Former Saviors Now Stumble

At first glance, you might think they’ve done a fine job… look at an illustration by John Buscema realized in the form of James Purefoy, or a vintage Frank Frazetta drawing fleshed out by Taylor Kitsch. On a surface level, it might look like Solomon Kane and John Carter have been translated from their literary origins to the wonder of 21st century movie-making, characters created a little over or under a century ago finding new life in cinema. Problem is, whether you enjoyed, abhorred, or found yourself indifferent to the cinematic versions, these icons have nevertheless been significantly, and intentionally, tarnished.

A question surfaces: is this a good thing or a bad thing?

The movie adaptation of John Carter came out this year to less-than-stellar reviews and box office results and is now seeking to recoup losses through Blu-ray and DVD. The Solomon Kane film- released in the United Kingdom back in 2009 – has found its way to On Demand, Amazon Instant Video and rental through XBox Live and other means, enjoying some theatrical showings in the States later this year. However, fans of the classic characters created by Edgar Rice Burroughs and Robert E. Howard instantly recognize that these heroes hardly resemble the heroes they’ve loved in literature.

Burroughs created John Carter prior to the more widely known Tarzan. The noble, immortal Carter is transported to Mars, incarnating amongst the Martian people with incredible powers, but more importantly unassailable character – a southern gentleman from the first scene – showing the various aliens not only how to live in harmony with each other but how to treat their animals and environment better as well. Although unfamiliar with Martian customs (and thus making a few faux pas in courting Dejah Thoris) he doesn’t bicker with her like Dave and Maddie from Moonlighting as in the Disney film. He also doesn’t spend two-thirds of the narrative moping and complaining about not wanting to get involved, or take sides, or be a hero.

Before pulp writer Robert E. Howard gave the world Conan, he started chronicling The Savage Tales of Solomon Kane, a late 16th/early 17th century Puritan wandering the world with no apparent goal other than a lifelong dedication to vanquishing evil in all its forms. Apparently this altruism and single-mindedness just couldn’t translate to a feature film, and so Purefoy’s Kane is a wicked man damned for all his evils, who then tries to redeem himself through pacifism but – when that fails – decides to fight against evil and save a girl in order to win back his cursed soul and atone for his own sins.

“…as it is written: “None is righteous, no, not one…” – Romans 3:10

Why change these characters from their “essentially good” natures and make them damaged, dysfunctional, or damnable? A theologian might trot out Romans or some other verses to suggest none of us are without sin, save Christ, and thus be happy with the changes to lesser protagonists. I can see some truth, and perhaps good, coming out of that. Maybe it’s a good thing that all our other heroes are flawed and struggling. After all, Moses made mistakes, David committed adultery, Peter denied his Lord, and so on: scripture makes clear that no other real “heroes” of faith are flawless. Many are archetypes or reflections of the true Savior of the Bible, but fall far from Jesus’ perfection.

However, I’m not sure I”m happy with a Hollywood approach to reinterpreting classic fiction where the changes are made based on an assumption that no such savior exists at all, culminating in a downgrade for fictional characters that may exist to inspire us toward something greater, even something or someone actual. Take a good look: Burroughs designed a character who, at about the age of thirty, incarnates a dying world and transforms it: for pity’s sake, his initials are even J.C. I’m not sure how much more obvious this can be. Kane, although less allegorical, represents a similar archetype, an unswerving and unflappable man more than willing to lay down his life for what was right… not out of fear for his own skin or soul.

Apparently the stalwart savior is no longer in vogue: central characters must be damaged, acting out, or trying to redeem some horrible past problem. Should I be worried about The Hobbit film… that Peter Jackson might include a special flashback wherein Gandalf dedicates himself to a life of service as a wizard because of a horrible, secret hit-and-run incident with his horse and carriage in his youth? Will the next of Lewis’ Narnia stories be amended so that Aslan the lion has a drinking problem, or perhaps a crisis of faith?

Kane and Carter suffer a fictional revisionist history because they aren’t as well known as these other characters… but it gives me some concern for movies like Man of Steel next year, makes me wonder if we’ll find out that Superman dedicates himself to a life of saving Lois and Metropolis because he was such a jerk to Lana and the other kids in High School, or perhaps used his X-Ray vision to cheat his way through college and get into journalism (remember the jerk Superman in the otherwise forgettable Superman III?)

One argument I’ve heard is that these types of characters are hard to write, hard to adapt, because they seem so difficult for the “modern reader” to identify with. However, a simple narrative device for this to give the story a POV character that observes this dynamic character, one who remarks on their “other-ness”. This is a timeless formula that works well with Sherlock Holmes stories: we know we aren’t built like Holmes, yet the character of Watson provides a vantage point from which we, like he, might marvel at Holmes and feel as though we’re a part of the story. As we digest the story at hand, we pour ourselves into that supporting character instead of the hero.

The problem is: we innately desire to identify with the role of hero – the savior of the story, of course, simply must be us – and so we damage or distort these archetypes so they can be more like us. We reduce the images of Carter and Kane to something approximating our image so we might imagine ourselves the center of the story and be the hero.

The more we practice this “exchange” with our fantasy, the more it makes me wonder about our daily approach to reality.

  1. solomani

    I hate this revisionist stuff.

    When was the last time real male qualities were displayed on film in any uncompromising way? I would say you would have to look back to the 70s and before to those old war movies to find anything. My gut feeling is that if they had stuck to the book in the sense of keeping the characters as written it would have been a much more successful movie (in both cases).

  2. Mickey

    Stories aren’t about us. Stories are for us.
    Does that sound right?

    Another thing,
    I think the core of most misunderstandings about the Old Testament spring from the same style of interpreting. That is, figuring ourselves as the hero denies the story all its power to point us to the real world figure who is represented by the hero of the story.

    I’m not Luke Skywalker. I’m one of the droids.
    I’m not Superman. I’m Lois Lane (an annoying and perplexing choice of bride for one so perfect).
    I’m not David. I’m part of the crowd that vicariously attains victory through his work.

  3. Wugmanmax

    I think Marvel did a pretty good job of translating Steve Rogers aka Captain America to the big screen. He was likable AND relatable, and the unflappable man of character that he was originally written to be.

  4. Brad Andres

    James, I appreciate the insights. I fall into the category of those who are not familiar with the original characters.
    The concept of placing ourselves in the hero role is common and widespread. It may even be a common desire most people in our culture share. We have grown up in the age of spotlight. The lead cast, the lead singer, heck – even the lead pastor, they get the glory and accolades.
    The boat has been missed. Our reality, I believe, may be scarred. We are not The Hero of our story. We may not even consider our lives “our story.” Our existence rests in God’s story. He is The Hero. We are the supporting cast.
    It may help to reference our lives similar to that of the Holmes story. We are working in tandem with our Hero. We are in the adventure of our God.

  5. solomani

    Agree with Rogers, surprising good job. RE Superman, even that’s been changed now. Superman dates Wonder Woman another “perfect” person.

  6. Tim Schaaf

    Just realized this morning how they nerfed on of our family’s mini-heroes … the golden retriever in the Bush’s Baked Beans commercials. He went from they loyal companion who’d keep the family recipe secret at any cost to a villain looking to steal the recipe. Minor example … but still ticks me off.

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