Jim Morris, producer of Disney’s action-adventure John Carter, is no stranger to science fiction. Between producing films like Pixar’s Wall-E and his years working at Industrial Light and Magic on properties like Terminator 2: Judgment Day, he’s become something of a genre-movie pro. However, when it came to adapting Edgar Rice Burroughs’ pulp classic A Princess of Mars, Morris, who was briefly involved with the John McTiernan version in the 1980s, discovered the Barsoom novels spoke to him in a unique way.
“It’s funny, different things about them hit you differently,” he told Spinoff Online. “I read them later in life than a lot of people do. ... I’m a confessed post-apocalyptic sci-fi fan, and I find the idea of a planet just holding on and dying to be very haunting!”
Set in the late 1800s, John Carter tells the story of an ex-Confederate captain accidentally transported to Mars. Stuck on the red planet, called Barsoom by the natives, Carter becomes engaged in the life and death struggles of an ancient Martian civilization and a beautiful Red Martian princess named Dejah Thoris.
In adapting the story of A Princess of Mars, screenwriters Michael Chabon, Mark Andrews and director Andrew Stanton also incorporated parts of Burroughs’ other Barsoom books, most notably the sinister race of Martians known as Therns from the sequel The Gods of Mars.
“We thought we needed a stronger overarching villain, especially if there’s going to be more than one film, which there may or may not be,” Morris said, noting that the film’s villain Matai Shang (played by Mark Strong) came out of this desire.
However, there were also elements from the books the creative team left out as to avoid confusion.
“We wanted to beat it out in advance in sync with the books so we didn’t box ourselves into a corner narratively,” Morris said. “So there’s things that we’ve been holding off like the air plants -- it got to be too much to squeeze into the one film so we wanted to start working pieces into later films, so we’re crossing some of the lines a little bit here and there.”
Edgar Rice Burroughs Inc., the family-owned company that holds the existing rights to the author’s works, sanctioned all the changes to the story. “I can happily say we got [Burroughs’ grandson] Danton Burroughs’ blessing before he passed away,” Morris said, describing Danton Burroughs as the “keeper of the flame” when it came to his grandfather’s books.
“We felt we needed to make changes to make it work as a movie but we didn’t want to do stuff that they felt was out of sync,” he said. “Interestingly Danton looked at the script and said, ‘This is great, this is a problem we’ve had with this all along with scripts coming in,’ so we felt exonerated.”
Morris was also ecstatic to have the involvement of Chabon, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Yiddish Policemen’s Union and The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. A lifelong fan of Burroughs’ work, Chabon had actually tried to make a similar film years ago, albeit unsuccessfully.
“[Chabon] had this script he wanted to make that was called The Martian Agent, and it was about the colonization of Mars by Englishmen in the late 1800s. They used steam technology -- it was kind of an alternate-history thing, and they colonized Mars,” Morris said, clarifying that, “Chabon loved those stories so much and was so frustrated that nobody had made a film that he did, not a story from it but something with a very similar flavor, and he was hoping that would get made.”
Praising the screenwriting trio, Morris added, “It’s great because of the three of them, Mark Andrews is pure testosterone and is great at structure and understated romance -- he’s kind of a romantic underneath -- and Chabon is so articulate and can be a little bit flowery, but it works so great to capture the pulp Shakespeare of the books, so the three of them together were like kismet.”
Morris said a desire to capture that crucial “pulp Shakespeare” quality was part of the reason they cast so many British stage actors as Red Martians.
“We of course bought into the convention that human Martians, Red Men, have British accents!” Morris laughed. “But there was a theatrical dignity to those characters that classically trained stage actors have to them. That’s why we have Ciaran Hinds and James Purefoy and all these great stage actors.”
Although Burroughs’ Barsoom series has often been the subject of fantasy painters, most notably Frank Frazetta, Morris said the production team didn’t take any cues from any of those artists.
“There are a lot of conceits that have gone with John Carter, there’s a lot of Deco-ish design and so forth, and the Frazetta stuff is very muscular,” Morris said. “We were less trying to avoid it than come up with a governing principle of what it should be like.”
According to the producer, that governing principle was simple: “If this was a real place and you had characters that had evolved on this planet, what would they be like? What would be believable?”
Taking that idea of realism and applying it to every inch of the movie, Morris pointed to the designs of the Tharks as a good example.
“Instead of musclemen with two torsos, one on top of another, we wanted to come up with something that is physiologically believable. We thought, well, on Earth the closest things to Tharks are the Masai in Africa -- they’re extremely tall, they are gaunt and thin, migratory, they are very hard scrabble and live off the land, so how do they live?” Morris said, adding that they tried to capture the “dignity” of the nomadic cattle herders.
The production team also spent a lot of time studying ancient Earth civilizations for inspiration for the warring Martian city-states Zodanga and Helium, particularly looking at artifacts from ancient Central American societies.
“For example, a lot of the thinking behind the Gates of Issus, with the inverted pyramid, a lot of those ideas were inspired by things we saw,” Morris said, highlighting part of the film where Carter and company raft to an ancient Martian temple.
And while the producer said they wanted to avoid the more common adventure trope of having alien societies look like ancient Greeks and Romans, “There’s a bit of the Sparta versus Athens in Zodanga versus the Heliumites and you sort of want to echo that, though it’s a tricky balance there.”
Morris admitted there were also some aspects of global warming, as in the film the Martian oceans have gone dry and the predatory traveling city of Zodanga mines the barren landscape for ever-scarcer resources.
“We’re certainly not trying to make a message movie, he said. “Those things creep into our psyche and are a part of it because obviously anything you make reflects the times you’re living in. In some ways that stuff was in there, even before the word ‘global warming’ was around. I got that dying planet feeling and them desperately trying to cling on. They’re manufacturing oxygen, they’re doing all this and that sort of desperate undercurrent I like.”
“The same thing kind of happened with Wall-E in a way -- we didn’t set out for it to be that stuff but obviously it’s in there” the producer added.
While Disney hasn’t greenlit a sequel, Morris revealed that Chabon and Andrews are at work on the script for a potential follow-up with an eye toward a trilogy capped off by Burroughs’ third Barsoom book The Warlord of Mars.
“They would very largely be contained to those books sequentially, Gods and then Warlord,” he said. “There’s a few little things that might traipse over the boundaries of those, but we wouldn’t bring anything in from the later books. If there was a trilogy of films, it would follow pretty much those books.”
The producer admitted that despite how much he and the creative team love the Burroughs books, he didn’t go into the project assuming audiences would have the same fondness for the 100-year-old pulp material.
“I think if I was to take away any John Carter knowledge and saw this film, I would see it as a big Hollywood epic film, Lawrence of Arabia meets Dances With Wolves on Mars,” he said. “So I’m hoping that those types of themes are what people find entertaining and that people intrinsically engage into them.”
“It’s kind of a big, almost old-fashioned un-cynical Hollywood film. It’s not tongue in cheek about things, and it doesn’t come from a cynical point of view. It’s a straight-on redemption story,” Morris said, adding with a laugh, “At least that’s our hope!”
John Carter opens today nationwide.
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