Saturday, March 31, 2012

Lessons from Hollywood - The Hunger Games vs. John Carter

This post is the first in a "Lessons from Hollywood" series focusing on writing/publishing truths gleaned from Tinseltown. I've written similar posts in the past (Writing lessons from Eclipse, for starters), but now such posts will have a club of their own to belong to.

Anyone reading about films and box-office reports will have heard that The Hunger Games has done very well. Games had a strong opening weekend and has continued to dominate.

Conversely, Andrew Stanton's baby, John Carter, has gone down in flames.

Both movies were inspired by popular novels. The Hunger Games, obviously, by the bestselling Suzanne Collins novel of the same title, and the John Carter from Edgar Rice Burrows' A Princess of Mars.

Edgar Rice Burrow's other fictional hero provided a steady cash flow for Hollywood for years - 89 Tarzan movies have been made between 1918 and 2008. The John Carter stories, known as the "Barsoom" books, contained source material that inspired  Star Wars, Avatar, and Cowboys and Aliens. If you're looking for pulp-fiction pedigree, this is it.

And yet, the recent John Carter will likely become one of the most expensive flops in Hollywood history.

What happened? And what can we, as fiction writers, learn from it?

How The Hunger Games got it right:

The novels are YA releases with broad crossover appeal, and the film aimed for - and reached - the exact same audience.  Sure, it's geared to teens, but the high-concept premise holds a great deal of appeal for younger adults as well as parents.  Yes, most of the main characters are teens. But they're smart, likable teens who have lived difficult, tragic lives. They work hard. They're resourceful. They've been let down by the adults in their lives but they're not whining - they're too busy surviving.

The books are character driven, and while the film is somewhat less-so, the central character of Katniss is compulsively compelling. While the novels have a love-triangle romance plotline, it's less of a central element than in, say, the Twlight franchise.  Gary Ross's film is sleek, well-filmed and well-styled. The film doesn't look like tween-fare. The content from the novel could easily have steered the film to a more limiting R rating, but quick-cuts and smart angles kept the film relatively accessible for the core audience.

How John Carter got it wrong:

Oh, boy. I feel for Andrew Stanton, I really do. I'm a huge fan of some of his work. But I think there were several places where poor choices were made that turned John Carter into a downed zeppelin.

Who is the audience for John Carter?

  • Is it older children/tween/family fare? From the look of the aliens and the casting of Friday Night Lights' Taylor Kitsch, you'd think this would be for the audience of Phantom Menace, a sort of Diet-version of George Lucas. But the pic is rated PG-13, so it eliminates (or should, at least) the older kiddie crowd.
  • Is it fans of the book? Maybe. But readers of Burrow's Edwardian-Era novels are likely too literate to put up with much of the dialogue shown in the trailers.
  • Is it adults? Are adults going to be drawn to the goofy-looking aliens and a release with a poster heralding the Disney logo?

Maybe if John Carter had decided to skew older, cast an older actor, looked a little grittier, and called itself the ultimate origins story - it might have helped.  Or if it had gone the other direction, and made itself more of a PG popcorn flick, fine. I honestly think Carter's biggest issue is an inability to identify its core audience.

True, the title didn't help - John Carter of Mars was more evocative, but the "of Mars" part got dropped when Simon Wells' Mars Needs Moms similarly tanked. And the fact that John himself wasn't as strong and likable of a character onscreen was problematic.

And, I don't think the metal-bikini-clad princess did a whole lot for the project, either. We live in different cultural times than when the Barsoom books - and Star Wars - released. When you've got Katniss Everdeen feeding her family, saving her sister, and surviving the arena all while fully dressed, the under-clad woman sensibility felt dated and done.

How Authors Can Get it Right:
  • Know your audience. If you're like me, you write for people like you - and that's okay. But figure out who your audience is and write a book you'd all enjoy.  Be conscious of who your characters are and the readers you're wanting to attract. 
  • Be sure to package it correctly. This is your publisher's responsibility, but if you have concerns about your cover/back cover copy, your agent needs to be on top of that. A book is judged by its cover. It's a fact of publishing life. If your cover skews too old, too young, too silly, too serious - none of these things will be good for your sales in the long run.
  • Write a strong, likable main character. Yeah, I know it's obvious. Is it easy, though? Not at all. If your central character is compelling, complicated, but likable, people will forgive a lot. Look at the Dragon Tattoo books - people waded through a lot of awkward prose and sandwich eating to read about Lisbeth Salander. 
  • Concede to the times. Write strong female characters. Include minority characters. Make everybody complicated. What the hey - put a bird on it. I'm just saying, timely fiction resonates with people. You don't have to kowtow to trends, but it's unwise to ignore them altogether. And for pity's sake, enough with the metal bikinis. At the very least, a girl needs a little spandex sometimes.
So those are my thoughts - what do you think? And how much should Stanley Tucci be invited to guest judge for Dancing with the Stars?

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