Things I learned from John Carter’s commentary track

When I rewatched John Carter (2012) recently I also listened to the full commentary track (first time was a Netflix DVD, and I didn’t have time for most of it).  I think director/writer Andrew Stanton and the other commenters have some good advice for writers.

•Make the battles advance the story. Stanton says he really tried to make the battles, even before the big finish, advance the plot. The Zodangans shooting Dejah Thoris down brings her and John together. The battle in the arena (a truly spectacular piece) is a turning point where John rallies the Tharks to fight for Mars. The scene where he saves Dejah and Sola from the Warhoon reflects his character arc: he lost his family while he was away at war, he refuses to let his friends die now. All have a reason besides the action. Doc Savage author Lester Dent makes the same point: “Action must do more than advance the hero over the scenery.”

It’s advice to keep in mind when I redraft Impossible Takes a Little Longer as I’ve added a lot of action that really doesn’t do more than that.

•You don’t have to explain everything. Stanton says that one of his templates in writing John Carter was historical movies: the camera shows you something amazing in the background, like cathedral construction or slaves working on something, but films don’t stop to explain every detail, they just let us see it’s there. As someone who gets easily bored where writers fill in all the details, I’m with Stanton on this, though of course books don’t have the same visual impact movies do. And as I’ve said before, how much is enough is a judgment call, not a quantifiable rule.

•Be careful which scenes you skip. Stanton says they originally cut from the climactic defeat of Zodanga to the John/Dejah wedding; no need to actually detail the proposal, the wedding said it all, right? When they showed the film to the test audience, the women watching all complained that they never got a scene where the leads expressed their feelings. Stanton and his cowriters went back and put one in and yes, it works.

•As I’ve said before, it’s okay to look back at the past but don’t stare. Stanton said he wrote Dejah Thoris as a woman he’d fall in love with today: a skilled swordswoman and scientist working to save Helium from Zodanga but forced to marry the tyrant of Zodanga to bring about peace. Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Dejah Thoris was neither fighter nor scientist, but Stanton said he wrote her as a woman he’d want to be with now, not the woman he fell in love with when he was 12. That’s good advice for anyone going retro, I think.

#SFWApro. Covers for Gods of Mars and Chessmen of Mars by Michael Whelan, all rights to images remain with current holder.

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