Tuesday, June 30, 2009

The Giving Alan Moore a Conniption Film Festival

Reviews of Eisners will pick up again tomorrow with something a bit lighter than what I've done so far. However, I can't go past talking about From Hell and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen without talking about the films that those comics spawned. Alan Moore has had an adversarial relationship with Hollywood and not without cause. When you consider that the movies are seen by a hundred times more people than the books a terrible movie can hurt his reputation more than most people associated with it. So Moore refuses to associate with films based on his book to the point that he exploded when the producer of V for Vendetta claimed they had Moore's support.

Both are "adaptations" in only the broadest sense of the word: they share the title with the book, some of the characters have the same names, and the same broad plot concept. I'm not a guy who thinks that any change when switching mediums is sacrilege; the most important aspect to an adaptation is getting the spirit of the original correct. Neither of these films even comes close to that. From Hell the graphic novel can be distilled down to, "The most historically accurate take on Jack the Ripper conspiracy theories possible." The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen summed up in one sentence would be, "Victorian superheroes with as many literary references as you can cram into one book." From Hell the movie overlooks the "historically accurate" part of the theme and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen dispatches the literary references as fast as possible.

Ignoring the adaptation problems From Hell is the better movie: it has a plot, it is competently directed, and the stars do a reasonable job with the material. That doesn't make it a good movie however. In this version Johnny Depp plays Inspector Abberline who investigates the Ripper murders using his psychic powers when he's not lounging about in opium dens. As he works his way to the heart of the conspiracy behind the murders he finds time to romance one of the potential victims.

From Hell the book is a history; From Hell the movie attempts to be a mystery but it's one of those Hollywood mysteries where they give you one obvious suspect so you know it's the other character who has a major speaking part that did it. Despite how played up Abberline's psychic powers and addictions are at the beginning of the film they have no actual bearing on the plot. It's a poorly told mystery in the end which can just go on the pile with other Jack the Ripper stories.

I have to point out the production design in From Hell because it stinks. They copied panels from the comic at a few points (the usual sop given to fans of the original material these days when a filmmaker decides to change everything else) but those images are out of context. For the most part the world of Victorian London prostitution looks like a cheery Dickensesque story (yes, I recognize the irony in there). Crushing poverty? Overcrowding? Poisonous atmosphere? The filmmakers prefered to gloss over those minor details as much as possible. And don't look for the archetecture of magic in the movie; a few passing glimpses is all you'll see. The staging is closer to a BBC production than a Hollywood movie.

And that's the better of the two.

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen struck me as the movie that set out to outdo Michael Bay. I am not exaggerating when I say that during action sequences shots rarely lasted longer than a second. That turns the most important part of the movie (since this is a straight adventure film) into meaningless noise.

In the last days of the nineteenth century Europe is being pushed to the brink of war by the schemes of a villain calling himself "the Warlord". He is raiding government institutions with mechanized war machines and escaping so that blame is being placed on foreign governments. To stop him the British government recruits Alan Quartermain, Captain Nemo, and Henry Jekyll. They also get a vampiric Mina Murray, a invisible cat burglar, Dorian Gray, and a young Tom Sawyer.

Obviously the filmmakers abandoned the "all the stories are true" approach that Alan Moore used pretty much immediately. Sawyer, to use an obvious example, would have to be over fifty by Moore's measure since he was a boy at a time when slavery was legal but for this film he's around twenty for the sake of a ridiculous, simplistic surrogate son connection with Quartermain. An example of a small change that grates because of how it departs from the core concept is how the Nautilus in the film is solar powered; there's a reason why the only solar powered submarine is a jokey proof of concept one off and a reason why the first nuclear submarine created was called the Nautilus. And dont' expect any Oscar Wilde quality quips from Mr. Gray.

I can't even talk about the plot. And that's not because it's so convoluted it would all be spoilers. It's an assembled thing of major events that don't make any sense in context. It's as though the whole movie was assembled from sequences that would look good in a trailer rather than what works as a film. A perfect example is the opening sequence where the Warlord attacks London with a tank so that he can steal some da Vinci drawings that are necessary for the next phase of this dastardly plan. Drawings which Captain Nemo pulls a book off a shelf so that he can examine the exact same ones. So the Warlord just needed to pop down to the local Barnes and Noble rather than smuggling a tank into London, training a crew to operate it, and engaging in a dangerous attack on the city. That's the kind of thinking that went to the script.

If you're looking for a good movie I wouldn't recommend either of From Hell or The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. From Hell is just a bland nothing of a film. League on the other hand I can recommend if you enjoy watching aggressively stupid movies for the sake of making fun of them; they don't come more aggressively stupid than it.