The James Kettle Moment #9: John Carter And The Gods Of Hollywood

Amazingly enough, this is a real book, rather than something I’ve made up with the optimistic goal of entertaining you. I downloaded it to my Kindle a couple of weeks ago while I was on holiday, and having read it, I’m still coming to terms with the bizarre fact that it exists at all.

I’ve always enjoyed books about big creative disasters, not so much for a sense of schadenfreude but for a reminder of how perilous any such venture is, how finely balanced the chances of success and disaster. Two of the most well-known examples of the genre are Steven Bach’s Final Cut, about the making of studio-sinking mega-flop Heaven’s Gate, and Greg Sestero’s The Disaster Artist, covering the shooting of cult fiasco The Room (and itself soon to be made into a movie). But I’d also recommend Julie Salamon’s The Devil’s Candy, telling the story of Brian De Palma’s hubris-tastic adaptation of The Bonfire Of The Vanities and Glen Berger’s recent Song Of Spiderman, a brilliant explanation of why making a multi-million dollar musical with no plot and effects that keep injuring the cast — plus a load of awful songs from Bono and The Edge — is not necessarily a recipe for success.

So I assumed John Carter And The Gods Of Hollywood would be of the same ilk — a blow-by-blow account of how Disney’s 2012 adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs’s sci-fi classic (one of those classics that are only classic because you’re repeatedly told they are classic, rather than because anybody’s actually heard of them) ended up losing the company over $200 million.

But it isn’t. What the book actually gives us is a remarkable psychological pen-portrait of its author, Michael D. Sellers. Whereas the authors of the books listed above had a close relationship to the projects involved, and witnessed them at every stage of production (Bach as a supervising executive, Sestero as one of the lead actors, Salamon as an embedded journalist and Berger as the co-writer of the show), Sellers has no involvement in the production of John Carter. His accounts of the making of the film and its subsequent marketing and release are all taken from reading the trade press and wading through internet message boards. I think that if I was so interested in John Carter that I wanted to know (in very lengthy detail) what people were saying about it on iMDb in 2011, I would have gone out of my way to join that conversation at the time.

This may be a book that brings no new information to the party, but Sellers believes from the outset that it’s a book that has to be written. He explains that he is a huge fan of Edgar Rice Burroughs — and specifically the John Carter stories. As a result he wants his book to do what the Disney movie notably failed to do — and convince the world of the inherent brilliance and continuing relevance of the John Carter mythos. This he fails to do on every level. The book begins with a lengthy description of the books — I’ve not read them, and if in reality they are as stripped of adventure, incident and relationship to recognizable reality as Sellers makes them seem, I’m probably not going to any time soon.

Sellers certainly loves John Carter. As the movie goes into production, he scours the net for details of its progress (and subsequently cuts and pastes every thing he finds into this — did I mention? — incredibly long book). When he begins to realize that the movie’s pre-release marketing has not achieved the goal of making everyone on the planet care about John Carter as much as he does, Sellers manages to get himself a meeting with Disney as a representative of the Burroughs fan community, and suggests that they appoint him to help them run the campaign. You may not be surprised to hear that Disney turns this offer down (despite the fact that Sellers has his own track record as a producer of films like Eye Of The Dolphin, Quicksand and Doomsdayer), and you may be equally unsurprised to find out that Sellers sees this as a disastrous mistake, emblematic of Disney’s failure to run the whole project properly.

Late in the book, it becomes apparent that during the entire period that Sellers is pursuing this monomaniacal pursuit of details about the making of John Carter, he was facing a crisis in his personal life. Further research (if I’m going to waste time, I’m really going to waste time) uncovered the fact that he was at the time facing prosecution for a telemarketing fraud relating to the funding of film projects — a fraud for which he served time in a US prison.

I mention this not to discredit Sellers — or to crow over his misfortune — but because it suggests a reading of John Carter And The Gods Of Hollywood not as a poor work of non-fiction, but as a piece of imaginative biography showing how a mind in torment will scurry away from the source of its pain and obsess instead over seeming irrelevances. Far from an irritatingly unhelpful book about a largely unsuccessful film, it could be viewed as a groundbreaking work of literature, using an unorthodox form and an unreliable narrator to create an experimental form of storytelling, in the tradition of Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire or Julian Barnes’s Flaubert’s Parrot. That would at least make me feel a bit better about having spent two days on holiday reading it.

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