Flashback: The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen Vol. I & II
The original title for 2003's The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen film may as well have been How to Completely Botch and thereby Destroy a Viable Franchise. The movie is nothing short of a total failure in all respects. Even Sean Connery's appearance as Allan Quatermain cannot redeem the convoluted plot and ugly cinematography. Sadly, this atrocious film was my first introduction to the series. I had heard of the principle cast of 19th Century characters through my experiences with literature, majoring in English (which translates to majoring in "I don't really want a job later"). The premise really is amazing, combining classic British literary concepts and stories into a single tour de force. Yet, the movie version didn't stand up at all. Numerous alterations to the nature of the characters were made, likely to garner a more straightforward, black and white, American view of the traditional good versus evil "superhero" story. So turned off was I by the film, via the injection of twenty-something-hunk-of-the-month Shane West as Tom Sawyer (Not, I'll note a 19th Century British fiction character!) and a slow story wrought with tired action dialogue, that I nearly missed out on how great a creation The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, the graphic novel, truly is.
Allan Moore and Kevin O'Neill's collaborative first two volumes are incredibly written and brilliantly illustrated. As opposed to a British official finding and recruiting Allan Quatermain, defected and living in Africa, in the film; the graphic novel depicts Mina Murray finding a worn, aged and gaunt Quatermain barely living in an opium-addled stupor among other filthy derelicts in an opium den. The Invisible Man is a gentleman thief in a secret government program in the film, but in the original text he is found by Murray and Quatermain raping and impregnating girls in a boarding house under the guise of the spirit of God. These are just two major differences between the original books and the film, but they make an incredible difference in how we perceive the characters and their world. The film, as with most American superhero cinema, wants to present the 19th Century as an old, but moral place. This is far from the vision intended by Moore and O'Neill. For them the world is dark, grimy and mysterious, and that tone is what makes the first two volumes so exciting to read.
One of Alan Moore's greatest assets is his ability to accentuate the moral ambiguity and the complexity of his characters. In stories like Watchmen, V For Vendetta, and From Hell he populates his worlds with anti-heroes and complex antagonists. The stories themselves don't have to be heavily loaded with mystery/suspense cliches because the characters are themselves mysterious and allow for any number of outcomes to occur. The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen illustrates this beautifully, as we find that after the first half of the first volume, we have protagonists that include an aging opium addict, an amoral, invisible rapist, a violent self-interested monster (Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde), a British-hating, anti-colonialist scientist (Captain Nemo) and a gentlewoman with an unclear past she intends to keep hidden (Mina Murray). There is not one character in that bunch that any right-minded person immediately promotes and hopes to emulate. They are all great in their own way, but each also substantially flawed.
The first volume pits the League against a villain who remains secret throughout the bulk of the tale, but proves to be a solid and surprising twist. The story is a steam-punk mystery centered around recovering a secret element that can allow for the technology of flight. Violence, destruction and literary references abound. The second volume takes a cue of H.G. Wells' War of the Worlds and spins it into the existing world. Again, what the reader doesn't know or understand is used against them, and Moore pulls no punches with the visceral and carnal actions taken by members of the League. He reminds us that characters need not be crystal clear, good or evil, to hold an audience. So often any one of us will straddle a line on which one side is the right choice and the other is the wrong choice. Nothing is so simple as "I'm good so I do good." Moore excels in evoking these philosophical concerns and then forcing his reader to question their own position on an event. Volume II especially poses these questions as a gruesome murder is at once something horrific and something that seems very nearly heroic in its context.
While a major studio may not appreciate these moral ambiguities in its interest for a cash-grabbing action series, a smaller studio, with an auteur at the helm, making this into a smaller art-house film may have been capable of making The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen a success. Still, the graphic novels are the true source material. Just as reading Emma or any of Shakespeare's work is better than watching the film, the same will always be the case with Alan Moore's work. For that, I respect his semi-maniacal hatred and disowning of adaptations, but it would still be incredible to see one done right.
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