The pulp science fiction renaissance has begun. Edgar Rice Burroughs and E.E. "Doc" Smith both have Hollywood blockbusters in the pipeline. The Burroughs-inspired Avatar broke DVD sales records. But can today's creators update pulp storylines without including the cultural baggage?
Old-school pulp storytelling is a thing of wonder and fascination. It's hard not to be swept away by the inventiveness and narrative energy of writers like Burroughs and Smith, whose stories are epic and larger than life. You can read the first John Carter novel, A Princess Of Mars, online, and you'll easily find yourself looking up from your screen and realizing that an hour has passed while you've been caught up in reading about the Tharks' weird sense of humor, and battles with four-armed apes. At the same time, these works are a product of their times, and some wrong shit does tend to come up.
Just in the last couple of days we've had reason to think about this. First, there was the news that a Belgian court was considering banning a 1930 Tintin comic, Tintin in the Congo, for its insanely racist depictions of African people. Here's a sample:
And then we noticed a couple quotes from Jon Favreau, talking about whether the Mandarin, Iron Man's most famous villain, might appear in one of the Iron Man movies. Talking to Collider, Favreau said "the Mandarin... is a very challenging character because if we just went with what was in the books, it would seem like we 'jumped the shark' to most audiences except for the core fans." And Favreau expanded on this, explaining to Vanity Fair that it's about the sorcery, but also the disturbing iconography:
Yeah, I think you have to really foam the runway for that one. Because if you think a Soviet villain is anachronistic, the way the Mandarin was depicted in the books would be very distasteful, nowadays. And so you have to crystallize The Mandarin down to what it is that makes him scary and intimidating. We have to create the world, and the world we've created up to this point has been based in technology. I think all of that's going to change with Thor and Captain America. Once magic and supernatural stuff is introduced by other directors at other ends of the franchise, that might be able to form The Mandarin a bit. But to have a guy dressed like a medieval Asian nobleman with ten magical rings did not seem like it fit with what people like about Iron Man. The Mandarin would probably need to be interpreted with a large degree of creative license because it will not look like what's in the comics.
Why would the Mandarin, the comics villain, make non-comics fans think the Iron Man movies had jumped the shark? Maybe because in the comics he still looks like his 1960s incarnation, a kind of weird Fu Manchu stereotype:
Actually, his 1960s version looks even sillier.
The interesting thing about the Mandarin is he's a holdover too — Fu Manchu was created in 1913 by writer Sax Rohmer, and the archetype might well have seemed outdated by the time Stan Lee and his gang were coming up with a villain for Tony Stark. But presumably Lee and his cohorts remembered the Fu Manchu novels and movies, and these were part of their mental storehouse of pulp cliches that were ripe for reinvention/renewal.
It's an obstacle course
Pulpy science fiction is full of that kind of stuff, and the further back you go, the more of it there is. If grew up loving this stuff, you either have giant blind spots, or you just try to ignore the fucked-up bits, or maybe you make excuses. And the blind spots can get you into trouble.
You only have to look at Jar-Jar Binks, or the Step'n'Fetchit robots in Transformers 2, to see how old bad ideas can find their way into new pop culture, if people aren't using their brains. George Lucas, in particular, acknowledges a huge debt to old movie serials and other pop culture of his youth, and apparently doesn't always know when to apply a filter.
It really depends. Are the crazy "my eyes are bleeding" stereotypes an integral part of what makes the narrative distinctive, or are they a fringe element? Nobody in their right mind would claim that funny African people are a crucial part of Tintin as a series. But you could argue, for example, that eugenics is a key part of the Lensman series, which is about aliens called the Arisians who engage in a selective breeding program, lasting zillions of years, to create the perfect humans, the Kinnison bloodline. (It's sort of like the later Green Lantern Corps, except that the Arisians claim that only one woman is ever going to be excellent enough to be a Lensman.)
John Carter is about imperialism
Michael Chabon, who's co-written the screenplay for Disney's new John Carter movie, argues in an interview with fellow Burroughs enthusiast Richard Lupoff that the various ethnic groups on Burroughs' Mars represent a kind of social satire:
There's a lot more satire in the novels than I remembered... you know a lot of the wonders of Mars, and the marvelous things ERB is describing read like satirical exaggerations of American society at the time, of racial attitudes and cultural attitudes. ERB seems to be poking fun at human foibles — creating little micro-societies that live by absurd rules. With the Tharks, in the first book, there seems to be some kind of an attempt at a critique of socialism.
Later in the same interview, he adds:
Adventure fiction as we most commonly understand it is about imperialism in one degree or another. All the great archetypes, the prototypes from Edgar Rice Burroughs' Tarzan and John Carter, H. R. Haggard, and all the way up to, even the western novel, The Virginian, all the way through to James Bond — they're all about empire — the interaction between empires and colonies as they are colonized.
So classic adventure fiction, at its core, is about the experience of imperialism, but also the encounter with the other. And Avatar is an example of a story that tries to update these themes for a 21st. century audience, with mixed results. As we pointed out back when the movie opened, Avatar represents a familiar white fantasy, the great white savior who redeems himself and becomes a savior/leader to the indigenous peoples he meets.
Cynthia Ward, writing in Booklife, relates this theme to Burroughs' work:
In the worlds of Pandora and the imaginary Dances "Wild West" and Burroughs' Mars and Tarzan, a white man doesn't just find himself redeemed from his impure, inharmonious, and sinful state. He finds himself redeemed specifically from the evils of colonialism, slavery, and the other forms of oppression that whites have imposed upon people of color for centuries.
Even more unfortunately, the people of color don't just redeem the white man from the sins of his race-they deem him their superior. John Carter is not only loved by slaves in the Old American South, he's appointed the Warlord of the whole planet of Mars, which is inhabited largely by human analogs with red or green skin. Tarzan of the Apes is so much better than even the indigenous peoples at living in equatorial Africa, he gets to be chief of one tribe and viewed as a god or devil by others. Hell, he's so much better than anyone else, he can single-handedly kill animals that would normally tear a lone, knife-armed human to pieces in moments.
Meanwhile, the Na'vi are, in many ways, real-life native peoples with the serial numbers filed off. When we interviewed the designers who worked on Avatar, designer Craig Shoji said the inspiration for the Na'vi's appearance came from indigenous groups all over the world:
Inspiration came from many sources, but a lot involved looking at current indigenous people of the world including those inhabiting the rain forest like the Penan tribe, and the Kayapo and Yanomami indians. Also the different tribes in Africa like the Himba, Masai, and Samburu. As well as all the different forms of face and body painting that took place in all the different tribal settings. There were thousands upon thousands upon hundreds upon millions upon mucho reference pictures that we were collecting and looking at.
We ask the experts
Anyway, the question remains — how do you update a classic pulp adventure story, without bringing along the ick? We were in doubt, so we asked around.
When we were interviewing James Cameron's producing partner, Jon Landau, last week, we asked him about this topic, and here's what he said:
I think the key of doing that is the key to any movie. It's finding themes that are relatable to today's audiences, and then using the convention of plot and convention of adventures that those great novels have. The themes that are relevant today are themes like the environment, themes like occupation in other lands — those are topical issues, you dress it up and you take those themes and change them for some of the pre-World War II themes that those novels had. It can be done.
We also asked Chabon to comment on this topic, and while he wasn't able to say much for obvious reasons, he did say:
I think the best strategy is for the writer to be informed by wide reading/watching, to let his or her work be informed by that reading/watching, and most importantly give the source material and source writer at least as much credit for inteligence and artistry as he or she gives him- or herself.
We also asked Greg Broadmore, the Weta Workshop genius who's worked on movies like District 9, and also created the Victorian monster-hunting pastiche Lord Cockswain, and his weapon-maker Dr. Grordbort. (Who has his own Dark Horse Comics publications.) And his suggestion was possibly the most fascinating of all:
That whole racist, misogynistic, culturally superior layer within science fiction of yesteryear is one of the main things that drove me to even want to do Dr. Grordbort's in the first place. I don't shy away from it, or hide it, I bring it to the front and poke fun of it.
Part of why I am interested in bygone eras of science fiction is because of the latent world-view they were projecting along with the conceptually or technologically futuristic ideas, that they thought at the time were the whole point of the fiction.
So my interest in this type of sci-fi is not just aesthetic. It's a fascination with how we project possible futures, and get them so wrong, and to your point, it's those built in, quaint, or even offensive (by today's standards) cultural stereotypes. So in the world of Dr. Grordbort, Lord Cockswain is a racist, sexist (and probably homophobic if he could even contemplate that sort of thing) thug, but with a heart of gold.
He's not those things because he's a bad person, he's those things because it was normal.
Todays science fiction will make the same cultural mistakes about the future, we just can't see them yet.
The thrilling conclusion
I would never claim to be as clever as any of the people I'm quoting above, but after mulling it over a bit, I think their answers to this topic, combined, provide a bit of a starting point for how to think about these topics. Favreau's comments to Vanity Fair are especially revealing — this is someone who's been pretty determined to respect the comics source material in general, but he sees the Mandarin as in need of "creative license."
And that's probably the bottom line — respect for the source material and awareness of its flaws aren't contradictory values. They go hand in hand. What is most cool and distinctive about these classics is also likely to be what's most universal and magical. And what's most weird and upsetting about them is likely to be a kind of tumor on the narrative. In any case, a kind of awareness — and maybe, like Broadmore says, a willingness to satirize where appropriate — are indicated.
It also depends greatly on how integral the obnoxious elements are — Favreau has managed to make two Iron Man movies without including the Mandarin, other than a hat-tip in the first film. The makers of the upcoming Tintin movies will avoid going within a million miles of the Congo storyline, because they are not certifiably insane. In many cases, these sorts of elements are just one feature of an episodic saga with tons of other stories in the bank. In other cases, they're built into the concept, and you have to do some tinkering.
A healthy dose of Broadmore-style satire certainly comes in handy here — and to the extent that we're talking about Hollywood, blandness is going to be our friend. That's really the most realistic answer, in the short term at least. Disney, in particular, is synonymous with a certain insipidness in its representations of our fucked-up pop culture heritage. And this may be one instance where a certain friendly blandness is the preferred option, at least for now.
And hey, it bears repeating: None of this would be such a problem if pop culture in general, and science fiction in particular, was about newness and freshness, instead of rehashing. If we were constantly getting excited about new ideas, instead of nostalgia and call-backs to the stories of our youth (or our parents' youth, in many cases.) We've said it before, but no harm in saying it again.
Anyway, I don't really have any answers to the questions I'm raising here — I struggle with them in my own work, and I can't claim to have a magic solution. We're all influenced by what came before, even if we aren't consciously updating or copying it. Really, the only solution is to go into it with our eyes open and pay attention. And of course, Broadmore's right — decades from now, whatever kind of scribblers come after bloggers will be sitting around scratching their heads over the cultural myopia of today's pop culture.
John Carter of Mars images by Boris Vallejo and Julie Bell.