Most of the time, Hollywood doesn’t really care how a book becomes a movie. They only care that it happens and that all of the book fans will become movie fans and give them lots of money. This was the main strategy behind [amazon_link id="B0026L7H20" target="_blank" container="" container_class="" ]Lord of the Rings[/amazon_link] and [amazon_link id="B005OCFGTO" target="_blank" container="" container_class="" ]Harry Potter[/amazon_link]. In the case of John Carter, it is hard to tell what exactly the thought process was.
Based on the book A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs, the film was originally called John Carter of Mars before ending up at John Carter because the planet Mars isn’t nearly vague or generic enough to be in the title of this film. My guess is that Disney didn’t want this movie to conflict with any of their other princess movies and opted for a title to appeal to boys. Besides any of that, the book itself is arguably a cult classic and most of the audience will probably have not read it anyway. However, I have read the book and seen the movie and I can say that I probably only liked it because I did both of those things together.
John Carter, in an ingenious dramatic twist, is the story of John Carter, a confederate soldier who ends up on Mars. How he gets to Mars is different in the book than in the film and leads to the biggest difference between the two. Regardless of how he gets there, he ends up in the middle of a conflict involving the local Green Martians and the Red Martians, neither of which celebrate Christmas. He eventually meets Dejah Thoris, a Princess of Mars, and shenanigans ensue that eventually leads to the thing that always happens to the main characters of different genders in a Disney movie.
While the book is basically about a strapping outdoorsman beating up Martians for 200 pages, the film is more about uninteresting characters making increasingly poor decisions for two hours. John Carter, played by Taylor Kitsch, is not a complicated character in the book but he usually makes decisions based on logic or his military experience rather than the swashbuckling heroics and fantasy heroism we get in the movie. He enters the Martian conflict even though he doesn’t have any kind of stake in it (both he and the other characters even point out the fact that he has no reason to risk his life for the sake of Martian politics). His sole motivation for almost dying several times is to rescue the Martian princess he just met and who is even more of a flat character than he is.
In the book, Dejah Thoris is a damsel-in-distress character whose main purpose is to highlight John Carter’s already overwhelming machismo. In the movie, Dejah Thoris, played by Lynn Collins, is mostly a failed attempt to make a strong female character. She is initially presented as quite skilled in science and John Carter’s equal in swordplay. Eventually, things return to “normal” and she takes on the role of crying for John Carter to save her and being subservient to men. This subservience becomes so strong that there’s even a moment when she can defeat the villain and end the movie but doesn’t because her father disapproves. This is the closest the movie comes to avoiding a cliché.
The rest of the cast consists of the Green Martians, who retained their four arms from the book at the cost of their height and muscles. The movie did succeed in fleshing out these characters more, but Martian chief Tars Tarkas, voiced by Willem Dafoe, isn’t quite as memorable a character as he is in the book. Unfortunately, by focusing more on the Green Martians, who I really like, the movie fails to make us care about the squabbling Red Martians, who we’re supposed to like.
The main villain of the film is Sab Than, played by Dominic West, who controls the faction of Red Martians that doesn’t have an attractive princess. This fact alone convinces John Carter that these Red Martians are the evil ones. The movie never gives us any other reason to believe John Carter picked the “correct” Red Martians to support in a war.
The one other saving grace of the movie is the visual effects. The details of the flying machines and design of the Martians are fantastic and go way beyond even what Burroughs likely imagined. I never watch movies in 3D, but the stunning special effects are likely what motivated Disney to make a 3D version of this film.
Essentially, the movie is great to look at but lacks any kind of depth or interesting characters. It was fun for me to see the Martians (sort of) come to life on the big screen after reading the book, but for anyone who hasn’t read the book, I would only recommend this if you’re in the mood for a gorgeous visual experience that gets interrupted by melodramatic characters and weak plot.