Sunday, September 12, 2010

Script Review: A Princess of Mars 1990

Okay I promised so here goes. But first a brief history lesson (if you know the history of John Carter and his slow move to the big screen you can skip this.)

I've already written briefly about the unmade Bob Clampett version and linked to artwork from Amicus Films' attempt. In 1986 Disney acquired the rights for the first time and began the long process of adapting Edgar Rice Burroughs to the big screen. The first writer hired was Charles Edward Pogue, best known for the scripts for David Cronenberg's The Fly and the ill-fated Kull the Conqueror. His script was turned in around 1987. A year later a second writer was hired-Terry Black, who was hired based on his script for the zombie buddy comedy Dead Heat. (I found an interview on the Los Angeles Times website from 1988 where he talks about the project here After Black's involvement, it was two years later when the third scriptwriters were hired-Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio. At the time the duo's only produced script was Little Monsters, a forgettable kiddie comedy with Fred Savage. Since then the pair have co-written such flicks like Disney's Aladdin, The Mask of Zorro, the first Shrek and the scripts for all of the Pirates of the Caribbean films. So how was their script you ask?

Dated March 12, 1990 and called The Chronicles of John Carter: Edgar Rice Burroughs' A Princess of Mars, the script opens with the arrival of young Burroughs (described as being in his "mid-twenties, tall, handsome...") at the estate left to him by his uncle John Carter. The estate comes with a restored house, a mausoleum that John has been interred in and an observatory. Inside it Edgar finds his uncle's written manuscript that relates his wild tale.

Having gone west after the Civil War has ended John Carter and his friend James Powell have found a rich vein of quartz when they are attacked by claim jumpers. After a lengthy sequence of driving them off only for them to capture Powell and John rescuing him, the pair make for "Superstition Mountain" (as its called in the script). Powell is killed and John is hit with a "flat plane of light" that causes him to disappear. He then appears inside an atmosphere factory on Barsoom where he meets the keeper, who keeps the factory running. But when it is attacked by three red men, John must seek help before the factory fails completely. On his way he meets the Tharks-written as four armed, seven foot tall creatures-and he becomes a member of the tribe after proving his mettle in a duel. While that is going on we also meet Dejah Thoris, the princess of Helium who finds herself being pursued by Zodanga's new ruler Sab Than. Unknown to her Sab Than is behind the attacks on the factory and is leaving evidence that points to the Tharks. Dejah leaves to plead with the Tharks to stop the attacks and is captured, meets John Carter and the two attempt to save Barsoom.

I have to admit the Rossio and Elliott's script was...OK. It maintained several scenes and elements from Burroughs' original novel-most notably John's first meeting with the Tharks and the character of Sola. But it goes off on its own direction pretty quickly. So what did I like and didn't?

The likes:
-John Carter and Dejah Thoris are both pretty well written. John is portrayed as a man of action who finds himself in love with a woman for the first time while Dejah is a regal, intelligent woman who shows herself willing to make sacrifices for her people. At the very least John isn't spouting one-liners and Dejah isn't a "blitzing" warrior princess as has been mentioned with the upcoming movie.
-Sola is also well-written. In fact she's pretty much the same character from the novel and her scene where she reveals her parentage is the best written scene in the script.
-I also like how Rossio and Elliott build up Sab Than as a charmer in the opening scenes before his true colors are revealed. It's also interesting how he uses Helium's fear of the Tharks in order to manipulate them.
-The action scenes for the most part delivered-I especially like the climactic battle on a Zodangan cruiser and a chase in a flier over Zodanga with Dejah at the helm.

What I didn't like-
-The Renegade Keeper. Introduced early in the script is this character, who is manipulating Sab Than with the promise that he can keep the factories working. His motivation is weak in the script-it seems at most he's just tired of his job and wants out. I also don't care for the idea of Sab Than being manipulated by another character because ultimately it makes Sab less interesting. Maybe it explains why I'm not crazy about Stanton's decision to add Matai Shang as some sort of "master of the universe" character.
-The whole Atmosphere Factory plot. Having read the other two scripts that I got as well as what has been said and reported about Stanton's version, it seems each writer involved has felt that they need a Macguffin in order to make the film work along with some major villain for our hero to overcome. That the idea of the story being about John Carter's arrival on Barsoom and his exploration of the planet and his attempt to rescue and return Dejah to Helium and his falling in love with her isn't interesting enough to make a movie out of. I don't know I guess I always liked the first novel because of that. It wasn't about egomanical madmen trying to conquer the world. It was about love and honor. I guess that just isn't enough.

In the end would this have worked as a film? It would have been interesting to have seen how this one turned out but I'm sure some will breathe a sigh of relief it never got off the ground. Then again at least Rossio and Elliott don't have shape shifting Therns so I got to give them credit for that.


Mike Smith said...

Very interesting write up. I've got these scripts, but haven't yet had a chance to read them. You've share a ton of information about the history of John Carter in the movies that I certainly wasn't aware of. You've also made me want to read these old scripts.

Great job!

Michael Morrow said...

I found a hardcopy of the 1990 APOM script on ebay....just finished reading does have a few "flaws" like using "king" for human rulers and Jeddak for green martian ones...and I didn't like it that someone could best John Carter in belies the supernatual origins of John Carter that don't get mentioned...but for the most part it is pretty good...the giant bug zapper scene could be a good first part of a computer game...