Lost & Found in Space

Michael Chabon at his lecture in the Music Building. Photo Credit: Ethan Gresko

by Kukuwa Ashun and Ethan Gresko

Michael Chabon rocketed Purchase students to Mars on Nov. 1 and 2, and simultaneously showed them the depths of Hollywood failure, as the novelist and screenwriter spoke about and screened his 2012 film “John Carter,” regarded as one of the biggest flops in box-office history.

Chabon, Purchase College’s 2017-2018 Roy & Shirley Durst Distinguished Chair of Literature, made his second appearance at the college, starting his visit in the Music Building’s Recital Hall last Wednesday, with a lecture focusing on the box office flop of “John Carter,” directed by Andrew Stanton and written by Stanton, Chabon, and Mark Andrews. In almost ironically-heartwarming fashion, Chabon reminisced about his childhood history with the intergalactic novels that featured the character Carter, reflected on other Martian-related blockbusters, and shared his thoughts about the film failing box offices.

“I first discovered Barsoom at Page One Books, in a mall in Columbia, Maryland, in 1973. That was the year Ballantine Books began a series of paperback prints of Edward Rice Burroughs’ celebrated Martian series,” said Chabon, “which are arguably the most influential works of fantastic imagination in all of American literature, and I don’t say that lightly.”

Chabon also talked in the lecture about his positive relationship he formed with Stanton, and not-so-positive relationships with former Walt Disney Studios chairman Rich Ross and people from the film’s marketing team. During the talk, Chabon seemed to place blame on Ross and the marketers for possibly making “John Carter” the box-office bomb it was. For one thing, they changed the original title, “John Carter of Mars,” because of Disney’s hesitancy to have the word “Mars” in the title.

This account is supported by Forbes contributor Scott Mendelson, who wrote in 2015,

“ ‘John Carter of Mars,’ based on Edgar Rice Burroughs’s 1917 story ‘Princess of Mars,’ eventually became just ‘John Carter,’ allegedly because Disney was stung by the utter disaster that was ‘Mars Needs Moms.’ ”

Toward the end of his lecture, Chabon took an optimistic view of the film, noting how he was true to the source material, and denying that “John Carter” could be compared to the 1987 film “Ishtar,” which “nearly bankrupted the studio that worked on it.” Instead, he praised his film for standing next to “such monuments of cinematic failure.” He also noted that “John Carter” has since recouped its debt overseas and in the aftermarket (such as DVD sales, streaming, and TV licensing), and has turned a small profit.

Similar to his lecture, the screening and Q&A held in the Humanities Theater provided mixed feelings about Chabon’s role in the film and the outcome of “John Carter” itself.

Still of Taylor Kitsch as John Carter in “John Carter”. Photo Credit: Kukuwa Ashun

When it was over, the audience applauded and Chabon, in return, stood up and smiled.

“Well, I loved it!” he said. It was the first time, he admitted, that he had seen the film all the way through since its premiere.

Nobody else vocalized their own reactions or critiques to Chabon, but the author continued to clarify questions about last-minute revisions, the production team, and other marketing obstacles he encountered during the process.

“I was just the writer,” Chabon said, explaining his own limits. “In feature filmmaking, the writer is actually powerless.”

Some students didn’t agree with Chabon’s sentiment. Erik Goetz, a senior creative writing major who attended both events, actually felt the opposite after the screening.

“I didn’t like the movie,” said Goetz. “I haven’t read the books, but the adaptation gave me the impression it was hubris on the creative team’s part to think this would connect with modern audiences.”

Other students were genuinely interested about Chabon’s role. When a student asked which was harder to write, a screenplay or a novel, Chabon talked about the complexities of both forms. He enjoyed working with a collaborative team, but at some points the input from the team wasn’t as constructive as it should’ve been.

“The great thing about writing a novel is the same as the terrible thing about writing a novel,” Chabon said. “You do it all by yourself and you’re completely responsible. You are the director, the producer, the costume director, the set decorator, the production designer, the actors. It’s your show: you run it. You are completely in charge of every aspect of it, and that’s what sucks. It’s all your own.”

Chabon will conclude his Durst Lecture Series in the spring, when he hosts a conversation with English author Neil Gaiman on March 5 in the Humanities Theater.