The Disney John Carters That Never Wereby Jim Korkis, contributing writer
I am cautiously awaiting the premiere of Disney’s live action film John Carter this March. I have long since learned that trailers and concept art and encouraging words from the production staff don’t always give an accurate view of the final product. While the film could be the blockbuster tent pole for a new franchise, it could also be a crushing disappointment, like Prince of Persia and so many other high-concept films.
I have always been fascinated by how a film develops and also why some projects, despite the involvement of talented people, never reach the screen. It has taken the Disney Company 25 years to bring their version of John Carter to life so let’s look back at that convoluted history.
Besides being a respected Disney historian, I am also recognized for a level of expertise in several other areas, including animation history. Several years ago, I wrote an article about the ill-fated attempt in 1936 by legendary animator Bob Clampett (who as a teenager did the designs for the first Charlotte Clark Mickey Mouse stuffed doll in the 1930s) to bring the story of John Carter of Mars to theatrical animation.
Most fans don't realize that the very first story that writer Edgar Rice Burroughs sold (for $400 in 1911) was Under the Moons of Mars, which was later published as a novel titled A Princess of Mars. This was the first John Carter story and it appeared about one year before his more famous first Tarzan story. In the tale, Civil War veteran John Carter, while fleeing from Indians, hides in a cave where he has an out-of-body experience. He literally finds his spiritual self drawn to the planet Mars (which Burroughs calls "Barsoom") where he encounters an extremely strange civilization with many odd creatures and finds himself in constant peril.
For instance, there are 15-foot tall green savages with four arms, called Tharks, who are equipped with swords and firearms. There was once a magnificent civilization on Barsoom, but decades of conflict has transformed it into a war-torn barbarian wilderness with occasional remnants of its former glory. There are also some more human-looking inhabitants, and Carter woos and wins a feisty Martian princess named Dejah Thoris, who seems to have an aversion to covering her body with clothes. Before his death in March 1950, Burroughs churned out a total of 11 novels about the adventures of John Carter on Mars.
That’s basically the Cliffs Notes/Classics Illustrated comic book version of the first story. The story has captured the imaginations of many young boys for more than 100 years, but the time and cost to produce the story in a live-action film seemed prohibitive for many decades because of the necessary special effects.
Interestingly, it was the Disney Company in 1986 that made a serious attempt to translate the story to the screen. Disney optioned the rights with Mario Kassar and Andrew Vajna (Carolco) who had just produced a series of highly successful action films like Terminator 2: Judgment Day and the first three Rambo films. Jeff Katzenberg was a huge advocate for making the film. After obtaining the rights, Disney assigned writer Charles Pogue to the project after reviewing his work on another film he was writing for the company.
Pogue had recently scripted the screenplay for David Cronenberg’s remake of The Fly and would go on later to write the screenplay for DragonHeart. Pogue had been developing a treatment for Thief of Baghdad with writer/producer David Kirschner.
“David and I really worked well together,” Pogue told interviewer Edward Gross. “We came up with a storyline that was, we thought, fantastic and brilliant. I thought it was going to be the greatest script I would ever write. Unfortunately, Disney didn’t want to do it, so it’s sitting on a shelf waiting for a more opportune time.”
Instead, Disney offered Pogue the option to work on a list of properties that they were eager to develop. Pogue immediately selected the John Carter of Mars project.
“One reason this project appeals to me is that it’s not hi-tech space opera,” Pogue said. “I refer to it as an interplanetary swashbuckler adventure…He [John Carter] has his own code of honor, so while he’s going through the whole Martian experience, he’s behaving as only a gentleman could, but he keeps tripping up. The story has a wonderful ‘fish-out-of-water’ thematic quality, with Carter barging through this archaic society and working his way to the top by breaching every rule in the book."
“What I would like to do with this novel is to bring, if not the literal adaptation, then at least the spirit and tone of Burroughs, to the screen," he added. " We all know in 1987 that there’s nothing on Mars, and that’s another reason why I think it’s important to keep the hero in the 1800s when people still believed that there was life there…or could be life. This is, essentially, Errol Flynn on Mars. He’s a very human character thrust into a very strange and bizarre world. Basically, it’s what movies should be.”
Pogue turned in his script in 1987. A year later, the Disney Company hired another writer to tackle the screenplay. Terry Black, had recently written a zombie and policeman buddy action film titled Dead Heat. He was also the brother of Shane Black, who had just written the screenplay for Lethal Weapon. Terry Black had read all the Burroughs Mars books when he was in junior high and was eager to try his hand at one of his dream projects.
"Three-quarters of a century and the book is still popular, which says something," Black told an interviewer for the Los Angeles Times in 1988. "Even at that, the studio wanted to change the whole story around. At one point, they wanted me to throw out the whole book—which I thought was foolish advice. Not everything they said was stupid. "They wanted the story to be more dramatic. Basically, the book has kind of a leisurely pace, especially in the beginning, and if you're going to tell the story in two hours, you have to heighten, exaggerate and make it bigger than life. In the book, John Carter learns the Martian language over a period of several months. In the movie we just made up this time machine that instantly re-educates his speech centers so he can talk Martian."
"The stories are good enough. The only reason [they haven't been made] is because it would be so fantastically expensive to animate all the creatures and do the special effects," Black said. “Actually, they (Disney) want this to be the next Star Wars.”
Black turned in his screenplay and, roughly two years later, Disney brought on a screenwriting team to take another crack at the story: Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio. Yes, the screenwriting team who would one day write all the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, The Mask of Zorro, Shrek, and Disney’s Aladdin had one sole writing credit at the time: Little Monsters, starring Fred Savage as a boy who discovers monsters under his bed, was enough to convince the Disney Company to give them a shot at John Carter.
Their script, called The Chronicles of John Carter: Edgar Rice Burroughs' A Princess of Mars, and dated March 12, 1990, began with a young Burroughs arriving at the estate left to him by his uncle, John Carter.
The estate includes a beautiful house, a mausoleum (where Carter has supposedly been interred) and an observatory. In the observatory, Edgar discovers his uncle’s handwritten manuscript describing his adventures on Mars.
After the Civil War, John Carter and his best friend James Powell have gone West to seek their fortune as miners. After a lengthy battle with claim jumpers, the two friends escape for Superstition Mountain where Powell is killed and Carter is struck by a flat plane of light that makes him disappear.
When he reappears, he is inside an atmosphere factory on Barsoom where one man desperately tries to keep the factory from failing since it supplies the air for the planet. Learning the true urgency of the situation when the factory is attacked, Carter goes to seek additional help, but runs into a tribe of four armed, 7-foot-tall Tharks. Proving his worth in a fight, he is made a member of the tribe.
At the same time, the Princess of Helium, Dejah Thoris, is trying to escape Zodanga’s new ruler Sab Than, who is secretly behind the attacks on the atmosphere factory while implicating the innocent Tharks. Sab is a real charmer who is able to manipulate his people’s fear of the Tharks. Dejah pleads with the Tharks to stop their attacks and, in the process, meets John Carter. The two then go off to save Barsoom.
Thoris is not a warrior princess, but a regal, intelligent woman willing to sacrifice for the good of her people. Carter is a man of action who finds himself in love for the first time in his life.
There is a climatic battle on a Zodangan cruiser followed by a chase in a flyer over Zodanga with Dejah at the controls. The script ends with an incredulous Edgar Rice Burroughs discovering that his Uncle John Carter’s casket is empty and then cuts to a scene of Dejah on Mars looking skyward at a shooting star.
Perhaps on the forthcoming Blu-Ray version of Andrew Stanton’s John Carter, one of the extras will be interviewing Elliott and Rossio on their approach to the story in 1990 or sharing some of the concept art for the earlier productions.
In August 1990, Disney had enough confidence to announce a director for the film: John McTiernan. McTiernan had just finished directing three successful action films in a row: Predator, Die Hard and The Hunt for Red October.
Beginning in 1987, illustrator William Stout worked for Walt Disney Imagineering for a year and a half as a conceptualist, designer, and producer for Euro Disneyland, Disneyland, Tokyo Disneyland, and Walt Disney World. Stout was a huge Burroughs fan and, at that time, had read all the Carter books at least three times apiece.
In a 2003 interview with John Arcudi, Stout said, “I was first approached to work on Princess of Mars in early 1990. I was called by Hollywood Pictures [a subsidiary arm of Disney] to show my work and be interviewed. That was probably the single worst interview I've ever had in my life.”
Stout felt that the producers were clueless about Burroughs and his appeal. For example, they didn’t want any of the iconic creatures from the Burroughs’ story but something “different.” Stout was thankful he didn’t get offered the job. About a month or two later, Stout was contacted again and informed that the producers had been let go and that McTiernan was now in charge. Stout had worked with McTiernan on the film Predator.
“Two days into that job had me in the middle of a huge depression. I was designing suits for camels and elephants,” Stout said. “That's what the creatures were going to be. They were going to use camels and elephants in creature suits. I've worked with animals in film—it's difficult to work with animals under the best conditions. Having an animal wear a costume makes a big problem worse— it does not ingratiate you to the animal. Plus, the fact that there was no way that you could get any of this stuff to look like the Burroughs stuff.”
Tiernan also considered making Carter coming from Alaska to make the character more masculine by being from a rugged environment where he struggled against nature. Stout had to argue the many reasons why it was important that Carter was from Virginia.
Stout envisioned the city of Helium because of its decades of fighting similar to the city of Beirut where the farther out a person got from the main city there were sand-covered ruins. Stout reasoned that the outskirts would be attacked first and no maintenance being done because every citizen was a warrior. He pitched the idea that the Tharks being a nomadic culture would carry everything with them and have their tusks decorated with “scrimshaw-like, Maori-like carvings.”
“It went beyond what Burroughs had described without really violating what Burroughs had described—just adding to the richness of it. Prior to my involvement with the film, as an ERB illustrator I'd never thought of that stuff with the same amount of depth,” Stout recalled.
However, either McTiernan or Disney or both decided there was not enough humor in the Elliot-Rossio script, and so writer Bob Gale was brought in to revise and punch up the story. Gale was basking in the accolades for his scripting on the Back to the Future trilogy.
Gale’s version was considered a “fourth draft” and, dated January 1991, is based on not only the original Burroughs’ book but also the Elliot-Rossio script.
Some of the changes were minor, like increasing Burroughs’ age from his 20s to 35 which is when he started writing the book. The claim jumper section is shortened considerably. Carter is trapped in a cave-in and an orb of blue light takes him to the Atmosphere Factory where the Keeper gives him a medallion to take to the Great Oracle of Helium to let them know the dangers.
Carter is more uncoordinated at first in order to add to the physical humor. He is forced to swallow a “jukal worm” that helps him to learn Barsoomian languages. He joins with the Tharks and teaches them to sing the Southern song “Camptown Races,” which they will sing in a final battle charge in the film. As an example of the level of “humor,” the Tharks mispronounce Carter’s home state of Virginia as "Vagina."
The villainous Sab Than is now a scarred, axe-wielding psychopath who slaughters Thark children. The Zodangans have been attacking Helium for weeks and had planned to hold Dejah for ransom. There is no longer any secret conspiracy involving the Atmosphere Factory.
Dejah is put on trial by the Tharks, but is rescued by Carter and they now have a romantic interlude. Dejah is captured by the Zodangans and agrees to marry Sab Than to save her people. Carter is captured and forced into a gladiatorial combat with Tars Tarkas, the mighty Thark.
The final conflict occurs at Dejah’s home of Helium where the wedding is to take place. Carter and the Tharks arrive. Carter kills Sab and goes back to the factory to change out some tubes to keep it running. In the process he is zapped back to earth and the ending is the same as in the original Elliot-Rossio script.
“There were several different scripts,” Stout remembered. “One had John Carter as a sort of wise-cracking guy from Brooklyn. It's much easier to write humor if you're writing jokes. It's much harder to do what Burroughs did—he had humor all through the story in the form of reflective irony. I fought against John Carter as a wisecracker.”
In 1992, director McTiernan brought on another writer, Sam Resnick, who had just finished scripting a well-received made-for-television movie about Robin Hood starring actor Patrick Bergin that McTiernan had produced.
Actors Tom Cruise and Julia Roberts were offered the two leading roles. Cruise apparently did not care for the script that he was shown.
McTiernan became convinced that, in order for the film to be successful, instead of disguised elephants and camels, most of the effects needed to be done in CGI (computer generated imagery). However, in 1990, CGI was in its infancy and so was highly expensive and time consuming. In addition, CGI was not as advanced as it is today in terms of creating realistic, organic creatures.
Several sources have claimed that Disney determined that the final budget for the project with the salaries for McTiernan and the stars added to the amount necessary for all the special effects was estimated at nearly $120 million, making it one of the most expensive films ever made.
McTiernan had a “pay-or-play deal,” meaning that if a project is cancelled or is not put into production by a certain date, the person gets paid anyway. The money was not in place to go into production so McTiernan decided to take his money and walk away. He went on to direct Last Action Hero, a disaster at the box office.
Carolco, the production company that had brought the project to Disney and had a string of successful films when development began, was on the verge of bankruptcy by 1994, thanks to disastrous releases of films like Cutthroat Island and Showgirls, business expenses and the owners’ lavish lifestyles. The company was no longer able to support the production.
A year later, Disney made one final attempt to take a different approach with two new screenwriters. They brought in novelist George R.R. Martin, perhaps best known today as the writer responsible for the series of novels that inspired HBO’s television series A Game of Thrones. The first volume in that series was published about three years after his work on this project. In addition, Disney also brought in science fiction novelist Melinda Snodgrass. At the time, she had recently finished writing several episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation and served as story editor for that series during its second and third seasons.
Martin made clear that he had little affection for Burroughs’ John Carter work, feeling that reading it for the first time when he was in his 40s did not help capture the sense of wonder that it might have on a younger reader. No copy of the Martin-Snodgrass script seems to have surfaced for the general public—and I don’t even have a summary.
Finally, Disney officially announced in 2000 that they were dropping the project and Paramount bought the film rights around 2002. In 2003, Robert Rodriguez signed on to direct and planned to have artist Frank Frazetta as an artistic consultant for the production. However, Rodriguez was embroiled in controversy with the Directors Guild of America and left the organization. Paramount then hired Kerry Conran to direct. He was replaced late in 2005 by Jon Favreau who intended to do a film that adapted the first three novels. By August 2006, Paramount chose not to renew the film rights to the project and instead focused on re-booting the Star Trek franchise.
“And before I forget, in regards to John Carter of Mars—it's already been made into a movie; a really successful one,” Stout said with a smile. “So why do we need to make another? That film's called Return of the Jedi. Princess Leia is dressed as Deja Thoris throughout the film; you've got Martian fliers as ERB described them; the main characters sword fight throughout the movie. If you look at it, it's the essence of John Carter. So if you make a John Carter movie, your audience, who are mostly unaware of the Burroughs books, is going to think you're ripping off a Star Wars film.”