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True in Spirit: Why I liked Captain America, But Didn't Like John Carter

In my recent review of John Carter, I damned the movie for failing to be true to the book, taking liberties with the story and with the character of John Carter himself. Yet when watching Captain America on the plane the other day, I found myself completely satisfied despite that fact that it too was unfaithful to the original in many ways.

I asked myself why, and concluded that the answer is central to understanding O'Reilly's brand marketing, and by extension the authenticity that is at the heart of all great brands.

For me as a young reader, the appeal of Captain America (as with Spider Man and other Marvel comics) was the notion that a nerd, a kid who wasn't good at sports and was scorned by popular society, could be transformed into a hero. His smarts, his will, his character were what mattered - all that was required was a chance spark that would transform him into who he really was inside.

The movie version of Captain America is completely true to this fantasy. The character of Steve Rogers is so right that I was willing to forgive the many changes to the story (e.g. that Bucky was not his young sidekick but his pre-transformation protector and military buddy), improbabilities such as that the notion of riding a zipline from a mountain down onto the roof of a fast-moving train begs the question of just how they strung that zipline. (I've done it, and it's non-trivial, and gets harder the longer the line.) These are the kinds of errors that I found offensive in John Carter but didn't mind at all in Captain America. I found myself moved by scenes in the movie that demonstrated Steve Rogers' courage, his indomitable will, his loyalty to friends - hell, his nobility. Exactly what Andrew Stanton took away from John Carter!

This was equally true in the second installment of Sherlock Holmes, which I likewise saw on a plane last week. It takes even more liberties with Conan Doyle's original stories than John Carter took with Burroughs. Yet once again I consumed it with relish! Why? Because the character of Holmes was so true - his incredible ability to observe tiny details, to think ahead, his remarkable strength (which features in only a few of the stories, but is there nonetheless), his flawed character. And even though the character of Watson was nothing like the Watson of Doyle's stories, I forgave the director, because he made Watson better, not worse than the original.

This notion of understanding the essence of what matters about a book, a story, a character, also applies to business.

I think about the common thread that runs through all the books we created at O'Reilly - however different they might be. Consider the range of treatment shown by books as diverse as Linux in a Nutshell, Programming Perl, Unix Power Tools, The Perl Cookbook, Head First Java, Mac OS X: The Missing Manual, or Make: Electronics. From the point of view of external details, each of these books was a radical departure from what had gone before, and therefore a potential opportunity to confuse customers and dilute the brand.

Yet these books have a common essence: a practical bent, respect for the intelligence of the reader, a clear path to what you need to know, the authentic voice of experience, a willingness to take risks with new tools and new ideas that have been taken up by people on the cutting edge. When they stray from these core features, our books fail.

O'Reilly conferences display the same brand essence. In their deepest core, an O'Reilly book and an O'Reilly technical conference have more in common than a technical book from O'Reilly and those from some of our competitors. Like many of our pioneering books, our most successful new conferences were launched because we thought they were needed, not because we necessarily knew how successful they'd be. We weren't chasing dollars; we were trying to help the early adopter communities who are our core customers to change the world.

(Of course, it also helped that we created "brand affordances" whenever we introduced a new type of book. I remember in the old days hearing that competitors would cheer every time we put out a new book without an animal on the cover. They thought we were throwing away our brand advantage. Little did they know that we were preserving it. Over time, we created a house of powerful brands with a common core but with clearly visible differences and distinct audiences.)

This brand essence is also true in our advocacy. We stand up for issues that matter in our industry. We tackle big problems that we don't yet know how to solve, and try to grow markets in ways that benefit others besides ourselves.

Hmmm. Maybe that's why I hated John Carter but loved Captain America and Sherlock Holmes . Andrew Stanton's John Carter was a self-absorbed adventurer, a reluctant hero and an anti-romantic, not the noble figure I remembered from my childhood.

There's a way in which the O'Reilly brand essence is ultimately a story about the hacker as hero, the kid who is playing with technology because he loves it, but one day falls into a situation where he or she is called on to go forth and change the world. Our editors and conference chairs, our authors and our conference presenters, are drawn from the ranks of our customers, and like all true nerds, we have a secret hunger to be heroes.
Michael Comia's profile photoJason Kridner's profile photoSanford Dickert's profile photoEddie N's profile photo
I didn't see John Carter, but I was surprised Captain America was good. As you said, it didn't follow the plot lines that were used when I was a kid.
+Tim O'Reilly If you haven't seen it, I'd highly recommend Sherlock on the BBC. Despite being a re-imagining of the novels in modern day London, it's incredibly true to the books and has excellent characters and plots. It joins West Wing and Rome as some of my favorite shows of all time.
In the original ERB Mars (John Carter) books, everyone was naked. The only place you'll find that is at the ERBMars site online.
Eddie N
John Carter was a FAIL on many levels. For one thing, why on earth not call the film by its original name John Carter of Mars? If I had a dime for every time someone asked me, "Why are they making a film about Noah Wyle's character on ER...?" I'd be a rich man.
+Allan Maurer True. However, look at the 2007 CGI Beowulf film for a perfect example of the stupidity of that kind of faithfulness. The director had Beowulf fighting Grendel naked, and the entire scene gets taken over by the gimmicks used to keep their PG-13 rating from becoming R. What should have been an epic, cool battle becomes all about covering up a penis.
That was great insight into O'Reilly's brand and unique approach, I remember a close friend coming to me with Samba question, in the early 2000s, I wasn't a samba user at the time, but I was everyone's resident expert. He eventually asked, "How do you know about all this stuff?" I directed him to the nearest bookstore, to look for a book with Samba in the title, and an animal on the cover, once he got through his incredulous response he got the file service setup he wanted. I remember thinking that O'Reilly's high-quality documentation was the driver behind opensource. Open Source had the only documentation that wasn't prominently vendor sales material, but was warts and all documentation.
+Eddie N If I recall, John Carter of Mars was actually the 11th and final book in Burroughs' Barsoom series. The first, on which the movie was largely based, was called A Princess of Mars. The movie also took some elements from book two, The Gods of Mars.
only saw captain america and it was a struggle. way too much building the back story and a quick ending.
Eddie N
True, +Tim O'Reilly , but my main point was that in all the original marketing for the film they'd called it John Carter of Mars -- only for them to suddenly pull all those ads/posters and rebrand it just John Carter. That was just one of the many dumb moves made by the marketing team behind this expensive flop. If only they'd gone with a campaign like "Before there was Star Wars...before there was Indiana Jones...there was John Carter!" That would have not only pulled in the fans of the ERB books who had been waiting for decades for a good film treatment, but also would have pulled in people who had never heard of the books yet knew the other films that had been obviously inspired by the books.
+Eddie N Your proposed ad campaign would have been great if the movie had lived up to it!
Couldn't it also be that in a plane, you're less critical? Any crappy movie will do as in-flight entertainment. But at home or in a movie theater, you've got better options and don't want to waste time on crap.
The correct solution is: don't make movies based on books. Sure, you get a few gems like The Lord of the Rings and The Princess Bride, but more often than not you get John Carter or Starship Troopers. The real problem is that the material in the book is essentially a first-draft, and most films bear very little resemblance to their first draft, but when there's a book involved, they have to keep rubber-banding back to that original draft because the audience already has it in their hands.

Original films, on the other hand can go through dozens of revisions before, during and after shooting. Star Wars famously underwent a giant number of changes, originally being the only movie that was planned, but by the time it was done shooting, George Lucas had re-tuned it to be the first of a series (and later to be the fourth in that series). Alec Guiness even helped to re-tool Star Wars during shooting. So, if there'd been a Star Wars book before hand, fans would have been up in arms over the radical changes that made it to the screen. But, because there was no book the movie was evaluated on its own merits.

Now.. short stories are another matter entirely. Short stories based movies have a lot more latitude because they have to start by extending the material, and that extension can be modled in whatever way is required. Great examples in this realm include Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and several other Phil Dick short stories (I even have a soft spot in my heart for Screamers (ne Second Variety) which was a brilliant play on the original short story, even if it was a lackluster movie.
+Tim O'Reilly I must be one of the few people in the world that saw the John Carter movie and actually enjoyed it better than I have reading the original story it was based. Mainly because of the changes they did to try and modernize the character and story. I started reading the stories after I watched the movie, and honestly, I thought the changes they did were necessary. If they had followed the original story to the letter in the movie adaption, it would have been a horrible mess. The original story is not ideal for a movie's pace. Changes were necessary.

I do think the second Sherlock Holmes movie was way better than the first. Mainly because they kept the essence of Holmes and updated the story line to relate to today's audience. Just as I love the Mystery Theater's recent modern take on Holmes. It is still Holmes, but Holmes as he might be in modern times with modern technology.
Eddie N
I disagree with Martijn's theory of just because it was in-flight entertainment perhaps your critical faculties are less-sharp. You do have a choice not to watch the film if it's so bad, after all. :)

I also don't agree with Aaron's "solution" of not making movies based on books.
Quality is difficult to define, even more difficult to create, but easy to discern in the final product.
+Martijn Vos I actually have the opposite experience. Usually, a movie has to be really good to keep my attention when I'm on a plane, with the lousy in-flight entertainment system. (Admittedly, this was on Virgin, which is pretty good.)
+David Carver +Aaron Sherman The whole point of what I wrote here was that it wasn't about following it to the letter, but of keeping true to the essence, and especially the character of the hero.
Eddie N
+1 to the Virgin America in-flight entertainment experience. The best I've had thus far on any American airline.
+Tim O'Reilly which I think they did. Probably not as well done as with Steve Rogers, or Sherlock Holmes.
+Tim O'Reilly I understood that, and what you said made sense. I was speaking in more general terms.
+David Carver You should read my original post about John Carter, where I outlined how I thought it violated my expectations. The link is at the top of this piece.
+Tim O'Reilly re-read it and from your view point of the noble virginian, I can see why the character of John Carter disappointed. However, I myself, never really found that character in the story to be believeable or somebody that I could relate to. Regardless of medium it really comes down to whether the audience members can relate to the characters in the story. One of the reasons I never was a fan of the DC universe characters compared to the Marvel comic characters was because they didn't seem human enough. I could always relate to Peter Parker, but never Clark Kent. The John Carter from the original books seemed too unflawed. Maybe they went too far with the movie's version of John Carter, by adding too much brooding and self doubt.

As for the other flaws, I went into the movie expecting a 1970s B scifi movie, nothing more, with some decent visual affects. So my expectations weren't high to begin with, so I just enjoyed it for a popcorn movie.

It took Marvel years to get good movies. The original adaptions were just horrible. It took a generation of directors and writers that grew up on the characters to finally adapt them to the big screen and keep them true to form. In some ways we may have a generational gap happening with the Edgar Rice stories. Apparently the last Conan adaption did not go over well either.
Very interesting post. It's not often we get to think about the fantasies that we, as human beings, have in this industry. I'm not surprised the idea of using magic (or tech) to make the world better would resonate with us.
+David Carver I hear you. Frankly, John Carter always seemed the weakest of the Burroughs heroes to me, and the Mars stories the weakest of his books. John Greystoke (Tarzan) of course was the masterpiece, but I was also quite fond of Carson Napier and David Innes.

I totally agree re Marvel vs. DC comic books. DC characters were -- well, comic book characters - while the Marvel characters seemed real.
+Aaron Sherman, I disagree with you. There are many films adapted from books all the time that are well done. Every year the Academy Awards nominate for "Best Screenplay Adaption" and many of them are quite good. Many people just didn't feel that John Carter was a good adaption. Some of the greatest movies of all times are adapted from books such as The Godfather, Schindler's List, Gone With the Wind, One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest, To Kill A Mockingbird, Jurassic Park, Dr. Zhivago, Blade Runner, Apocalypse Now, Stand By Me, The Shining ....etc.
I don't get that anything was improved in the latest Sherlock Holmes movies. Attention to detail? Really? While I enjoyed the action, I had to push every last thought of what the character's name was out of my head, because that guy had next to nothing to do with the Sherlock Holmes I read about in Sir Author Canon Doyle's books. It seems to me the director turned the action up and the character down. I hardly found any reason at all to despise the arrogance and self-absorption of the movie character, while the original gave me much intrigue. Perhaps improvement to you has less to do with being a hero than simply being romantic. Engineering heros are much more like the Doyle's Holmes and I don't think that ever hurt those book sales. I'd recommend keeping your brand full of shocking wisdom and avoid any traps of dumbing the content down for your audience.
Eddie N
You want to talk about a horrible book-to-movie adaptation: the latest version of The Three Musketeers takes the biscuit. One look at the trailer and I swore I wouldn't ever watch it. This is supposed to be a tale of chivalrous swashbuckling and derring-do, and the trailer looks like it's for The Matrix set in the 18th century. What a load of tripe.

Similarly, the Sherlock Holmes movies with Robert Downey Jr. & Jude Law are more like a James Bond meets Brokeback Mountain meets Jean Claude van Damme mashup. The strength of Sherlock is his intelligence, his smarts, and his observational prowess -- not in his bare-knuckle fist-fighting skills (as shown in the first flick) nor in his ability to woo the ladies (as shown in the second flick). I'm all for re-imagining a classic character (as the BBC series does with some success, by placing Sherlock in the 21st century) but come on!
Eddie N
Yeah +Sanford Dickert I have been watching that since it came out. I loves me some BBC programming! :)
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