John Carter‘s journey to the big screen is, quite possibly, even more interesting than the actual journey the character takes in the story. And that’s saying something when you’re talking about a Civil War hero transported to Mars to fight with nine-foot-tall aliens. The property has gone though dozens of different versions with various stars, filmmakers and even studios hellbent on adapting the influential Edgar Rice Burroughs property for the big screen. Consequently, because it took so long, films that draw heavily on the material, like Star Wars, Blade Runner and Avatar, are all considered to be slightly more innovative than they actually are. (I said “slightly”!)
And while it’s fairly well-documented that filmmakers such as Jon Favreau, Guillermo Del Toro and Robert Rodriguez all tried to tackle John Carter at one point, a pairing that isn’t so well-known is Die Hard director John McTiernan and star Tom Cruise. Yup. They were both interested in the material in the late eighties/early nineties.
After the jump, read what the current film’s producer, Jim Morris, revealed about the pairing and an account of what might have gone wrong.
Morris, one of the producers of John Carter and WALL-E who also worked in visual effects for films like Jurassic Park, Forrest Gump, Terminator 2: Judgement Day, The Rocketeer and more, dropped this nugget of information last week when I asked him why, after so many filmmakers had tried and failed, did he think now was the right time for John Carter to finally make it to the big screen:
Well, interestingly, I worked on a version of this that John McTiernan was going to direct starring Tom Cruise in the late ’80’s. I was at ILM at the time when I did it and we were trying to do it. I mention that because, at the time, we were kind of scratching our heads. They came in with this script that had Tharks – and it was very different from our script – but had all of the same characters and so forth and computer graphics really had not gotten to a point where you could pull this kind of thing off. So it needed to be a mixture of prosthetics and suits and stop motion and things like that. It just seemed like way too big to pull off and I think that it’s taken a long time, because it’s only been in the last maybe six or eight years that you could kind of make this movie on any sort of believable level.
He then talked about how the current script solved a major issue that plagued previous incarnations:
If you read the original novel there are things that are great about it and it’s very haunting, which is why people have always been drawn to it, but it’s very episodic and the characters are very one dimensional. They don’t really have arcs and they just kind of go from adventure to adventure. I think it’s taken a long time to come up with a way to crack that narratively, so that you had a routing interest in the Carter character. He’s kind of Prince Valiant in the books and we felt like ‘We need somebody that’s got a little more damage in there’ and ‘We need this character to grow or change or get from one place to another.’ So we felt like ‘Well, this character is damaged and this movie is about him saving himself basically.’ And he saves others in the process and in earlier scripts, other scripts I have read, never really fundamentally did anything like that with the Carter character. I believe coming up with something where you’re going ‘Okay, that makes a more interesting story’ and having the technology to do it and having a studio with the intestinal fortitude to put the kind of money on the table that you need to make a film like is, I think, those three things brought it to play.
An article written for USA Today details a long history of attempts to get John Carter on the screen, dating back to 1936, a full 25 years after the story was initially published. It’s a fascinating read that features quotes from several screenwriters who took a shot at the property and, yes, even confirms Morris’ mention of John McTiernan and Tom Cruise circling the material. (USA Today, however, says Cruise “apparently did not care for the script that he was shown.”) That collaboration, reportedly, was going to cost an estimated $120 million in 1992, which was almost $30 million more than Terminator 2 cost in the same era. Of course, at that time, Terminator 2 was the most expensive film of all time so John Carter would have been very pricey. It makes sense that it never happened.
And yet, decades later, Disney finally decided to make John Carter with a lesser known star and bigger budget. (Though, to be fair, with inflation and the simple cost of business in Hollywood, the reported $250 million now is probably comparable to $120 in 1992.)
Either way, this journey, which began over 100 years ago with the first Burroughs story, comes to an end on March 9 when a John Carter movie finally makes it to the big screen.
For more from my interview with producer Jim Morris, check back later this week. Then, in the following weeks, check back for 10 minute, video, one-on-one interviews with star Taylor Kitsch and director Andrew Stanton.