In 1912, Edgar R. Burroughs’ first novel, A Princess of Mars was published, introducing a new character into the world of pulp fiction. John Carter, formerly of Virginia, was trying to escape Apaches when he stumbled upon a device that sent him to the Red Planet, Mars. John Carter of Mars would go on to have eleven adventures, and Burroughs would introduce other characters, such as Tarzan of the Apes.
A century later, Disney released an adaption of A Princess of Mars, simply called John Carter. Directed by Andrew Stanton of Pixar*, the movie caught the flavour of the original story, placing John Carter into an alien world. The movie showed where many now-familar cliches and tropes, used everywhere from the Star Wars saga to Superman and The Justice League, came from. Stanton’s success at Pixar allowed him to make sure that the Green Martians came to life as more than just CGI objects.
By all rights, the movie should be a successful summer action blockbuster. The film takes great care in adapting Burroughs’ story to fit the the format and modern sensibilities. However, box office returns aren’t as high as expected.
The movie’s problems start in the offices of Disney. Between the start of production of John Carter and its release, there was a turnover of executives. With John Carter being greenlit by the outgoing exec, the new one started doing everything possible to show why the one leaving had to go. Executive meddling, once again, rears its head in the lack of respect of a property. How can a movie be derailed?
First, renaming. While A Princess of Mars from Disney’s studios would draw in an audience expecting something completely different, the title John Carter of Mars would allow movie-goers to know what property the movie is based on, especially the target audience. Instead, though, the movie is just called John Carter, ensuring it would get lost in the shuffle.**
Next, timing. The movie is lush, filmed in 3-D, and obviously meant to be released in the summer, when some of the target audience is no longer in class. Instead, the movie came out in March, before the March Break for elementary and secondary schools and after the Study Break for university students. And, despite summer-like weather*** in the eastern part of North America**** mid-March, it’s not summer when people have the time to head into a dark theatre during the day to catch a break from the heat.
Finally, marketing. Specifically, the lack of marketing. The advertising campaign can be described as lack-luster. Unusually for a big-budget Disney film, there were no tie-in campaigns. The trailers that were released did nothing to get people excited about the movie.
As an adaptation, John Carter was successful. The respect the cast and crew had for the work shows in the final product. However, as a release, the movie was sabotaged by internal politics.
Next time, a look a superhero adaptations.
* He directed Finding Nemo and WALL-E and was one of the executive producers of Ratatouille, Partly Cloudy, and Up.
** The film makers, though, did get a dig in by ending the movie with the title “John Carter of Mars” on screen.
*** March 21, 2011, Ottawa had a high of 27 degrees Celcius and a humdex reading of 30 degrees; something normally seen in June.
**** I do feel sorry the people of Alberta and Saskatchewan who received more winter on the first day of Spring.