I guess I shouldn’t be shocked that one of the Pixar guys has great thoughts on storytelling:
Yeah, I looked at things like “Apocaplyto” and “Rome” and even things like “Shogun” and “Lawrence of Arabia,” things that as a viewer I could accept as having a level of historical research. They give me a sense of what it would be like in that land and in that age. So then you ask, “Well, what if we just did our Martian research really, really well and treated it as a period film.”
Having created universes from scratch before, that can consume all of your time and the character/plot child gets neglected. This allowed us not to sweat all that stuff and go straight to character.
A lot of emphasis, especially in genre fiction, gets put on world-building as a be-all-end-all kind of thing. There’s something magisterial about the image of the Great Author, alone in his room, conjuring up existences and laying them out for his readers to see. The semantics of that idea are a little off, though, and Stanton pretty much nails why for me: what impresses us about storytelling isn’t world building, it’s world revealing.
You can have the most rich, detailed, consistent reality ever built in your mind’s eye, but that doesn’t mean you have a story. What it means is that you have a foundation, a backdrop, and a starting point. The hard part is channeling that information through a lens that people actually want to pay attention to. Think of it in Star Wars terms. (Most of life’s issues can be solved by thinking of them in Star Wars terms.) George Lucas made three movies that expertly hinted at a meaningful, established and important cultural mythology, and they were great. Then he made another three movies whose express purpose was to explain that mythology, and before you could say “midichlorians” everybody lost interest. Baby Anakin didn’t help, either.
World building is tricky, because as a creator you can let it consume you. There’s always more to do, after all, and you love the things you come up with and the clever solutions you find. But you can spend so much time tinkering with the physics that you forget the interactions. Before you know it you just have a bunch of people on stage giving dissertations to each other, and then you wonder why nobody in the audience is as intrigued as you are. Nobody cares about a character’s history unless that history has a direct impact on what they’re doing right that second. Even Tolkein’s publishers wouldn’t publish the Silmarillion until a) he’d sucked everyone in with adorable hobbitses and b) he was dead.
I love A Princess of Mars and I love Andrew Stanton. What I love even more is the fact that Andrew Stanton, who also loves A Princess of Mars, was willing to take the world Burroughs made as a given, and spend all his time focusing on the actual story instead of sweating the small stuff. It gives me lots of hope that this will be a great adaptation, because it’s being approached in just the right way, by what seems to be just the right guy for the job. (Plus: purty pictures!)