Perhaps you’ve heard the World War I-era ditty, “How Ya Gonna Keep ’Em Down on the Farm (After They’ve Seen Paree?),’’ about young American soldiers developing a more sophisticated worldview after their eye-opening experiences in France. You’d imagine that the makers of Disney’s $250 million science-fiction event movie “John Carter’’ must have faced a similar cultural quandary. Specifically, how do you sell audiences on a 100-year-old story about the exotic allure of Mars when probes and rovers have long since landed on the Red Planet and crushed all the mystery like so much red rock?
The film, which opens Friday, is directed and co-written by Andrew Stanton (“Wall-E’’), a Pixar veteran making his live-action debut. Taylor Kitsch (TV’s “Friday Night Lights’’) stars as the eponymous swashbuckler, a Civil War officer who finds himself mystically transported into the middle of another war on Mars (or Barsoom, to both the planet’s humanoid natives and its far-from-human ones). The story is adapted from the pulp novel “A Princess of Mars,’’ written by genre author Edgar Rice Burroughs just before he rose to prominence as the creator of Tarzan.
Burroughs published his first Carter adventure in serial form a century ago. At the time, of course, the newspapers were filled with reports about the Titanic and the opening of Fenway Park, and not so much about any new insights society was gleaning on the nature of the solar system. If the Barsoom tales supposed that Mars was home to giant, green-skinned, six-limbed Tharks, well, why not? But can you get away with the same flights of fantasy today? Disney’s big-budget animated feature “Mars Needs Moms’’ couldn’t manage the trick (profitably, anyway) a year ago. You wonder if it’s now a genre requisite that the action be pushed to some new final frontier, as with “Avatar’’ - one of many narratives that owe a debt to Burroughs’s mythology, along with “Star Wars’’ and the works of Ray Bradbury.
“I figured if I could be a kid in 1976 and fall in love with a 1912 book precisely for its 1912-ness, then that would be the very thing that somebody could enjoy and embrace in 2012,’’ says Stanton, who grew up in Rockport. (Some might remember him thanking his Rockport High drama teacher when “Wall-E’’ won the Oscar for best animated feature.) Speaking by phone from California, he adds, “I don’t think there was a sci-fi space adventure drive behind Burroughs when he wrote that book. I think it was a desire to find one more undiscovered country in a world that was pretty much mapped. The book reads more like the journal of somebody who has actually gone to some lost continent filled with new cultures, animals, flora, and fauna. That was a DNA we tried to match.’’
Pulitzer-winning novelist Michael Chabon (“The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay’’), one of the movie’s co-writers, waxes downright poetic on this point. In his introduction to a recent reprint collection of John Carter comics published by Marvel in the 1970s, Chabon writes, “Probes come and go, robot rovers roll, and the resolution of the images of wasteland grows ever higher. And yet they live on: John Carter, [the Willem Dafoe-voiced CG alien] Tars Tarkas, [Martian princess] Dejah Thoris; the ruined cities and still-mighty canals; the beasts and monsters who haunt the shores of long-dry seas.’’
“There seems to be a boom once a generation or so in people publishing Burroughs, and reading him, and adapting his work,’’ says science-fiction author Richard A. Lupoff, who built his reputation in the ’60s with the critical study “Edgar Rice Burroughs: Master of Adventure.’’ “He created such a powerful world with Barsoom, the clock always strikes again.’’
Stanton sounds both amused and irked by suggestions he’s received that the story’s trappings could do with an update, those digitally rendered Martian hordes and landscapes notwithstanding. “I get the weirdest questions, typically from TV [outlets],’’ he says. ‘What did you do to modernize it?’ Like that’s a rule. Does that mean that if you adapt ‘Moby-Dick,’ you’ve got to put battleships and laser guns in it? We read and watch stories to be transported to somewhere.’’
The filmmakers did contemporize things in one way, throwing some fresh internal conflict at their characters. Now, Carter’s memories of his family’s grim fate during the Civil War make him ambivalent about meeting his off-world heroic destiny. “When I reread these books as an adult, and as a writer, I could see all the weaknesses in them,’’ Stanton says. “The episodic nature of it all never really evolved into any grand theme. But, frankly, I saw that as a bit of a gift, because these stories aren’t treasured to the point that it’s sacrilege to mess with them.’’
It’s not hard to picture Disney’s marketing department wishing for plenty more in-with-the-new retooling, and getting nervous hearing Stanton talk about the “cool, old-fashioned feel’’ of a quarter-billion-dollar franchise-launcher. Hence, presumably, those aggressively hard-rocking “John Carter’’ teaser trailers spilling over with gladiatorial combat and throbbing with an orchestral cover of Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir.’’ The movie itself turns out to be rather a different experience, filled with a more traditional tone of cultural discovery and romantic adventure. (There’s even a fair amount of humor - not ’80s “Flash Gordon’’ camp, but situational laughs with, say, Carter learning about the superhuman abilities he gains in Mars’s low gravity.)
This is as it should be, if you ask Marv Wolfman, a longtime comic book professional who wrote and edited many of the John Carter comics. “The trailers make it look like a space ‘Conan,’ and the story is nothing like that,’’ he says. “It’s a stranger-in-a-strange-land concept. I do get a sense that the movie is faithful to the material, but I wish the marketing was a little clearer for people who don’t know what this is. Somebody I know said to me, ‘Wasn’t John Carter a character on ‘ER’? ’’
“It’s challenging for marketing to try to get this world into a 30-second or 60-second spot,’’ Stanton shrugs. Laughing, he adds, “We don’t make it easy for ’em, you know? We just never have. ‘Here’s [Pixar’s “Up,’’ about] an old man and a Korean boy scout going on an adventure.’ ‘Here’s [“Wall-E,’’] a silent movie with a robot.’ ’’ Credit this sensibility in part to late Pixar principal Steve Jobs, as the film itself does in an end-titles remembrance. “I think that’s what’s made my creative upbringing at Pixar special, is that long ago, Steve firewalled us from the outside world, and told us, ‘Go with your gut.’ ’’
Those instincts told Stanton that whatever the disparity between his memories of John Carter and the mythology’s actual strengths and merits, his boyhood impressions weren’t wrong. “I hadn’t thought too hard about why these stories resonated with me for so long,’’ he says. “It’s like albums that you hear at certain formative years, and they just stick with you. But I do put a lot of value on the idea of something that I can’t drop. If my brain keeps going to it, then it means that something primal got tapped, something mythic.’’Tom Russo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.