Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Film review: John Carter

With the release by Disney of the movie “John Carter,” a new generation is being introduced to the particular joys of pulp fiction (the real thing, not the Quentin Tarantino version.)

Based on the Edgar Rice Burroughs novel “A Princess of Mars,” this film captures the spirit of the escapist boys’ stories that filled “the pulps,” cheap magazines of short stories and serialized novels that were radio, television, and movies all rolled into one at the turn of the 20th century. While these magazines had long died out by the time I started to read, novels that I enjoyed as a youngster had (unbeknownst to me) first appeared in pulp magazines, and certainly many of my favorite writers, from Louis L’Amour to H. Rider Haggard, got their start in the pulps.

Not being a big science fiction fan, my acquaintance with Burroughs himself was not with books like “Princess of Mars,” but rather with the more famous Tarzan novels that populated one of the shelves at the local library. After reading a half-dozen or so, one sort of got the idea and didn’t feel the urge to finish the next dozen, but even encountering them decades after they were first written, I found the books to be engaging, entertaining, and memorable -- especially when “Monsieur Tarzan” found himself in a real nightmare of a jungle -- like Paris.

Reading “Princess of Mars" after the fact, one is impressed that the filmmakers stayed quite close to the conventions of the original. There is the opening prologue that, while taking place in 19th century America, has an Old World patina. There is then a transition to the tale told in John Carter’s private journal, a journal that was bequeathed to his nephew -- Burroughs himself. The scene thus changes to the wild west of Arizona territory, from whence a former Confederate officer turned gold-prospector happens to be transported to Mars, where, really, the true cowboy story begins. Again, it is so commonplace for Hollywood to “improve upon” the structures of novels being adapted (and the older the book, the stronger seems to be the urge to rewrite it,) that these simple homages to a book that few viewers will have read are quite refreshing.

This is a movie that will probably enjoy only modest box-office success, but one suspects that it will wear well with time and will have considerable staying power on DVD and television. Dare one say it? Yes. A classic... of sorts. It is great fun, cutting loose with all of the over-the-top action and improbable plot-twists that the great pulp novels had. Most impressively, the production doesn’t attempt to make the story more weighty than the original was, nor does it wink at the audience, saying “yes, we know this is a B-movie, so we’re going to poke fun at it ourselves before you can.” Neither approach would have fit a Burroughs story like this. Also laudable is that while the special effects are fully state-of-the art, this film treats the “science” in Burroughs’s science fiction matter-of-factly, almost in passing. What is emphasized is the “fiction” part, just as was the case with the Burroughs novel.

A couple of posts ago, when discussing a performance of the Billings Symphony, I pointed out that musicality is sometimes highlighted by how well a simple piece is played. Likewise, good films meet their stories where they find them, and do them full justice within the technological capabilities of their time. There are many kinds of great stories, and great story-telling takes many forms. “John Carter” shows us how one particular kind of story can and should be told on film. Bravo to Andrew Stanton, who both directed the film and served as screenwriter. One hopes to see more.

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