘John Carter evokes pretty much every sci-fi classic from the past 50 years without having any real personality of its own.’42 On the other hand, the Boston Globe’s Ty Burr called the film ‘pretty amazing – an epic pulp saga that slowly rises to the level of its best imitations and wins you over by degrees.’43
To my mind, many of the critical responses to John Carter stemmed from whatever prejudices and predispositions each individual critic brought to the film. Fans of science fiction had much to be pleased with, while those who disliked computer-generated characters and settings would find many elements tedious and irritating. The film is a bold combination of very old elements, notably the swashbuckling Burroughs adventure, and very contemporary takes on many of its characters. In terms of visual aesthetic and design it contains some remarkable work, but in terms of tone and narrative it presents a story that has been regrettably strip-mined by generations of derivative filmmakers.
This ‘strip-mining’ process has presented Andrew Stanton with an impossible challenge: should he completely re-envisage the material, making it seem less similar to those derivative film works, or should he stay true to Burroughs’ works and make an authentic adaptation of the novel? The former makes the entire adaptation process redundant, while the latter risks making his own film seem tired and overly familiar. In the end he appears to have elected a middle course, sticking close to the book in broad terms yet finding new angles on the material as he goes.
The film begins rather confusingly, with what essentially make up three separate openings. We are first introduced rather abruptly to Zodangan warlord Sab Than, the war between Zodanga and Helium and the mysterious Thern in the space of about four minutes. This first introduction was one of the scenes included in Stanton’s first reshoot, and replaces a more sedate introduction to Barsoom and its conflict by Dejah Thoris. I can’t help but feel this first scene is a critical misstep: it confuses rather than clarifies, and instead of elegantly introducing the audience to Barsoom through the viewpoint of John Carter we are instead thrown into a ‘deep end’ of strange names, costumes and flying vehicles.
The film then jumps to 19th century Earth, where a grim-looking John Carter sends a telegram while being shadowed by a creepy man in a hat, and then Carter’s nephew Edgar ‘Ned’ Rice Burroughs (Daryl Sabara) arrives in response to the telegram to discover Carter has unexpectedly died – leaving Burroughs both his estate and his journal.
Once Burroughs begins to read the journal we jump again to the Arizona Territory in the aftermath of the Civil War. Here an even more dour and unhappy Carter is searching for a mysterious cave of gold, one marked by a strange spider-like symbol. He is arrested by Union Colonel Powell (Bryan Cranston), escapes, is pursued by Apache riders, finds and hides in the spider cave, is almost stabbed by a very surprised Thern and finds himself transported millions of miles across space to the middle of a Martian desert.
The first 20 minutes of John Carter are an enormous hurdle for audiences to vault over. It arguably takes three attempts in a row for the audience to get a satisfactory handle on any of the characters. The framing narrative of Burroughs reading Carter’s journal is a serviceable one, and indeed gives the film a wonderful conclusion two hours down the line, but coming directly after Sab Than’s first meeting with Matai Shang it feels like a problematic case of too many characters and contexts too soon.
I would not be surprised if this was the point where John Carter lost a lot of the critics and viewers who ultimately did not like the film. Stanton did not want to make a traditional film opening where the alien world is introduced solely through the protagonist’s experience, but the simple fact is that a traditional film opening is usually traditional for a reason: it works.
Once Carter is on Mars, the film immediately becomes a lot easier to engage with and, subsequently, considerably more enjoyable. Shortly after arriving, and learning that in the lower gravity he is super-strong and able to leap vast distances, Carter is captured by Tars Tarkas – the enthused emperor of the Tharks.
The Tharks are a masterpiece of design and computer-generated imagery. It’s clear that genuine thought had gone behind their creation: their anatomy makes sense, they use their four arms in instinctive and believable ways, their faces are expressive and their cultural is visibly rich and understandable. The male and female Tharks are visible different and immediately recognisable without the design team having relied on giving the female Tharks breasts.
Willem Dafoe delivers a great performance as Tars, ensuring that he becomes a fully-fledged character and not simply a plot mechanism disguised as a visual effect. On a personal level, he is my favourite character in the film. The other three Thark performers are no slouches either: Samantha Morton makes Sola an engaging and sympathetic sidekick for Carter, Polly Walker plays the ‘Thark you love to hate’, while Thomas Haden Church growls and snarls his way through the scenery in the most satisfying of fashions.
The films slips into shaky ground again when it cuts to the city state of Helium, where its princess Dejah Thoris is attempting to harness the power of the ‘ninth ray’, technology that may save her people from the advancing army of Sab Than and Zodanga. The pulp origins of the film are really laid bare for the first time here, and some of the nomenclature feels completely ridiculous. A city named Helium? Is it down the road from Radium or Cadmium? A ninth ray? What are the first through eighth rays? In these early scenes the Red Martians are extremely difficult to engage with, because we don’t have a character in the room with which to engage. Had the film held off from introducing the Red Martians until Carter rescued Dejah from Sab Than, it would have been much easier to understand. From the second viewing onwards this isn’t a problem, but in the all-important first viewing it is an excuse for audience to disengage.
When Dejah’s father announces she is to marry Sab Than in order to broker a peace, she makes a run for it and is ultimately rescued by Carter in an aerial battle over the Thark settlement. The film is at its most enjoyable once Carter, Dejah and Sola are teamed up together – it all finally feels as if it is going somewhere. The journey to the sacred river of Is is in turns humorous, dramatic and intriguing, as is Carter and Dejah’s discovery of a Thern temple at the river’s end. A subsequent race to escape the Thark-like Warhoons provides one of the film’s most emotionally satisfying moments, with Carter’s pitched sword-fight against a horde of warriors intercut with the death and burial of his Earth family.
Andrew Stanton’s changes to the character of John Carter improve the story immeasurably. They take a one-dimensional pulp hero and transform him into something to which a contemporary audience can better relate. It gives the character a strong emotional arc denied to him in the vastly more superficial novel. It also symbolises Stanton’s overall statement for the film: ‘We survive to fulfil our purpose for others.’ Fate may have destroyed Carter’s life on Earth, but it has also delivered him to a new one on Mars.
Taylor Kitsch gives a very understated and wounded performance as Carter. It takes until his rescue of Dejah Thoris to do anything particularly noble or heroic, yet we identify with him from the get-go. This easy identification is due in large part to Kitsch.
Carter and Dejah are rescued by a Helium airship and, to save her city, Dejah reluctantly agrees to marry Sab Than. Carter, meanwhile, is captured by Matai Shang, and learns of the Therns’ plans to manipulate Martian society into destroying itself.
The Therns have been pulled out of the second Barsoom novel, The Gods of Mars, and their presence here allows the narrative to be sufficiently complex for a modern action film. Mark Strong plays Matai Shang very well, in a sort of loose and relaxed fashion. His conversation with Carter (‘Virginia? It’s Virginia, isn’t it?’) provides a well-written summation of the film’s antagonists, and sets the film off with a clear direction towards the climax. Matai Shang’s opulent grey robes are also a good example of John Carter’s wonderful costume design, which is evocative, intricate and beautiful. Given how much of Barsoom’s aesthetic had been co-opted by the Star Wars saga (particularly Return of the Jedi), it’s impressive how effectively the designers have given John Carter a fresh look.
When Carter escapes and attempts to return to the Tharks and raise an army, he finds Tars Tarkas deposed and the Tharks under the control of Tal Hajus (Thomas Haden Church). Carter, Tars and Sola are thrown into the arena to fight a pair of enormous ‘white apes’.
The arena sequence is a well-directed action scene; however it suffers from comparisons to George Lucas’ Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones (2002), which contained a near-identical sequence. Stanton directs a considerably more suspenseful version of the scene, but there’s no escaping that Lucas had already mined this particular Barsoomian element. In fact, Lucas mined it twice if you consider the Rancor fight in Return of the Jedi (1983).
The arena fight is emblematic of John Carter’s largest and most unavoidable problem: despite its origins in a century-old book, the film cannot escape the fact that the rest of Hollywood got here first. It’s unfortunate, and it’s incredibly unfair, but it’s also something that requires better negotiation than Stanton has given it. What he has done with John Carter is take a very old-fashioned, arguably outdated text and adapt it marvellously to the screen, but what he hasn’t done is give audiences something they have not seen before.
This problem is not eased by the film’s climax, in which Carter leads the Tharks in an assault on Sab Than and Dejah’s wedding that is eerily reminiscent of the climax to Mike Hodges’ 1980 space opera Flash Gordon (which itself adapted a comic strip and movie serial that was largely derivative of Burroughs’ Barsoom).
I think this makes John Carter an extremely fascinating text to examine, since – when you take in all the elements, the execution of them, and the film’s overall context within science fiction and ‘blockbuster’ cinema – you find yourself with a film that is impressively and often impeccably produced, yet which ultimately has no reason to exist.
It has a strong, talented cast who give their characters an unusual amount of depth. It is blessed with beautiful production design and exceptional computer-generated animation – as one would expect from Pixar’s most effective director. It duplicates all of the elements already seen in other science fiction films – Return of the Jedi, Attack of the Clones, Avatar, Flash Gordon, even films such as Dune, Planet of the Apes and Superman – and in pretty much every case it duplicates them in a superior fashion. It’s still duplication, however; duplication of material lifted from, inspired by or stolen from Burroughs, for certain, but we have seen it all before.
As the dust settled on John Carter’s poor opening, the Walt Disney Company set about examining the damage.
An official statement from Disney read: ‘In light of the theatrical performance of John Carter ($184 million global box office), we expect the film to generate an operating loss of approximately $200 million during our second fiscal quarter ending March 31.’44 Even adjusted for inflation, it was the single greatest financial loss ever for a motion picture, overtaking 1995’s Cutthroat Island (which lost about $150 million in 2012’s money) by more than 30 per cent.
On 20 April studio chair Rich Ross stepped down from his post, stating ‘I no longer believe the chairman role is the right professional fit for me’.45 The failure of John Carter was widely seen as a significant factor in his resignation.
Andrew Stanton appeared to immediately go out of his way to appease Walt Disney by agreeing to write and direct Finding Nemo 2, a sequel had asked for since the original’s success but which Stanton had always refused to make. Stanton’s dream of directing a complete trilogy of Barsoom adventures was dead within a week of John Carter’s release. Walt Disney Pictures have until March 2015 to commence production on a sequel before the rights revert back to the Edgar Rice Burroughs estate – I doubt anybody at Disney are checking their watches.
Why did John Carter fail? It’s a question with no easy answer. A more interesting question is: why did Walt Disney Pictures effectively abandon its own movie? John Carter was released with lacklustre advertising, little in the way of marketing and without any of the merchandising that generally accompanied a Disney blockbuster. Why would Disney fail to support the film, costing itself roughly $200 million dollars in the process?
The first thing to acknowledge is that to a company as large as Walt Disney $200 million dollars is not as significant a sum of money as it might appear. In the context of Walt Disney Pictures it is an enormous sum, but Walt Disney Pictures is itself a minority part of Walt Disney as a whole. The company continues to earn the vast bulk of its income from licensing and theme parks: films follow in a very distant third place, accounting for less than ten per cent of the company’s income. Disney took a hit, certainly, but it was a hit that the company could take.
The second thing that must be acknowledged is that when John Carter was first optioned and sent into production in 2007, Walt Disney had a distinct lack of successful properties aimed at young boys. They had the market on girls’ interests cornered through Disney Princesses, Disney Fairies, High School Musical and a number of other successful film and television properties. Developing a boy-friendly franchise was proving more difficult. In the ten years between 2002 and 2012 Walt Disney Pictures took a chance on Treasure Planet (2002), Pirates of the Caribbean (2003), Around the World in 80 Days (2004), National Treasure (2004), Sky High (2005), The Chronicles of Narnia (2005), Underdog (2007), Race to Witch Mountain (2009), Prince of Persia (2010), The Sorcerer’s Apprentice (2010) and Tron Legacy (2010). Of those 11 films, only three were considered successful enough to warrant sequels and only one was successful enough for Disney to produce more than one sequel (Pirates of the Caribbean).
By the time of John Carter’s release in March 2012, the Walt Disney Company was in a very different position. In August 2009 Disney had purchased Marvel Entertainment for $4.2 billion dollars. This purchase gave Disney ownership over a large quantity of popular boys’ entertainment characters including Spider-Man, Iron Man, the Incredible Hulk and Thor. It was a commercial masterstroke, allowing Disney to simply buy its way into boys’ entertainment rather than spend time and money trying to independently develop viable properties. While many of the Marvel properties had their film rights tied up in rival studios (including Spider-Man and the X-Men), Walt Disney Pictures still had access to a raft of proven characters – and would still earn millions of dollars from each of their competitors’ films while the film agreements ran on.
Disney’s other purchase must surely have had an even more profound effect for John Carter. On 20 May 2011 Robert Iger attended the launch of Walt Disney’s Star Tours 2 theme park ride, alongside Star Wars creator George Lucas. At that event, Lucas confided that he was looking to retire and sell his company, Lucasfilm Ltd, and the rights to the Star Wars franchise. After a lengthy period of negotiation, Walt Disney purchased Lucasfilm in October 2012 for $4.05 billion dollars.
The purchase of Marvel and Lucasfilm put John Carter in a difficult position. Disney now owned the Marvel superheroes and the Star Wars characters, making upcoming films such as The Avengers and Star Wars Episode VII far more lucrative for the company. Disney did not own the novel A Princess of Mars (which was in the public domain in the USA) nor a trademark on Burroughs’ Barsoom characters. Every dollar spent on developing The Avengers or Star Wars would be a dollar invested in Disney’s future. Every dollar spent on developing John Carter would be a dollar invested in the estate of Edgar Rice Burroughs.
Is it possible that, when weighing up the costs and benefits of each of their franchises, Walt Disney Pictures simply figured John Carter was not worth supporting? A massive marketing drive was placed behind The Avengers, pushing that film’s box office well beyond a billion dollars and stimulating interest in an entire new wave of Marvel spin-offs and sequels. John Carter did not have that ability, and it seems possible – no matter how strange – that Disney simply looked to its long-term future and abandoned one of its costliest productions.
Whatever their reasoning, Walt Disney Pictures have left behind a wonderfully produced, beautifully designed and very enjoyable adventure film. Once the dust has long settled on the film, its budget, and its failure at the box office, I feel certain that it will come to be remembered as one of many long-underestimated and fascinating fantasy Disney pictures. It joins the likes of Tron, Dragonslayer and Return to Oz: inventive, fascinating movies that, while all marked by faults and audience-defying quirks, still manage to capture our attention and make all-new fans with each passing decade.
1 Jim Korkis, “Lost cartoons: the animated John Carter of Mars”, Jim Hill Media, June 2003.
2 Korkis, 2003.
3 Korkis, 2003.
4 Jim Korkis, “The Disney John Carter that never was”, Mouseplanet, 4 January 2012.
5 Jim Korkis, 2012.
6 John Arcudi, “William Stout”, The Comics Journal Special Edition, Winter 2003.
7 Germain Lussier, “Trivia: Tom Cruise could have been John Carter”, Slashfilm, 23 February 2012.
8 Harry Knowles, “John Carter of Mars: rights secured, work underway!”, Ain’t It Cool News, 12 April 2002.
9 Bill and Sue-Onn Hillman, “Old news on the project”, ERBzine, accessed 18 January 2013.
10 Brad Brevet, “Helmer Kerry Conlan talks Sky Captain”, Rope of Silicon, 13 September 2004.
1 Garth Franklin, “Jon Favreau talks Mars visit”, Dark Horizons, 18 October 2005.
12 Tad Friend, “Second Act Twist”, The New Yorker, October 2011.
13 Adam B. Vary, “John Carter: will director Andrew Stanton get to make his planned trilogy?”, Entertainment Weekly, 7 March 2012.
14 Noelene Clark, “John Carter: Andrew Stanton refuses to underestimate your intelligence”, Los Angeles Times, 3 March 2012.
15 Friend, 2011.
16 Alex Billington, “Andrew Stanton briefly updates on John Carter of Mars”, First Showing, 19 June 2008.
17 Joe Fordham, “Under the moons of Mars”, Cinefex 129, April 2012.
18 Fordham, 2012.
19 Quoted in “Andrew Stanton talks John Carter of Mars”, Total Film, January 2009.
20 Rebecca Ford, “John Carter producers reveal sequel plans and why they cast Taylor Kitsch”, Hollywood Reporter, 8 March 2012.
2 Friend, 2011.
22 Peter Sciretta, “John Carter set interviews”, Slashfilm, 9 February 2012.
23 Sciretta, 2012.
24 Matt Goldberg, “Willem Dafoe and Thomas Haden Church John Carter set visit interview”, Collider, 9 February 2012.
25 Matt Goldberg, “Samantha Morton John Carter set visit interview”, Collider, 9 February 2012.
26 Devin Faraci, “Andrew Stanton explains why it’s still John Carter of Mars… technically”, Badass Digest, 29 February 2012.
27 Michael D. Sellers, “Heady days for Edgar Rice Burroghs Fans, Avatar, ERB and John Carter of Mars”, ERBzine, 8 January 2010.
28 Brooks Barnes, “New team alters Disney Studios”, New York Times, 26 September 2010.
29 Quoted in John Carter production notes, Walt Disney Pictures, 2012.
30 Fordham, 2012.
31 Walt Disney Pictures, 2012.
32 Devin Faraci, “ILM vet and John Carter producer Jim Morris: ‘CG is now being used in a more sophisticated way”, Badass Digest, 7 March 2012.
33 Fordham, 2012.
34 Fordham, 2012.
35 Adam B. Vary, “John Carter trailer deep dive”, Entertainment Weekly, 1 December 2011.
36 Darren Franich, “New John Carter footage: a plot emerges”, Entertainment Weekly, 2 February 2012.
37 Claude Brodesser-Akner, “The inside story of how John Carter was doomed by its first trailer”, Vulture, 12 March 2012.
38 Brooks Barnes, “Ishtar lands on Mars”, New York Times, 11 March 2012.
39 Vary, 2012.
40 Owen Gleiberman, “The worst movies of the year”, Entertainment Weekly, 21 December 2012.
41 Mark Holcomb, “Tim Riggins in space”, Village Voice, 10 March 2012.
42 Lou Lumenick, “Absolutely awful!”, New York Post, 9 March 2012.
43 Ty Burr, “John Carter”, Boston Globe, 8 March 2012.
44 John Young, “Disney will lose $200 million on John Carter”, Entertainment Weekly, 19 March 2012.
45 Russ Fischer, “Walt Disney Studios chairman Rich Ross steps down, states job is not ‘the right professional fit’”, Slashfilm, 20 April 2012.