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.

What’s with today’s Christians and movies?

The Washington Post had a big story about a new venture in “doing church” in which a network of cutting edged congregations is meeting in movie theaters:  From a movie theater church, pastor Mark Batterson blends orthodoxy and innovation – The Washington Post.

I’ve noticed that evangelicals today are often fixated on movies.  They seem to think that movies drive the culture and that making movies is a way to change the culture.

I’m not against that, by any means.  I teach a course in film.  But I don’t know that I like movies more than, say, novels or epic poems.  Yes, films have vast artistic potential–though few are interested in even trying to reach that potential, the commercial motives dominating so much of the film world. And, yes, films can explore spiritual truths, though that poses particular challenges for a visual medium. Why are Christians today more interested in movies, than, say, in literature or even the other visual arts?

I think it’s good that Christians are getting so interested in film.  But I’m curious about why.  When I was growing up, I had a friend from a really strict church that wouldn’t let him go to movies.  This at a time when most movies were pretty much innocent.  Now that stance seems quite rare, if it exists at all, and we seem to be at the other extreme, even though movies have become much less innocent.

I’m curious about your thoughts.  And go ahead and discuss the Oscars if you want to.  I’ve seen more of the nominated films than I have for some time, though I was not all that impressed with them (though I have Tree of Life on DVD but haven’t watched it yet) and made no effort to watch the Academy Awards.   That two of the leading pictures up for awards are about silent movies–The Artist and Hugo–is good in a way.  Hollywood is discovering its traditions, which is healthy, and silent movies are very much worth seeing, being pure examples of visual story telling and some of the classic silent films do that in a stunning way.  On the other hand, all of this looking back–when you add in all of the rummaging through old comic book collections, sequels, prequels, and remakes of  movies made not all that long ago–may be a sign of creative paralysis.  Which indeed would mean an opening for Christians, if we could only recover the Christian imagination.

He is Jewish, Christian, AND Muslim

Sean Stone, son of the conspiracy-theorist filmmaker Oliver Stone, has converted to Islam in a ceremony held in Iran.  But, he says, that doesn’t mean he isn’t still a Christian.  And a Jew.

A U.S. filmmaker who has a Jewish father and Christian mother today decided to convert to Islam in Iran, where he is making a documentary.

But Sean Stone, 27, son of Oscar-winning director Oliver Stone, insisted the switch did not signal him abandoning the faiths of his parents.

He became a Shiite Muslim on Tuesday and has reportedly chosen to be known by the first name of ‘Ali’, but will not reveal why he converted.

‘The conversion to Islam is not abandoning Christianity or Judaism, which I was born with,’ Mr Stone told news agency Agence France-Presse.

‘It means I have accepted Mohammad and other prophets,’ Mr Stone added from Isfahan, Iran, where the conversion ceremony was carried out.

He is working on a film about Rumi, a mystic poet, and has defended Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in the past, reported Foreign Policy.

via Oliver Stone’s son becomes a Muslim… but insists he’s holding onto Judaism and Christianity | Mail Online.

Rumi!  So that’s it.  He has become a favorite in “spiritual but not religious” circles.

Notice that “Ali” assumes that Christianity and Judaism are religions one is born with.  That can, perhaps, work with Judaism, but Christianity has to involve some kind of personal faith.  And yet this is a common perception, I have noticed, that religion is not so much a set of beliefs–which might be in conflict with other religions’ beliefs–but rather something equivalent to ethnic identity or genetic heritage.

Watch for more conversions to Islam from New Age fans of Rumi.  Of course, the Americanized New Age version–which allows for holding many other and contradictory beliefs at the same time, as well as, I suspect, a rather more permissive moral code–will be different from orthodox Islam, just as the New Age versions of Eastern religion are far tamer than actual Hinduism and Buddhism.

No more Narnia movies?

The prospects for more Narnia movies in the near future are not good, as Walden Media, which produced the first three,  has lost the rights to the novels.

Fans of popular book series The Chronicles of Narnia have been left in limbo over when, or even if, they will see a new movie from the franchise on the big screen.

Walden Media, which produced the first three Narnia films – “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” (2005), “Prince Caspian” (2008) and “The Voyage of the Dawn Treader” (2010), apparently no longer hold the rights to the movies. What is more, the C.S. Lewis Estate must wait a number of years before they can resell them to Walden or another studio, NarniaWeb.com revealed.

Douglas Gresham, the stepson of C. S. Lewis, confirmed the news in a radio interview to Middle-Earth radio back in October. ChristianCinema posted an excerpt from the conversation:

“If you’re aware Walden’s contract with the [C S Lewis] Company has expired, that’s true. And that leaves us in a situation that, for a variety of reasons, we cannot immediately produce another Narnian Chronicle movie. But it is my hope that the Lord will spare me and keep me fit and healthy enough so that in three or four years time we can start production on the next one,” Gresham said.

The exact length of time that the estate has to wait has not been reported, but if Gresham’s hopes that production can only begin with within the next three or four years come true, fans may have to wait another six or seven years before the movie is finalized and ready for the big screen.

Michael Flaherty, co-founder and president of Walden Media, shared in an interview with The Christian Post back in March that the company was planning to make The Magician’s Nephew, and not The Silver Chair, as the next Narnia movie, which is a prequel to the very first book in the series. However, now it is unclear whether Walden will be able to reclaim the rights, or which movie a new production company would like to do.

via ‘Narnia 4’ Movie in Limbo; Likely Several Years Before Production Begins, Christian News.

We have become barren

Mark Steyn, connecting the birth of John the Baptist to the West’s current demographic and economic woes:

Of the four gospels, only two bother with the tale of Christ’s birth, and only Luke begins with the tale of two pregnancies. Zacharias is surprised by his impending paternity — “for I am an old man and my wife well stricken in years.” Nonetheless, an aged, barren woman conceives and, in the sixth month of Elisabeth’s pregnancy, the angel visits her cousin Mary and tells her that she, too, will conceive. If you read Luke, the virgin birth seems a logical extension of the earlier miracle — the pregnancy of an elderly lady. The physician-author had no difficulty accepting both. For Matthew, Jesus’s birth is the miracle; Luke leaves you with the impression that all birth — all life — is to a degree miraculous and God-given.

We now live in Elisabeth’s world — not just because technology has caught up with the Deity and enabled women in their 50s and 60s to become mothers, but in a more basic sense. The problem with the advanced West is not that it’s broke but that it’s old and barren. Which explains why it’s broke. Take Greece, which has now become the most convenient shorthand for sovereign insolvency — “America’s heading for the same fate as Greece if we don’t change course,” etc. So Greece has a spending problem, a revenue problem, something along those lines, right? At a superficial level, yes. But the underlying issue is more primal: It has one of the lowest fertility rates on the planet. In Greece, 100 grandparents have 42 grandchildren — i.e., the family tree is upside down. In a social-democratic state where workers in “hazardous” professions (such as, er, hairdressing) retire at 50, there aren’t enough young people around to pay for your three-decade retirement. And there are unlikely ever to be again.

Look at it another way: Banks are a mechanism by which old people with capital lend to young people with energy and ideas. The Western world has now inverted the concept. If 100 geezers run up a bazillion dollars’ worth of debt, is it likely that 42 youngsters will ever be able to pay it off? As Angela Merkel pointed out in 2009, for Germany an Obama-sized stimulus was out of the question simply because its foreign creditors know there are not enough young Germans around ever to repay it. The Continent’s economic “powerhouse” has the highest proportion of childless women in Europe: One in three fräulein have checked out of the motherhood business entirely. “Germany’s working-age population is likely to decrease 30 percent over the next few decades,” says Steffen Kröhnert of the Berlin Institute for Population Development. “Rural areas will see a massive population decline and some villages will simply disappear.”

If the problem with socialism is, as Mrs. Thatcher says, that eventually you run out of other people’s money, much of the West has advanced to the next stage: It’s run out of other people, period. Greece is a land of ever fewer customers and fewer workers but ever more retirees and more government. How do you grow your economy in an ever-shrinking market? The developed world, like Elisabeth, is barren. . . .

For most of human history, functioning societies have honored the long run: It’s why millions of people have children, build houses, plant trees, start businesses, make wills, put up beautiful churches in ordinary villages, fight and if necessary die for your country . . . A nation, a society, a community is a compact between past, present, and future, in which the citizens, in Tom Wolfe’s words at the dawn of the “Me Decade,” “conceive of themselves, however unconsciously, as part of a great biological stream.”

Much of the developed world climbed out of the stream. You don’t need to make material sacrifices: The state takes care of all that. You don’t need to have children. And you certainly don’t need to die for king and country. But a society that has nothing to die for has nothing to live for: It’s no longer a stream, but a stagnant pool.

If you believe in God, the utilitarian argument for religion will seem insufficient and reductive: “These are useful narratives we tell ourselves,” as I once heard a wimpy Congregational pastor explain her position on the Bible. But, if Christianity is merely a “useful” story, it’s a perfectly constructed one, beginning with the decision to establish Christ’s divinity in the miracle of His birth. The hyper-rationalists ought at least to be able to understand that post-Christian “rationalism” has delivered much of Christendom to an utterly irrational business model: a pyramid scheme built on an upside-down pyramid. Luke, a man of faith and a man of science, could have seen where that leads.

via Elisabeth’s Barrenness and Ours – Mark Steyn – National Review Online.

I think barrenness is a profound metaphor for our contemporary condition in the West.  I would extend that to artistic barrenness; that is, a general lack of creativity in our art, literature, and music.  There is still interesting stuff going on, of course, but even the most radical-seeming is tired, as if we have seen it all before, and it doesn’t lead anywhere.  (The opposite of barrenness would be bringing forth new life.  One can “create”–making something new–without it being alive.)

For example, Hollywood has 3D and spectacular special effects technology.  But the movie industry keeps looking backwards–remaking old movies, re-releasing old movies, filming old comic books, rehashing old conventions.  There are few new stories to go along with the new technology.  So movie attendance has hit a 16-year low.  Barrenness.

HT:  James M. Kushiner

The Hobbit trailer

To be released this time next year!

HT:  Paul McCain


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