John Carter – The film that took 81 years to make

Cruise, Harryhausen, Favreau were all once involved

Development Hell is a place where many films lie uncomfortably, waiting for something to go their way. Of all the films that occupy that Hell, ‘John Carter’, which is finally released this week, has been there the longest, 81 years in fact. 

Edgar Rice Burroughs’ pulp novels, on which the movie is based, began with ‘A Princess of Mars’ in 1912 and continued with ten more instalments of what came to be known as the Barsoom series (Barsoom being what the inhabitants of Mars call their planet).

[Related story: Our review of John Carter]
[Related blog: Five minute clip of John Carter]

In 1931 the idea of a film first cropped up when an animated version of the stories was concocted by ‘Looney Tunes’ director Bob Clampett, who went to Burroughs with the idea. Burroughs gave the project his blessing and a team went to work on a reel showcasing the film’s potential. Clampett used a very early form of motion capture for the animation - tracing over the movements of athletes - to make his animated characters more believable.

Test audiences didn’t take too kindly to the first show reel in 1936 and the project was scrapped. If it had been released it would have been the first animated feature film, a title that eventually went to Disney’s ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs’ in 1937.

Hollywood legend Ray Harryhausen, who is most famous for his stop-motion work on ‘Jason and the Argonauts’ took an interest in adapting the books in the late ‘50s but nothing came of it. In the late ‘80s Disney acquired the rights and began work on a potential production, looking for ‘Star Wars’ levels of success.

The team of Ted Elliot and Terry Rossio, who went on to write ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’, were attached to pen the film with ‘Die Hard’ director John McTiernan behind the camera and plans for mega-star Tom Cruise to be in front of it with Julia Roberts. However, special effects weren’t advanced enough to do the film justice and the plug was pulled.

In a 2003 interview, William Stout, a conceptual artist for Disney during McTiernan’s time with the film said, “They were going to use camels and elephants in creature suits... There was no way that you could get any of this stuff to look like the Burroughs stuff.”

Renewed interest came from Paramount in the last decade. Their vision for the franchise came with Robert Rodriguez at the helm, who signed on in 2004 only for it to fall apart following Rodriguez’s battle with and consequent resignation from the Directors Guild of America, which forced Paramount to look elsewhere. Kerry Conran (‘Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow’) was briefly attached before Jon Favreau took over in late 2005.

Favreau and his writing partner Mark Fergus got quite far into the pre-production aspect, promising to stay true to the source material and arguing against making John Carter a modern day soldier. He also wanted to utilise as many practical effects as would be possible.

However, in late 2006 the studio chose not to renew the rights and focused instead on their ‘Star Trek’ reboot while Favreau and Fergus began work on ‘Iron Man’. Both films went on to make a lot of money at the box office.

Speaking at a press junket last year, Favreau said, “I'm [in] the chain of filmmakers who've passed the torch for a 100 years on this one. I'm really proud that somebody is doing it right. And seeing the scale of it, I'm really glad it's not me. It's a huge movie, a huge movie.”

It’s funny that such a huge film that has been passed down through such capable hands would eventually find itself with a director unproven in live action cinema. However, when you take into account that it’s the man who directed ‘Wall-E’ and ‘Finding Nemo’ and had a hand in the screenplays of the ‘Toy Story’ trilogy and ‘Monsters Inc’ any doubts become null and void.

Andrew Stanton is an enormous talent and follows Brad Bird, director of ‘The Incredibles’ and now ‘Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol’, out of Pixar and into more familiar blockbuster affair. Only time will tell however, if Stanton’s ’John Carter’ lives up to the wait. It could well become a hugely successful franchise but it could also have be a flop eight decades in the making.