Review: John Carter and the Gods of Hollywood

Let writer Michael Sellers set the scene: 

In 1912 struggling Chicago businessman Edgar Rice Burroughs wrote A Princess of Mars, the tale of John Carter, a Virginia cavalryman mysteriously transported to Mars where he would find adventure and meaning in life alongside Dejah Thoris, the incomparable Princess of Helium. The story would lead to an eleven book series and become the cornerstone of modern science fiction. Burroughs went on to write Tarzan of the Apes and, at the time of his death in 1950, was the best-selling author of the 20th century, with his books translated into 58 languages and outselling his contemporaries Hemingway, Faulkner, and Fitzgerald combined. His creation Tarzan was then, and remains today, the single most globally recognized literary character ever created.  

In the 1960s, countless minds of my generation encountered the extraordinary imagination of Edgar Rice Burroughs through the Ace and Ballantine paperback reprints that were published monthly, and which could be found in every drug store and corner newsstand throughout America. Already half a century old, the books felt as current as if they had been written yesterday, and we collected them all, 40 cents a copy for the Ace Books, 50 cents for Ballantine, and read them multiple times.  

Discovering Burroughs was not a lonely or isolated pursuit — the fans were legion. Gradually a long list emerged of scientists and storytellers, politicians and spiritual leaders, all of whom said that it was Burroughs who had caught their imagination, and inspired them in their youth, among them Ray Bradbury, Arthur C. Clarke, Carl Sagan, Ronald Reagan, Jane Goodall, Billy Graham, George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, and James Cameron. 

Burroughs’ writing was extraordinarily vivid and detailed. The planet that he created seemed so real that many of us felt almost as if we had lived there, or could live there–more than that, it induced a yearning to be there and experience the world of our dreaming, and thus it was that for decades Barsoom played as a movie in our minds, while Hollywood attempted to create a real movie. But Hollywood couldn’t quite pull it off — the imagination of Burroughs, for decade after decade after he wrote A Princess of Mars in the fall of 1911, continued to exceed Hollywood’s capacity to create. Meanwhile some of our greatest film-makers made liberal use of scenes, images, and ideas from Burroughs’ Barsoom: Star Wars and Avatar in particular drew heavily upon Burroughs, mining it for creative inspiration. 

But they were not the original, and we still yearned for that. 

This is the opening to an impressive and vitally important examination of Hollywood and how it works, as filtered through the lens of what is now a cult film that pulls in new fans every day through dvds and exposure on cable television and online streaming services . . . not to mention being Number 1 in the cyberworld of pirate downlowads. The film evoked almost complete disinterest with its thuddingly dull commercial, first shown during the 2012 Super Bowl. I love the books, but I wasn’t sure if I even wanted to see the movie after I saw that commercial. The film was a failure at the box office in March, 2012, written off at a huge loss by Disney a month or so later, and was hardly promoted at all when the DVD hit store shelves only a few months later. 

Yet the film has a devoted fan base online, on Facebook and through other social media outlets, and is growing every day — and they’re clamoring for a sequel.

The film is Disney’s John Carter, and the book in question — which, if you are a Burroughs fan or a student of movie-making, I urge you to order here — is John Carter and the Gods of Hollywood.

Michael Sellers, like me, is a Burroughs fan. He’s also a filmmaker, and through his numerous contacts and sources, he was able to compile an exhaustive examination on the making of John Carter, and the inner workings of Disney during each phase of its production and later distribution. In short, his research shows that Disney started having misgivings about the film’s success (ie., its potential revenue at the box office) during the main shoot in 2010, and sabotaged the film behind-the-scenes in order to take a write off, which they estimated would save them more dollars than what they thought the film could eventually make, even with the proper promotion. 

There were other things wrong with the film and its production, which Sellers explores in detail through numerous confidential and anonymous sources, but what it boils down to is that a decent-to-really good science fiction adventure film didn’t stand a chance against the profit-margin steamroller driven by the Money Gods of Hollywood.
The book’s research and conclusions are impeccable and eye-opening. From Robert Iger’s disbelief that the movie would succeed, to the poor choices made by head of Marketing M. T. Carney, every step taken by director/writer Andrew Stanton to make a wonderful film was second guessed by the corporate suits who cared only about quantity, not quality.
Sellers makes in this book perhaps the most thorough dissection of a film’s production, marketing, and public reception that I have ever read. The filmmakers’ goals and intentions stand in stark contrast to Disney’s indifference, ineptitude and corporate greed. Truly, if every studio took the same stance to their films that Disney did to John Carter, we would never again have a successful movie. Ever. 

Anyone interested in how the Hollywood machine really works — driven by both corporate greed and egotistic personality — needs to read John Carter and the Gods of Hollywood

Anyone interested in the best science fiction adventures ever written should read at least the first three books of Burroughs’ Martian series: A Princess of Mars, The Gods of Mars, and Warlord of Mars (all available in numerous print forms, and as free e-texts at Project Gutenberg). Although they were a very loose trilogy as first written by Burroughs, it was Stanton’s goal as director and writer to weave all three films into a cohesive trilogy. That such a demand exists today for a sequel is testament that he achieved something with John Carter that the execs never expected: the public likes the film, and they want the rest of the story. 

Read all about it by ordering John Carter and the Gods of Hollywood here.

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