Saturday, March 31, 2012

How Katniss Everdeen of District 12 Triumphed Over John Carter of Mars

Frontispiece from the first edition of The Gods Of Mars

As the month of March draws to a close, the dust is settling on the film versions of two beloved science fiction books. Leading off the month on March 9 was John Carter -the long awaited adaptation of Edgar Rice Burrough's "A Princess of Mars."

Following two weeks later was the movie version of Suzanne Collins' "The Hunger Games."

By now everyone knows the story: The Hunger Games had one of the most successful openings in motion picture history. John Carter failed to find an audience to earn back what it cost to make.

Were we to judge the two films simply by the money earned on their release, we could surmise that The Hunger Games was literally one of the greatest stories ever told, and John Carter was one of the worst films ever made.

But neither is true.

Both are top notch science fiction tales, and I predict that both will be considered classics by future generations of science fiction fans.

But in the present, I'm intrigued at how one rose to the top of the charts, and the other flounders.

If ever there was a cursed movie project, John Carter may be it. Based on the 1912 book by Edgar Rice Burroughs, the first attempt to make the movie was by animator Bob Clampett who collaborated with Burrough's son in the 1930's.

Had the two found studio backing to produce the movie, it would have preceeded Snow White and the Seven Dwarves as the first full length animation film. However, the only interested studios wanted a musical comedy telling of the story. Burroughs and Clampett shelved the project.

Its only been recently with modern advances in computer generated images that a live action film version of the story could be attempted (although a very cheesy direct to DVD version was made with Tracy Lords and Antonia Sabate Jr.)

As cheesy as this version was, the film makers at least had the forethought to invoke Edgar Rice Burroughs by name and the novel on which their film was based in the trailer for it.

Over the last decade, one director after another seemed destined to fail at making a major motion picture version of it. Paramount pictures had optioned the script and Robert Rodgriguez was set to direct -until he ran afoul of the Director's Guild over allowing Frank Miller a "co-directing" credit for Sin City and was replaced by Kerry Conran of the movie "Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow." He, in turn, was replaced by Jon Favreau, and the whole project was shelved, when Paramount decided it needed a Star Trek reboot in 2009.

That's when Disney picked up the film and assigned it to director Andrew Stanton.

Despite the fact that Burrough's Martian Series is largely lost to modern readers, it was highly influential in its time. Such movies and books as Star Wars, Avatar, Buck Rogers, and Dune have all been influenced by those books. Authors Ray Bradbudy, Robert Heinlein, Michael Chrichton and Frank Herbert have all listed Burroughs as a major influence on their bodies of work. Over the years, Marvel, DC and Gold Key comics all ran John Carter of Mars lines at various times, and Burrough's son John Coleman Burroughs had a daily Martian newspaper strip in the funnies in the 1940's.

Yet, to the modern science fiction reader, The Martian Series is ancient history. Its primary appeal is to readers of my generation and older who read it as youngsters.

The Hunger Games, on the other hand is a four year old novel that as a property, couldn't be much hotter. Based on the young adult novel of the same name, The Hunger Games had a ready-made youth audience which the film makers were eager to please.

Whereas John Carter of Burrough's Martian series needed to be reintroduced into the pop culture, Katniss Everdeen of Collin's Hunger Games needed no introduction to the masses of young people, who flocked to see the story created for the silver screen.

Having seen both movies, I can attest both have weaknesses and strengths -but both are worth seeing. The greatest sin of John Carter is that it was written a century ago, and its most loyal fans fall outside the youthful demographic required to make such an expensive movie a blockbuster. But to those of us who are students of where science fiction has been in the past and where it is heading in the future, both movies should be on our must-see list.