Edgar Rice Burroughs & his failed movie

I mentioned to our daughter that we were going to the movies this weekend.  “What are you going to see,” she asked, “Hunger Games?”  No, I told her, we are going to see a movie of an equivalent wildly popular young adult book from back when your mother and I were young adults:  John Carter [of Mars]!

We needed to see it quick because I had heard that it is slated to lose $200 million, making it the biggest bomb of all time.  So it probably isn’t going to be in the theaters for much longer.  But we had been looking forward to this movie for a long time, so we weren’t going to let its failure stop us!

When I was a kid–not a young adult at all, just young–it was Edgar Rice Burroughs who transitioned me from comic books to reading actual novels.  Comic books seized my imagination, in stark contrast to the “See Spot Run” books we had to read in school, but when I somewhat randomly picked up a Tarzan book, I found that reading a novel is a lot better than comic books, movies, and TV shows.  While I was reading about Tarzan and that lost city with the dinosaurs and La performing human sacrifices and the whole thing, I found myself completely immersed in the story.   The other media kept me at arms-length from the action.  But the book worked on my mind and on my imagination, giving me a vicarious experience like nothing else I had found.  My love of reading came to life, and it led me to where I am today, as a literature professor.

Now when I read Edgar Rice Burroughs, I see his faults, and I eventually grew in my taste.  But I feel I owe him something, at least going to the movie someone finally made of his John Carter tales.  I never got into that particular series myself, but my wife did, liking them better than Tarzan, and I respect her judgment as a science fiction fan.

The movie got distinctly mixed reviews–Rotten Tomatoes scores it as receiving 51% “rotten,” which means that 49% of the critics scored it as “ripe”–with audiences generally liking it more than the critics did.  I’m not sure what could have helped its reception.  Just calling it “John Carter” and leaving out the “of Mars” part couldn’t have helped.  Young adults today probably think, wasn’t he a president?  And, yes, a lot of this sort of thing has been seen before, even though Burroughs did it before anyone else did.

We thought the movie was pretty good, actually.  The story by today’s standards was convoluted–a number of critics complained they couldn’t understand it–and over-the-top and without a shred of irony.  But it reminded me of the fun I used to have at the B-movies growing up.  Yes, it was too expensive to make, with special effects required in nearly every frame, but we got a kick out of it.

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.

  • Tom Hering

    I suppose Disney dropped “of Mars” from the title because, according to Wikipedia, the “biggest” or “fifth largest” box office bomb in film history (depending on how you crunch the numbers) was Disney’s $150 million Mars Needs Moms, released one year ago.

    They may have helped to create a Mars curse by trying to avoid one.

  • Tom Hering

    I suppose Disney dropped “of Mars” from the title because, according to Wikipedia, the “biggest” or “fifth largest” box office bomb in film history (depending on how you crunch the numbers) was Disney’s $150 million Mars Needs Moms, released one year ago.

    They may have helped to create a Mars curse by trying to avoid one.

  • http://www.brandywinebooks.net Lars Walker

    I saw it this weekend too, as it happens. I thought it was a fun movie, worthy of a better fate than it’s had. But I also thought it confusing and hard to follow in places. I came away with the feeling it lacked… something. Still haven’t figured out what.

  • http://www.brandywinebooks.net Lars Walker

    I saw it this weekend too, as it happens. I thought it was a fun movie, worthy of a better fate than it’s had. But I also thought it confusing and hard to follow in places. I came away with the feeling it lacked… something. Still haven’t figured out what.

  • http://homewardbound-cb.blogspot.com ChrisB

    I haven’t been able to see the movie, but I read the first three books recently and enjoyed them and the old-fashioned pulp style. I hate that the movie’s bombed but think the wound is mostly self-inflicted; the marketing campaign has been terrible.

  • http://homewardbound-cb.blogspot.com ChrisB

    I haven’t been able to see the movie, but I read the first three books recently and enjoyed them and the old-fashioned pulp style. I hate that the movie’s bombed but think the wound is mostly self-inflicted; the marketing campaign has been terrible.

  • Tom Hering

    I may not see the movie if it doesn’t recreate the most enjoyable thing about Burroughs’s novels, i.e., their structure, which was the same in each and every novel of each and every series, i.e., the cliffhanger at the end of every chapter. Then there’s the young male’s fantasy of rescuing a damsel in distress – the standard Burroughs theme. That would have to be the theme of the movie, too.

  • Tom Hering

    I may not see the movie if it doesn’t recreate the most enjoyable thing about Burroughs’s novels, i.e., their structure, which was the same in each and every novel of each and every series, i.e., the cliffhanger at the end of every chapter. Then there’s the young male’s fantasy of rescuing a damsel in distress – the standard Burroughs theme. That would have to be the theme of the movie, too.

  • Joe

    This is why I love budget theaters. The movie has to be really bad before I regret shelling out the $2.00 for a ticket.

  • Joe

    This is why I love budget theaters. The movie has to be really bad before I regret shelling out the $2.00 for a ticket.

  • Patrick Kyle

    I saw it with my boys, ages 6 and 8. We liked it, and I am surprised it isn’t doing better.

  • Patrick Kyle

    I saw it with my boys, ages 6 and 8. We liked it, and I am surprised it isn’t doing better.

  • http://www.whenisayrunrun.blogspot.com Andrew

    Because material has been borrowed from the novels, the story can feel a little tired, even when it was the original.

  • http://www.whenisayrunrun.blogspot.com Andrew

    Because material has been borrowed from the novels, the story can feel a little tired, even when it was the original.

  • http://www.biblegateway.com/versions/Contemporary-English-Version-CEV-Bible/ sg

    “I saw it with my boys, ages 6 and 8. We liked it, and I am surprised it isn’t doing better.”

    LOL , I just want you to know that my 14 year old son does not approve of your taking such young kids to that show. I swear, he is the world’s youngest curmudgeon. Anyway, he loved it. He thought it was fantastic. I didn’t go. I stayed home with my 6 year old son.

  • http://www.biblegateway.com/versions/Contemporary-English-Version-CEV-Bible/ sg

    “I saw it with my boys, ages 6 and 8. We liked it, and I am surprised it isn’t doing better.”

    LOL , I just want you to know that my 14 year old son does not approve of your taking such young kids to that show. I swear, he is the world’s youngest curmudgeon. Anyway, he loved it. He thought it was fantastic. I didn’t go. I stayed home with my 6 year old son.

  • Carl Vehse

    It’ll be out on Blue-Ray or DVD in a few months (especially if Disney needs to recoup some of their costs), and for the price of a ticket, one can see it multiple times at home. Between now and then, the reviews and the comments to Dr. Veith’s article can be used to decide whether it’s worth buying the disc.

    In the meantime Amazon is selling the 2009 direct-to-DVD Princess of Mars, which got poor reviews as well.

  • Carl Vehse

    It’ll be out on Blue-Ray or DVD in a few months (especially if Disney needs to recoup some of their costs), and for the price of a ticket, one can see it multiple times at home. Between now and then, the reviews and the comments to Dr. Veith’s article can be used to decide whether it’s worth buying the disc.

    In the meantime Amazon is selling the 2009 direct-to-DVD Princess of Mars, which got poor reviews as well.

  • kerner

    Well, I saw it with my boys, ages 27 and 22, and we liked it as well.

    I read almost every book Edgar Rice Burroughs ever wrote when I was young. Beginning by borrowing books from my father. My dad would have liked the movie too, I think.

    Tom H.:

    Dejah Thoris is a little better with a sword in the movie than I remember her being in the books, and she wears more clothing, but she is in distress a lot. This movie reminds me of the LOTR series in that I think it catches the spirit of the books pretty well, even if it changes a few of the details.

  • kerner

    Well, I saw it with my boys, ages 27 and 22, and we liked it as well.

    I read almost every book Edgar Rice Burroughs ever wrote when I was young. Beginning by borrowing books from my father. My dad would have liked the movie too, I think.

    Tom H.:

    Dejah Thoris is a little better with a sword in the movie than I remember her being in the books, and she wears more clothing, but she is in distress a lot. This movie reminds me of the LOTR series in that I think it catches the spirit of the books pretty well, even if it changes a few of the details.

  • kerner

    Carl Vehse @9:

    The direct to TV version cast a 40 year old ex-porn star as Dejah Thoris and set the story on earth in modern times. What would you expect the critics to say? I actually watched it on netflix, and the best I can say is that it could have been worse.

  • kerner

    Carl Vehse @9:

    The direct to TV version cast a 40 year old ex-porn star as Dejah Thoris and set the story on earth in modern times. What would you expect the critics to say? I actually watched it on netflix, and the best I can say is that it could have been worse.

  • J Voss

    My family rushed out before it was too late and we all liked it! I understand that the buzz was bad before anyone saw the movie because it cost too much. Wouldn’t it be great if some good word of mouth could overcome all the naysayers?

  • J Voss

    My family rushed out before it was too late and we all liked it! I understand that the buzz was bad before anyone saw the movie because it cost too much. Wouldn’t it be great if some good word of mouth could overcome all the naysayers?

  • Tom Hering

    kerner @ 10, thanks. I wondered if they would make Dejah Thoris the warrior, and John Carter the one who needs rescuing. Glad to hear they didn’t.

    More clothing? A single strand of thread would be more than in the novels. :-D

  • Tom Hering

    kerner @ 10, thanks. I wondered if they would make Dejah Thoris the warrior, and John Carter the one who needs rescuing. Glad to hear they didn’t.

    More clothing? A single strand of thread would be more than in the novels. :-D

  • Tom Hering

    Carl @ 9, the DVD and Blu-Ray will provide the opportunity for a Director’s Cut, which could correct some of the problems with storytelling I’m reading about in the reviews. (I understand it gets confusing at times.)

    It might also become a great hit after it leaves theaters. The way Blade Runner and The Wizard of Oz did (both had poor box office).

  • Tom Hering

    Carl @ 9, the DVD and Blu-Ray will provide the opportunity for a Director’s Cut, which could correct some of the problems with storytelling I’m reading about in the reviews. (I understand it gets confusing at times.)

    It might also become a great hit after it leaves theaters. The way Blade Runner and The Wizard of Oz did (both had poor box office).

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    I have seen neither the movie nor read the works they were based on, but I did catch this story about how everything’s gone wrong for the movie, and why. The headline more or less says it all: “Ishtar Lands on Mars”. Oof.

    Anyhow, I maintain that the best Mars film is Mars Attacks!, though I’m certain that won’t be a popular opinion, nor is it terribly well informed. But rather than being based on a book or TV show, Mars Attacks! was, in a refreshing turn, based on a trading card series.

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    I have seen neither the movie nor read the works they were based on, but I did catch this story about how everything’s gone wrong for the movie, and why. The headline more or less says it all: “Ishtar Lands on Mars”. Oof.

    Anyhow, I maintain that the best Mars film is Mars Attacks!, though I’m certain that won’t be a popular opinion, nor is it terribly well informed. But rather than being based on a book or TV show, Mars Attacks! was, in a refreshing turn, based on a trading card series.

  • Tom Hering

    Ah! Mars Attacks! I had the cards as a kid in the ’60s, and we took them very seriously back then. So did adults – Topps had to pull them off the market. Chilling stuff. The Tim Burton movie is a lot of fun in its own way, but I’d still like to see a really frightening adaptation get made.

    My vote for best Mars-themed movie is Invaders From Mars (the 1953 original, not the 1986 remake), designed and directed by the great William Cameron Menzies.

    SPOILER ALERT

    A boy is awakened by the sound of a flying saucer, which he sees land on, and sink beneath, the big sand pit behind his house. During the days that follow, his parents and other townsfolk are abducted, taken underground to the saucer, and turned into mind slaves. The boy then convinces a scientist his fear of the grownups in his town is justified, and the Army is called in to stop the Martian takeover. At the end of the movie, the boy wakes up in bed to find it was all just a bad dream. After his parents comfort him, he lays down to go to sleep again. But then he hears the sound of a flying saucer. Through his bedroom window, he sees it coming down to the sand pit behind his house …

  • Tom Hering

    Ah! Mars Attacks! I had the cards as a kid in the ’60s, and we took them very seriously back then. So did adults – Topps had to pull them off the market. Chilling stuff. The Tim Burton movie is a lot of fun in its own way, but I’d still like to see a really frightening adaptation get made.

    My vote for best Mars-themed movie is Invaders From Mars (the 1953 original, not the 1986 remake), designed and directed by the great William Cameron Menzies.

    SPOILER ALERT

    A boy is awakened by the sound of a flying saucer, which he sees land on, and sink beneath, the big sand pit behind his house. During the days that follow, his parents and other townsfolk are abducted, taken underground to the saucer, and turned into mind slaves. The boy then convinces a scientist his fear of the grownups in his town is justified, and the Army is called in to stop the Martian takeover. At the end of the movie, the boy wakes up in bed to find it was all just a bad dream. After his parents comfort him, he lays down to go to sleep again. But then he hears the sound of a flying saucer. Through his bedroom window, he sees it coming down to the sand pit behind his house …

  • Susan

    Dr. Veith,

    You may find it encouraging that ‘John Carter’ is doing well overseas.

    “The Hunger Games has ‘only’ taken $USD 59 million in foreign (outside of North America) markets however, which compares poorly to the much derided John Carter which took $USD 70.6 million in its foreign opening weekend.”

    http://tinyurl.com/c2hnuf7

  • Susan

    Dr. Veith,

    You may find it encouraging that ‘John Carter’ is doing well overseas.

    “The Hunger Games has ‘only’ taken $USD 59 million in foreign (outside of North America) markets however, which compares poorly to the much derided John Carter which took $USD 70.6 million in its foreign opening weekend.”

    http://tinyurl.com/c2hnuf7

  • Edward

    As a slight correction, the 51% rating on Rotten Tomatoes is for the level of ripeness for the film. So, 51% said it’s ripe, and 49% said it was rotten. Anything under 60% is rated rotten.

  • Edward

    As a slight correction, the 51% rating on Rotten Tomatoes is for the level of ripeness for the film. So, 51% said it’s ripe, and 49% said it was rotten. Anything under 60% is rated rotten.

  • http://homewardbound-cb.blogspot.com ChrisB

    BTW, Mars Needs Moms was good.

  • http://homewardbound-cb.blogspot.com ChrisB

    BTW, Mars Needs Moms was good.


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X