Hunger Games vs. John Carter: Are critics wrong?

I see that “The Hunger Games” has opened to huge crowds, despite generally lackluster reviews from critics. A few weeks back, “John Carter”—based on “A Princess of Mars” by Edgar Rice Burroughs—debuted to equally mediocre reviews and failed, dramatically, to deliver the kind of numbers that Hollywood counts a success. Apparently its producers are already writing it off as a flop.

I went to see “John Carter” two weeks ago and found it a terrifically entertaining movie, packed with suspense, humor, wit, an admirable heroine and a convincing hero, great battle scenes, and gorgeous cinematography. Frankly, I couldn’t understand why the film was dismissed so readily, both by the critics and by its backers. When I talked to other people who had seen it, nearly all of them said they loved it.

Many did complain about the promotion of the film. The bland name “John Carter” didn’t say much to most people; “A Princess of Mars” would have been a better title, or there might have been some reference to the author as the creator of Tarzan. The previews apparently failed to deliver a sense of the movie’s power, grandeur and beauty. Not least, many of the tropes and conventions of the planetary romance—of swashbuckling space adventure-- were established by Burroughs in this 1912 novel, such that its myriad descendants, among them “Star Wars,” have made the original seem the imitation.

I have a particular interest in Burroughs because I’ve taught “A Princess of Mars” in an adventure novel course and even written a longish piece about the first three of the Mars novels, which form a kind of John Carter trilogy. I know that the film took some liberties with Burroughs original, but they were relatively trivial, and, all in all, it struck me as an excellent transposition of book to film.

So why is the movie a bomb? Am I wrong to like it? Have I lost my critical judgment or taste? All these are possible, especially since I’m no film critic and only an occasional movie-goer. But I think I can tell a dud when I see it.

At all events, the “John Carter” debacle somehow offends me. The film isn’t “The Seventh Seal” but it is as enjoyable an entertainment as, say, “The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad.” I feel bad for all those who helped make the movie and are now seeing it widely trashed—unfairly, in my view.

Do other members of the Reading Room ever find themselves upset when critics lambaste a book, author or movie they love? How do you account for such discrepancy of judgment? Is it simply a matter of “De gustibus non est disputandum”? Is criticism really that subjective? Perhaps, in the case of “John Carter,” one needs some familiarity with the novel behind the film or with the history of science fiction to fully appreciate the screen adaptation. But obviously a successful blockbuster film can’t presuppose such background in its audience. What do other members of the Reading Room do when they feel that a work or writer they value has been mistreated or misunderstood? Please share your thoughts.

— Michael Dirda

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