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question of the day: Are classic pulp novels too dated to make faithful transfers to the big screen?

John Carter Ciaran Hinds Lynn Collins

So, John Carter is now on DVD in the U.S. [Amazon U.S.] and Canada [Amazon Canada] (and coming next month in the U.K. [Amazon U.K.]), so those who missed it in cinemas — which would be most of you, based upon its dismal box office — can finally see what the lack of excitement was about.
For me, two major overarching issues sink the film: it feels dated, and it feels derivative. The derivative thing is slightly unfair, because the fact is that it’s all the other pulpy B-movie stuff since that has been copying Edgar Rice Burroughs… but that doesn’t excuse the makers of this film (or any future film based on really old and really influential material) from making it not feel as if it’s aping all the stuff that actually ape it. Which goes for the dated side of the matter, too. Burroughs is dated, which is why that needs to be addressed in some manner in any modern adaptation.

(I’m talking, of course, about huge blockbustery adaptations of classic pulp material, as John Carter is. The motives and intentions would be different for a filmmaker wanting to make something arthouse or deliberately kitchsy and retro, like The Artist meets Jules Verne, for instance.)

Steven Spielberg successfully made century-plus-old pulp work with his War of the Worlds, which is fairly faithful to H.G. Wells’s plot while getting updated for today. Guy Ritchie did it with his Sherlock Holmes flicks, which retain their Victorian setting but shift their emphasis from the intellectual to the action… though only slightly, since Arthur Conan Doyle’s Holmes was pretty physically robust already.

But could those movies have worked without the updating?

What do you think? Are classic pulp novels too dated to make faithful transfers to the big screen? Is there a value in presenting classic pulp faithfully for today’s audiences, or has entertainment moved on too much for popcorn crowds to care about them?

(If you have a suggestion for a QOTD, feel free to email me. Responses to this QOTD sent by email will be ignored; please post your responses here.)


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