Book Review: John Carter & the Gods of Hollywood

So, the world didn't end? Talk about disappointing your audience. How's that for a segue way for a review?

At this point every Edgar Rice Burroughs fan and fans of Andrew Stanton's John Carter can tell you the basics of what happened-massively expensive movie+bad buzz and press=box office bomb. Now the merits of the film itself has been debated (and will be before this review ends) but did John Carter deserve it's fate as the 21st Century's answer to Ishtar?

John Carter Files creator Michael Sellers' book makes the argument that it didn't, that like all things it was a combination of elements that resulted in the film's final box office fate. It's that point of view that fuels through Gods of Hollywood and gives for fans some idea of what went wrong.

The first few chapters give a brief history of Burroughs, A Princess of Mars and John Carter's tortured path to the motion picture screen before that fateful day in 2007 when former Disney Chairman Dick Cook called Stanton and set this whole thing in motion. From there the book doesn't detail much of the production which it seems went smoothly contrary to the later press stories of out of control spending and reshoots but really digs in when it comes to Disney's handling of the film. If the book has a narrative through line its here and it is that the powers that be were lax at their jobs. A film studio chief too busy buying things instead of creating them? Check. A chairman apparently too afraid or uninterested in the film to challenge the director? Check. A marketing chief who had no movie marketing experience and who made bad calls? Check. A director in over his head and who contradicted himself? Sort of a check (more on that below). All of these characters show up and Sellers does his best to catalog every misstep-from name changes, lack of Internet exposure, middling trailers and posters to the final declaration that the film was a massive bomb that cost Disney a huge write-off. In some cases its hard to tell whether to sigh sadly about all of the incompetence present or just laugh at how more badly they could screw it up...only to screw it up even more.

It's all told with a nice, direct style by Mr. Sellers. Probably the most interesting parts-at least from a fan's point of view-is where he takes breaks from the film's saga to relate his own personal interest John Carter of Mars and his own disappointment and bewilderment at what was happening. One of the most eye opening chapters is a meeting with some of the Disney PR people and the realization that they were set on their course and were not going to change it no matter what.

That said while I don't want to criticize his work all that much there are a few elements here that I don't agree with and some nitpicks. Part of this is a difference of opinion concerning one area-Andrew Stanton. Sellers gives him in the book not a total 100 percent support but clearly isn't as critical as some of us who were disappointed with Stanton's approach would probably like it to be. It doesn't help that-though I'm sure this was unintentional-with all of his comments here it comes across more that Stanton was oblivious to both his belief that his infallible "Pixar Method" would work despite never having been tried on a live action film, his disregard for actually helping promote the film early on (only when it seemed to be getting bad press did Stanton make any effort to go on Twitter to reach out) or the fact that he really was never a fan of the books and thought very little of Burroughs' gifts-most notably when it comes to his handling of the character of John Carter. In short while it may not present a version of Stanton as some dictator or mad perfectionist (no stories of waiting for perfect clouds a la Michael Cimino's Heaven's Gate) I still came away not liking Stanton or wanting to see him continue with John Carter. A reboot yes I'm all for that but not another round of Shape Shifter Shang and Whiny Emo Carter.

The other flaws are as I said more nitpicks either over some notable absences (even though all of the previous attempts to film John Carter are mentioned there is no word on the Asylum version of Princess of Mars at all outside of one reprinted comment from a web site) and while he does a commendable job of avoiding falling into conspiracy theorizing as some have, Sellers comes close with-what was clearly shoved in late in the editing process-the idea that Disney chief Robert Iger allowed Carter to be sacrificed in order not to jeopardize his deal to buy Lucasfilm and Star Wars. Since there is no hard evidence of this-and George Lucas' on the record comments about how Burroughs influenced Star Wars-it comes too close to finger pointing and in some respects sour grapes. Sorry have to call it like I see it.

Outside of that John Carter and the Gods of Hollywood is a well-written take from a fan of a story that hopefully will have a better ending in the future. After all John Carter saved Barsoom so one man can make a difference. OK I'll give it a ***1/2 out of 4 rating and go from there.


pascalahad said…
That's a fine review as far as I'm concerned. I hoped too that there would be a mention, even in passing, of Asylum's Princess of Mars, since for (better or) worse, that's the first straight adaptation of the book. But I was surprised to learn on thejohncarterfiles that Michael didn't even see it!
Michael Sellers said…
I have news. I have now watched Asylum's Princess of Mars from beginning to end and there is a decent and appropriate amount of coverage of it in the update I'll be putting out in early January. I agree it's an overisght.

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