Well, word is that John Carter (of Mars) isn’t going to do so well – certainly not enough to make back its budget, or merit any sequels. This is kind of a shame, because I think it was pretty much a lot of fun, but at least now I can talk about what I think was a kind of a glaring problem with the story that I’d have felt guilty talking about before.
I know that Michael Chabon worked on the script for this movie, and who am I to tell Michael Chabon anything? No one, obviously, I’m just following in my tradition of telling Jonathon Franzen that his rules for writing are terrible, and that apparently getting an MFA in playwriting from Yale doesn’t mean you know anything about writing plays. I am opinionated and narcissistic, and that is what qualifies me to be a blogger.
ANYWAY, as some of you may or may not have heard, John Carter (of Mars) enjoyed the addition of a tragic backstory to his character: while he was serving in the Confederate army, evil Union soldiers came to his house and killed his wife and daughter, who he then had to bury. This was not a feature of the book (really, the book doesn’t dwell on Carter’s life on Earth very much at all because on the real: John Carter OF MARS. Let’s get to the good stuff, you know?); in the movie it causes John Carter to be very sad, so he doesn’t join the regular army after the war, and instead goes out west and tries to find a cave of gold to, I guess, assuage his loss with incalculable personal wealth.
I don’t think that’s how it works, but maybe there was a lesson about the failures of materialism to provide for psychological well-being that got cut out of the final draft (Michael Chabon, if you are reading this, can you weigh in?).
I think this was wrongheaded for a number of reasons and, as you might expect, I am now going to explain what I think those reasons are.
The Sad Hero
Every once in a while, you’ll get someone telling you that they like the fact that the hero of a story has something to brood over because it “humanizes them.” I’m not sure if that’s a real statement or not; I mean, I know people have really said it, but I always get the feeling that they say it not because they really feel like a character is more human because he’s sad that his wife and child were killed, but because they think that it’s true according to The Rules of Character that a character is more human if they are glum. Maybe this critic has internalized too many short story writer’s guidelines from fantasy magazines, which always make an especial effort to point out that your hero is boring if he’s completely invincible.
But “completely invincible” isn’t the same thing as “just in a pretty okay mood,” and there are actually a lot of ways a character can seem “human” without having something horrible to brood over. I mean, I know a lot of humans, and I think that most of them haven’t suffered a terrible tragedy. I don’t ever get those people confused with robots, you know? “Oh, are you sure you have feelings? How can you know if you’ve never had to bury your murdered wife and child?”
Even the people I do know who’ve suffered tragedy – like the loss, at a young age, of a parent – don’t spend all their time talking about it. In fact, often they don’t spend any time talking about it. They seem so normal and well-adjusted that if you didn’t know they’d suffered a tragic loss, then you’d be hard-pressed to guess it.
The problem with the argument that loss and sadness are what makes a character human is that it privileges against normalcy – I mean, like, psychological normalcy. Coming to terms with a loss is normal, but if you think that brooding over a sad thing is what makes a person human, then “humanity” becomes at odds with “normalcy”: every sad hero is defined not by how the story has “humanized” them – i.e., made them seem like a human instead of a robot – but by how disrupted their psychology is. And the fact of the matter is that the history of cinema is littered with some pretty big-name heroes who aren’t disconsolate over some horrible loss, just constantly drinking and looking at themselves in the mirror and getting really angry when they see their reflection and punching it, or something. I guess that’s what sad heroes do.
All of which isn’t to say that sad heroes are bad, necessarily. In fact, sometimes tragic heroes are great, especially in comparison to regular old heroes.
It’s just that “sadness” isn’t a prerequisite, and if you’re going to use it, it’s probably a good idea to make sure that you need it before you throw it into your story.
The Hero’s Journey
So, I’ve gone on record saying that I think that Joseph Campbell’s notion of the Hero’s Journey is a blight on screenwriting – not because it’s wrong, but because it makes it too easy for writers to check off the “journey” boxes and call it a day. It’s like a recipe for phoning in a story.
Compounded to this is the addition to what is otherwise an okay formula of the Tragic Loss. Here are the elements of the mythic Hero’s Journey and you’ll notice what they don’t include: anything about losing a mother or a father or a wife or a husband or a daughter or a son or a sister or a brother. There’s no personal loss at all. Even the notion of the Call to Adventure, while it CAN be about personal loss (my parents were murdered in an alley), it doesn’t HAVE to be (I came to a city that is beset by giant sea serpents). The idea of personal loss is, in a lot of senses, actually too small for real heroism; it undermines the notion of what being “heroic” is. Consider poor John Carter, who finally joins the fight against Zodanga, the Predator City, not because it is a PREDATOR CITY RULED BY A GENOCIDAL MADMAN, but because he is in love with the princess and feels sad about his dead wife.
I know that in writing class they tell you that you need to make the stakes personal for your character, but that’s bullshit. A person isn’t some kind of weirdo freak because he sees people struggling against a monstrous and intractable adversary and decides to help them. Or else, at least we should be able to recognize that empathy with strangers IS personal. You don’t need to have a literal personal loss to decide that it’s okay to help another person.
Sure, of course, sometimes that sense of personal loss can drive a character, but it’s not the death that motivates, it’s the change in perspective (see the Hero’s Journey again, and the part called “Viewing the Whole Picture”). Spider-Man doesn’t fight crime to avenge his Uncle Ben; the death of his uncle is a catalyst that made him realize that he has a responsibility to use his powers for good. Even Batman isn’t really waging a war of revenge, for all whatever he calls himself. Only Batman written at his craziest really imagines that “Crime” is an actual thing that he is fighting back against because of what it took from him – Batman at his best is a man who doesn’t want to see what happened to him happen to anyone else. The tragic backstory is a motivation for a change in perspective, and it’s the perspective – the essential realization of global responsibility – that’s the heroic part.
And because it’s the SENSE that’s the heroic part, it’s perfectly reasonable to make a hero that already started out with that perspective. Look, there are a lot of assholes who will tell you that if they got super-powers, they would act like assholes. That’s because those people are assholes. Any person who’d use more power to push other people around probably does the same thing with the power that they’ve already got. There are loads of people who, if they got power, would actually go out and do good with it – people who are actually hoping that they get power SO that they can do good with it. We know this, because there are people with power who DO good with it. It happens all the time. Not every rich dude needs to have a niece get shot in the Sudan to think that maybe Darfur is worth getting involved in; not every politician needs a relative to come out of the closet to be sympathetic to gays. Some people are already sympathetic to people who aren’t them.
Of course, some people start out as anti-heroes, which is one of the things that makes Star Wars a pretty good movie: it’s actually two heroes’ journeys – actually, one Hero’s Journey split into two pieces. It’s Luke Skywalker who receives the Call to Adventure and has to move beyond his comfort zone, but he also doesn’t need to be convinced that it’s the right thing to do. (See John Roger’s “Right Man for the Job” argument, but do not forget that the new Star Trek movie did not make a god-damn lick of sense.) Skywalker is ready to leave home from day one, and is on mission the entire time. There’s no refusing the call, no change to a global perspective that makes him realize the Empire is worth fighting.
It’s Han Solo who gets the other half of the Journey. There’s a second Call, when they invite Han Solo to leave his comfortable life of cynicism and crime so that he can fight the Empire, and he Refuses it – only to eventually return with a new perspective. Of course, Han Solo didn’t need anyone to die in order for him to do the right thing, and he didn’t need anyone to die in order for him to want to not participate in a rebellion, and that’s because, as we saw in Part One up there, tragedy isn’t the only thing that can reasonably motivate a person. Regular old common sense is a pretty strong reason to not want to take your modded-out cargo ship to war with an invincible intergalactic power that has a planet killing space-station the size of a moon. And “friendship” is actually a pretty decently strong motivation to convince a man to risk his life anyway. You don’t need someone to die to know that some things are worth risking your life for.
Character Isn’t Backstory
But more problematic that being simply unnecessary, both at a thematic and a practical level, is the way that the elements of John Carter’s story are told: in flashbacks, that plague him especially when he is fighting the Warhoons. The problem with this is that backstory isn’t the same thing as character.
“Character” in the abstract is just the way that a person onscreen (or in a book) responds to events. When faced with insurmountable odds, do they run away? Do they turn and fight? What is the character’s attitude? Glib? Serious? Calm? Frenetic? Those things are character. Backstory is just backstory, and a lot of time it doesn’t matter. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that backstory never matters unless it specifically matters, which nine times out of ten, it doesn’t.
Let’s look at three pretty good examples: John McClain and Martin Riggs (the main characters of the two best Christmas movies in the world [Die Hard and Lethal Weapon, respectively]), and also John Rambo (just in First Blood for the purposes of this argument, though).
Now, the backstory between John McClain and his wife, Holly, is spelled out a little bit in the movie, but you know what there aren’t? Fucking flashbacks. There’s not even any explanation for what went wrong in their marriage, per se: we’re told literally as much as we need to know (John McClain is aggravating, which Holly says specifically when she realizes that he is loose in the building, not just to say it; he and Holly are on the outs; she and the kids moved to LA and John is coming to visit them for Christmas). The character of John McClain is revealed through his innumerable actions, not forays into the story of his failed marriage. That would be a movie about his failed marriage, instead of Die Hard. The only time the backstory actually matters is when it specifically motivates the plot, which it does – Holly uses her maiden name when she talks to Hans Gruber, and when he finds out she and McClain are married, he tries to use her as leverage. Not only is it relevant to the plot, but it uses only the bare minimum of backstory provided.
Consider Martin Riggs. What we know about him is that he was in Vietnam (actually with a secret assassination squad in Laos, I think), and that his wife died in a car accident. We intuit that he loved his wife, and that she was probably the touchstone of normalcy that kept him from going off the rails. We don’t need to see flashbacks illustrating how messed up Riggs is, because we see him being messed up. “Lost his wife” isn’t a character trait, it’s backstory. “Suicidal” is a character trait, and we learn about that because we see it. You don’t need to know anything more about Riggs’ wife than what you learn in the very beginning of the movie, where Riggs contemplates killing himself before going to work.
When Riggs does reveal backstory – when he tells Trish Murtaugh about the night his wife died — it’s not about revealing backstory. We already know everything we need to know about the consequences of that night. What it’s about is Martin Riggs trying to reach out and make a human connection with Trish. It’s not the information (“my wife died and I was sad” is not a character trait); it’s the USE of the information (“I want to have the kind of normal family that the Murtaughs have” IS a character trait).
[Actually, I just wrote that and I think that part was actually from Lethal Weapon II, one of the few instances in which an action movie successfully both carries over and actually progresses a character’s development; it’s a good example though, so I’m keeping it.]
In fact, Riggs’ need for normalcy plays out even more subtly than that in Lethal Weapon; it doesn’t require the revelation of any backstory at all – the movie trusts that we, the audience, are able to figure out that a sad, angry, lonely guy who’s lost his wife and is maybe a little crazy feels good when he is surrounded by Roger Murtaugh’s wholesome, well-adjusted family.
John Rambo in First Blood of course is, by my own definition, not really a hero, he’s just the protagonist – but he’s got a tragic backstory, so I’m going to talk about him anyway. With Rambo, that backstory STILL ISN’T IMPORTANT. “Suffered horrors in Vietnam” isn’t a character trait, because it’s in the past tense, and only actions can define character. “Relives the trauma of Vietnam” IS a character trait, and it’s what makes Rambo a compelling character. His backstory is relevant only in the sense that it matters in that it’s a necessary justification for the character trait (obviously, if he hadn’t really, within the context of the story, suffered horrors in Vietnam, then his character would be “imagines suffering the trauma of Vietnam” and then he’d be Walter from The Big Lebowski). The fact that Rambo was in Vietnam is only pertinent in the sense that it explains the flashbacks that he experiences, which themselves are the driving force of the plot. They’re there because they literally cause Rambo to do something; they’re structure, not paint.
The Horrors of War
But let’s say there was a compelling reason to give John Carter a tragic backstory. I can see this, or the beginnings of it, in the movie – he’s cynical, he doesn’t want to get involved in another war. He has to be convinced — like a dumber Han Solo, I guess – that the Bad Guys must be Opposed. Well, all right.
The question remains, why is it that he had to lose his wife and child to evil Union soldiers? There are a couple reviews out there that mention his fighting off the green Martians and flashing back to when he buried his family, and some of those reviews say that this evokes “the horrors of war.” But losing your wife and family isn’t the horrors of war. WAR is the horrors of war. Thousands of Vietnam vets didn’t come back traumatized because the Viet-Cong killed their wives and families. We don’t have veterans from the Afghan War who lost their kids to Al-Qaeda (well, all right, certainly some people lost relatives on September 11th, but that is not a prerequisite for suffering PTSD after Afghanistan).
[I was going to put pictures in this part, but honestly, googling things like “Horrors of War” and “Afghanistan Casualties” makes me both sad and furious. I recommend that you do this if you want to keep asking yourself “What the fuck is WRONG with us?”]
In fact, the three most horrible things that can happen to a human psyche are: 1) Losing someone who is close to you. 2) Suffering injury at the hands of someone you know means you harm. 3) Harming another person who is a stranger. These three things are all built into war itself – even number 1. There’s a reason that the army spends so much time training soldiers to think of each other as comrades in arms, why they dwell on the idea of the Band of Brothers. It’s because people who care about each other fight better together, and what that means is that when soldiers in your unit die, it hurts you. Maybe even just as much as losing a wife and child.
The problem with making a soldier’s trauma about losing his wife and child is actually a symptom of our larger cultural problem with war. The thing about it is that war is the trauma, but that’s not a thing that we can easily say. We have to still lionize war and military prowess, we have to minimize the psychic consequence of war, we have to, at the very least, alleviate our guilt over what we are doing to our soldiers. We are, very literally, expecting them to suffer the worst psychological traumas that human experience has to offer. When we make a movie in which a soldier’s motivation for hating war comes from a personal loss, one outside the official “rules” of war – a civilian loss, instead of an acceptable military consequence – then not only does it allow us the privilege of using the soldier’s trauma as a character trait, but it also forgives us from having to have to judge the war itself.
In Carter’s case, it’s further exacerbated by the fact that he was a Confederate soldier, and we live in a culture that still can’t quite get its glasses on when it comes to looking at that war. Consequently: John Carter can’t be a Confederate cavalryman who suffered pain and anguish and boundless loss as he watched his neighbors and friends and brothers die from cannon and musketballs and gangrene, only to look around and realize that he had killed and seen people killed to defend one of the most vile of institutional evils. He can’t be that guy, who then turns around and says, “Well, I’m done with fucking war.”
He instead has to be a man whose military experiences are completely absent from the movie, whose sole motivating elements are the fact that evil Union soldiers broke the rules and killed his wife and daughter when he wasn’t looking. War is conspicuously absent from Carter’s backstory, and it’s actually what makes his character so flimsy: the fact of the matter is that he doesn’t have anything on Earth that matters to him, he doesn’t have any reason not to join up and fight the sorts of people who will do to the city of Helium what the Union did to him. Carter’s reluctance to court the beautiful princess and fight the evil aliens with their deadly rays doesn’t actually make any sense, because the backstory, as its structured, directly conflicts with it.
Ultimately, this brooding-John-Carter-with-his-tragic-backstory kind of falls apart at all levels. In the first place, there’s not really any specific need for him to brood at all; his tragedy doesn’t give him a global perspective, or motivate him to participate in the plot of the movie; the backstory itself doesn’t really do the only thing it’s supposed to do, which is, as unobtrusively as possible, explain his actions; and the one that they’ve saddled him with actually directly conflicts with the requirements set on him by the plot.
I’m not saying that something like this couldn’t have worked, or even that John Carter (of Mars) wasn’t a decent enough character. What I’m saying is that there’s a reason that his character just doesn’t really leave any lasting impression on the audience. It’s because whoever was writing this followed a formula for producing characters: one that required an admixture of backstory and brooding and flashbacks to yield a reluctant hero with a Byronic countenance, without actually paying attention to how those things are supposed to work together.
It’s like they somehow made the character backwards – I mean, from the top down, starting with how they wanted him to look and what they wanted him to do, and then kind of shoehorning in a backstory that never quite jived with it. Or else, they started with a backstory – possibly because someone gave them a note that said, “He needs more tragedy in his past, I think that would clear up the Second Act Problems” — and then forgot about it while they were writing the overall action of the movie. This is what we mean when we talk about a character’s actions being “organic” – they proceed in harmony with the available information about the character, such that every piece of information we have about him is both Necessary (in that, the movie would make less sense if you cut it out) and Sufficient (in that absolutely no more information is required in order to understand it).
Ultimately, I don’t know if this is why the movie doesn’t really have legs. I liked it, like I said, it was a fun time, but it didn’t quite stick with me and I think this was a big part of it.