True in spirit: Why I liked "Captain America," but didn't like "John Carter"

A common and honest essence unites characters and businesses alike.

This post originally appeared in Tim O’Reilly’s Google+ feed.

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.

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