Star Trek Guide

John Carter: Every Failed Attempt At Making The Disney Movie

Disney eventually adapted John Carter for the big screen in 2012, but it was far from the first attempt at turning the sci-fi property into a movie. Decades before Star Wars came to epitomize what people think of as science-fantasy, author Edgar Rice Burroughs introduced the world to a then-new type of hero known as John Carter. A former Confederate veteran of the American Civil War-turned hero to the citizens of a fictionalized version of Mars dubbed Barsoom, Carter made his debut in a collection of chapters (titled Under the Moon of Mars) published in the pulp magazine The All-Story during the early 1900s, and later re-assembled as the novel A Princess of Mars in 1917.

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While not as popular as Burroughs' other famous creation, Tarzan, John Carter was still a big hit, and the author would go on to publish an additional ten novels in the Barsoom series in his lifetime. 95 years after A Princess of Mar was released, the property finally made the jump to the big screen with Disney's John Carter, a massively-budgeted tentpole directed by Oscar-winning Pixar veteran Andrew Stanton (Finding NemoWALL·E) and starring Taylor Kitsch as the eponymous adventurer. Unfortunately, the production was far from a smooth one, and John Carter would go on to become one of the Mouse House's biggest commercial flops of all-time, killing Stanton's hopes for a trilogy in the process.

Unsurprisingly, given the popularity of the source material, Stanton's movie was far from the first attempt at adapting John Carter for the silver screen - in fact, it wasn't even Disney's first go at the property. But long before the Mouse House took a shot at bringing Burroughs' stories to life, they were nearly realized as a non-Disney animated feature instead.

Robert Clampett's Animated Movie

Disney famously became the first American studio to release a full-length animated feature when Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs opened in theaters in 1937. However, they were nearly beaten to the punch by an animated John Carter movie that Robert Clampett had been working on since as far back as 1931, when he pitched the film to Burroughs. The latter was excited by the idea, feeling that live-action (at the time) wouldn't have been able to do justice by the fantastical settings and aliens from his source material. Clampett and Burroughs' son, John Coleman Burroughs, even went so far as to produce test footage for the project, using rotoscope animation techniques to ensure the characters' movement (like John Carter being able to make massive leaps on Barsoom, due to its reduced gravitational pull) were realistic and convincing.

In the end, MGM passed on the film after exhibitors reacted negatively to the test footage in 1936, believing the John Carter property was simply too out-too to appeal to the majority of American moviegoers. Clampett was approached to work on an animated Tarzan adaptation after that, but passed and then become known for directing numerous classic Looney Tunes shorts, primarily in the 1930s and '40s (and beyond). Stop-motion and visuals effects legend Ray Harryhausen (Jason and the Argonauts, Clash of the Titans) later expressed interested in adapting John Carter for animation in the '50s, but things never really went any further than that.

Disney's John Carter (Starring Tom Cruise)

Eventually, in the late '80s, Disney acquired the screen rights to John Carter and set to work on a live-action adaptation. The studio hired future Pirates of the Caribbean series co-writers Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio to tackle the screenplay, with an eye on having John McTiernan direct and Tom Cruise star (at a time when both of them were still up and comers). During an interview with SlashFilm in 2012, ILM veteran and producer Jim Morris said the plan was to make the movie using "a mixture of prosthetics and suits and stop motion," seeing as CGI wasn't up to the task of bringing Barsoom and its inhabitants to convincing life just yet. This version of John Carter would've cost as much as $120 million to produce (a number that, as SlashFilm pointed out, is probably tantamount to the $267 million Disney spent on Stanton's adaptation, when adjusted for inflation).

Things didn't work out this time, either. Cruise was reportedly not a fan of the John Carter screenplay, and McTiernan (who's now famous for having directed '80s action movie hits like Predator and Die Hard) stepped away after deciding the visual effects limitations at that time made it impossible to do justice by Burroughs' stories. Interestingly, Cruise was bitten by the sci-fi bug in the early 2000s (prompting him to star in Steven Spielberg's Minority Report and War of the Worlds), but was presumably considered too old - or maybe just too expensive - to play John Carter by the time Stanton began working on his adaptation later that same decade.

Robert Rodriguez's John Carter

After Disney failed to move forward with their original John Carter film, the rights reverted to the Burroughs estate and Paramount took a shot at making the project happen in the early 2000s. Upon reading the adapted script written by Mark Protosevich (The Cell, I Am Legend), Robert Rodriguez agreed to direct the movie and planned to shoot it using the same "digital stages" filming techniques he'd employed to create a highly-stylized noir universe for his Sin City comic book movie adaptation. This would've, in theory, allowed Paramount to keep the production costs down far better than both Disney's '80s version and Stanton's film later did. Rodriguez even hired the Godfather of Fantasy Art, Frank Franzetta (who was already known for illustrating Burroughs' work), to help design the movie's visuals.

Once again, though, the production hit a snag. Due to his disagreement with the Directors Guild of America over his decision to credit Sin City creator Frank Miller as a co-director on his movie adaptation, Rodriguez resigned from the organization and Paramount turned to a DGA-backed director, Kerry Conran, to fill his spot in 2004. Conran later left the project (for undisclosed reasons) after making his feature debut directing Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow - a film that, much like Rodriguez's vision for John Carter, used CGI backgrounds and drew from the tropes and aesthetics of early 20th century sci-fi and pulp fiction.

Jon Favreau's Adaptation

Rather than giving up on its John Carter adaptation after Conran stepped down, Paramount turned to Jon Favreau to direct the film in October 2005, with Mark Fergus handling the script. Their version of the movie would've adapted the first three Barsoom novels (The Gods of Mars and The Warlord of Mars, in addition to A Princess of Mars) and used a combination of practical effects and CGI to create its extraterrestrial characters. Less than twelve months later, Paramount decided the risks outweighed the potential benefits and turned its attention to revising the Star Trek movies instead. That proved to be a smart move: J.J. Abrams' 2009 Star Trek reboot was a big hit at the box office, and helped to usher in a brand-new era for the franchise on the big and small screen alike.

This also freed up Favreau and Fergus to change blockbuster history by making the original Iron Man in 2008. It's impossible to say whether their take on John Carter would've fared any better at the box office than Disney's movie - and it they'd worked on it instead of Iron Man, who knows how that would've impacted the MCU - but it's certainly something to think on. And given Favreau's now-known fascination with telling stories that blend elements of science-fiction with fantasy and westerns (as he did with his Cowboys & Aliens comic book adaptation in 2011 and, most recently, The Mandalorian on Disney+), it's no surprise to learn he was interested in bringing John Carter to life at one time.