Why Disney Couldn’t Make a (Good) John Carter Film
Updated: Apr 18
I know this analysis is about 8 years late, but it only occurred to me recently how to precisely articulate what was wrong with Disney’s attempt to create a film adaptation of Edgar Rice Burrough’s A Princess of Mars.
Back in 2011, my first thought upon hearing that Disney was turning A Princess of Mars into a live-action film was that it did not make any sense because it’s not the kind of story that Disney would adapt. I thought Disney could no more adapt the John Carter novels than Conan the Barbarian, either as a cartoon or a live-action feature. After all, the John Carter novels are in the same genre as Conan and Tarzan.
Of course, Disney did produce a Tarzan cartoon in 1999, but the story was “Disney-fied”, a process in which the dark themes and violence of the source material are toned down while the comedy, adventure, and romance are dialed up and a goofy animal sidekick plays an important role. This is typically what Disney does when adapting a work of literature. Nothing greater than a PG-rating is acceptable.
This is what Disney attempted to do with John Carter of Mars, but the advertising for the film failed to convey that the story had been significantly altered. Set to stirring orchestral music, the trailers showed a buff, sweaty Taylor Kitsch fighting ravenous monsters, peering out over epic vistas with a look of grim determination in his eyes, and generally looking like the sort of hero into whose arms any maiden in distress would throw herself. It looked like a serious movie. It looked like it might be a relatively faithful adaptation of the story (though perhaps with a bit more clothing). Ultimately, what the trailers promised was not what the film delivered.
The promotional material demonstrated that Disney was working at cross-purposes with itself, since the trailers appealed to fans of the novels but did not attract the family audiences for whom the film was actually intended (if the PG-rating is any indication). Disney wanted it both ways, but they got neither, as the box office results demonstrated.
The film itself also had wide swings in tone that were never going to sit well with family audiences. Much of the film is characterized by outrageous slapstick comedy, but there are some ill-fitting scenes that are unusually dark, such as one sequence where the Green Martians shoot some of their own hatchlings. It’s almost as if the people who work at Disney are out-of-touch with how ordinary people would react to a “family film” which includes dead babies. If they were going to include scenes like that, why commit to the PG-rating instead of a rating that might be more appropriate to the source material?
The first sign of trouble before the film was released was when Disney retitled the story from A Princess of Mars to John Carter of Mars, a decision which was probably driven by the marketing people realizing that anyone who Googled the original title was going to come across artwork by Frank Frazetta, Sanjulian, and Boris Vallejo, much of which is characterized by the "naked bodybuilders" aesthetic and would not inspire confidence among Disney’s target audience that the source material was appropriate for a family-friendly film. It’s a wonder that no one at Disney pumped the brakes on the entire project long before production even started, given the obvious unsuitability of the story for a Disney adaptation. Disney is capable of overcoming the "obvious unsuitability" of an existing story for a family film, but only when they commit 100% to a cutesy version.
In any event, the primary reason that Disney could not do justice to A Princess of Mars is that Disney hates alpha males. Typically, alphas only ever appear as villains in Disney films – take Gaston from Beauty and the Beast for example. The idealized hero in a Disney film is always a well-meaning clown with romantic inclinations, bubbling over with empathy, and very in touch with his feelings. John Carter is just about as far from that ideal as it’s possible to get. The same is true for Conan and Tarzan. They are strong men with powerful emotions but lacking in empathy. They have a powerful sense of right and wrong, and their driving motivation is often the rage that rises within them when they witness the strong using their strength to take advantage of the weak (whether it be a monster absconding with a beautiful woman or a war band pillaging innocent villagers). They take genuine delight in displays of violence and strength. They love, but they lack romantic sensibilities.
Unlike his literary counter-part, the version of John Carter that appeared in the film is Disney-fied. They turned him into a typical Disney hero who clowns around delivering wise-cracks.
The second reason Disney could not make a good John Carter film is because of female “empowerment”. Despite its popularity and timelessness, the ‘damsel in distress’ theme is anathema to the feminists who run Disney, so they had to “empower” the titular princess, making it clear that the hero is silly for thinking he has to protect her. This completely alters the dynamic of the story, changing it into something unrecognizable and unrelated to the source material except in name. Although the women in the John Carter novels are often capable fighters, they sometimes find themselves in predicaments from which they cannot extricate themselves; and they do not resent that a big strong man has to come save them.