John Carter, Andrew Stanton (12A) Bel Ami, Declan Donnellan & Nick Ormerod (15) Trishna, Michael Winterbottom (15)

Three literary adaptations this week, a sci-fi stinker, a stagy seduction drama, and – in a bold move that pays off – Hardy's 'Tess' set in India

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The Independent Culture

Maybe my expectations were too high, but John Carter is the first live-action film to be directed by Andrew Stanton, who made WALL-E and Finding Nemo, and it's co-written by Michael Chabon, the Pulitzer-winning author of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, so it had a fighting chance of being one of the year's most entertaining blockbusters. Instead, it's the opposite.

The trouble starts right at the beginning – or rather beginnings. A warning of the indecisive storytelling to come, John Carter opens on the planet Mars, then jumps to New York in 1881, then to a country manor, then to Arizona in 1868. It's there that a cavalryman-turned-gold prospector (Taylor Kitsch) tussles with soldiers and Apaches before, eventually, he's zapped through space to the surface of Mars.

The film isn't any less muddled once he gets there. Half of the humanoids on Mars – or Barsoom, as the locals call it – look like us, and half are green-skinned, four-armed CGI giants. There's a war going on between two rival cities, but neither has anything to gain from it. Maybe a bit less jargon would have made things clearer, but John Carter is so clogged with invented words it's like a crude science-fiction parody on Radio 4. Dominic West, for instance, plays Sab Than, the Jeddak of Zodanga, while Mark Strong is Matai Shang, the Holy Hekkador of the Therns. And if the language will have sci-fans chortling, wait until you see the array of capes and loincloths the actors wear while pontificating about the Ninth Ray and the Goddess Issus.

But maybe this folly isn't all Stanton's fault. One mountain-sized stumbling block is that the source material, Edgar Rice Burroughs's novel, has influenced so many films over the past century that there's nothing we haven't seen already. The desert planet has been used by Star Wars; the human hero who joins forces with CGI giants was pinched by Avatar; and every shot of the embarrassing, toga-party costumes had me murmuring a chorus of "Flash! Ah-aaah!" But the film John Carter resembles most is The Phantom Menace. Harsh words, I know. But if I were really harsh, I'd say The Phantom Menace wasn't quite as bad.

You'd be forgiven for having high expectations of Bel Ami, too, in that it is directed by Declan Donnellan and Nick Ormerod, the multi-award-winning founders of the theatre company Cheek By Jowl. But their adaptation of Guy de Maupassant's novel is theatrical in all the worst ways, with its poky, cheap-looking sets and exaggerated performances pitched at the back row of the upper circle.

Robert Pattinson is a demobbed soldier who's down-and-out in 1890s Paris. After he bumps into an old comrade-in-arms, Philip Glenister, he's handed a job as a newspaper columnist (those were the days), and in the process he catches the eye of three society beauties, Kristin Scott Thomas, Uma Thurman and Christina Ricci. He soon realises he can do his social-climbing while he's on his back. But does he have an ultimate goal or is he just sleepwalking from one woman to the next? Is he a wily operator or a lucky stooge? By the end of this shapeless film, I still wasn't sure who the character was supposed to be, or what his misadventures were meant to tell us.

You'd assume, if nothing else, that Pattinson would convince as an irresistible young swain, but in Bel Ami he looks more undead than he ever does in the Twilight saga. He's such a charmless, greasy creep that it's hard to conceive of Paris's grandest grandes dames wanting to install him in a love nest. More likely they'd send him to the stables to be hosed down.

This week's third literary adaptation, Trishna, is also Michael Winterbottom's third Thomas Hardy adaptation. With a boldness that John Carter and Bel Ami could have done with, Winterbottom transposes the plot of Tess of the d'Urbervilles to contemporary India. Tess is now Trishna, a sheltered country girl played by Freida Pinto, who's better with an Indian accent than an American one. Combining the novel's Angel Clare and Alec d'Urberville, the ever-excellent Riz Ahmed is a slick Anglo-Asian who doesn't like the idea of running his dad's hotel in Jaipur, but who does likes the idea of having an unworldly, servile girlfriend, however little he has in common with her.

Right on the boundary between fiction and documentary, Winterbottom's striking film retains the cruel sting of Hardy's plotting, but the improvised banter and the fly-on-the-wall footage of India's factories, beaches and dance classes give it a buzzing vibrancy you wouldn't find in a bonnets-and-breeches piece. What's more, Rajasthan's gorgeous scenery looks more inviting than it does in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.

Film choice

There is sobering stuff from Austria in Michael, Markus Schleinzer's portrait of an everyday suburban paedophile ... while (relatively) light relief comes from Argentina with Carancho, Buenos Aires realism with a thriller edge, starring Ricardo Darin, above, (The Secret in Their Eyes) as a lawyer who scouts funeral parlours and emergency rooms for business.