THE LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN
This kind of literary game has proven amazingly popular since with authors such as Fred Saberhagen, Donald F. Glut, Ron Goulart, Craig Shaw Gardener, Lin Carter, K.W. Jeter, Christopher Priest, Nicholas Meyer and others bringing together various fictional characters, usually from Victorian era fiction or pulp authors like Edgar Rice Burroughs, Sax Rohmer and H.P. Lovecraft. The trend shows no sign of stopping with recent publishing success such as Greg Bears Dinosaur Summer (1998), set in the aftermath of Professor Challengers lost world expedition, and Kevin J. Andersons Captain Nemo (2001), which ties together most of the characters from Jules Verne, to Kim Newmans remarkable Anno Dracula books, which move from the Victorian era through to the present in which Newman ties every conceivable fictional and historical character into an alternate world populated by vampires.
Both Marvel and DC Comics had been conducting the Wold Newton game for years with various team-ups from their superheroic pantheons and fictional characters. However, it was Alan Moore and Kevin ONeills The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen series of graphic novels begun in 1999 that took this almost to an obsessive level. [Alan Moore is one of the finest of the modern generation of graphic novelists, having written two modern classics the famous Batman graphic novel The Killing Joke (1988) and the legendary Watchmen (1987), as well as other series such as Miraclemen. His works have become the basis of a number of film adaptations in the 00s with the likes of From Hell (2001), V for Vendetta (2006), Watchmen (2009), the Mogo Doesnt Socialize and Tygers episodes of Green Lantern: Emerald Knights (2011) and Batman: The Killing Joke (2016)]. The graphic novel version of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen has a much more detailed line-up of famous fictional guest stars than the film version does also spotted can be appearances from Jules Vernes Robur, H.G. Wellss Professor Cavor, Edgar Allan Poes August Dupin, characters out of Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm (1903) and the What Katy Did books, among numerous others. The second series of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen graphic novels pits the League up against the Martian invasion from H.G. Wellss The War of the Worlds (1898) not just Wellss Mars but one that also harmonizes Edgar Rice Burroughss Barsoom and Malacandra from C.S. Lewiss Out of the Silent Planet trilogy, as well as Lieutenant Gulliver Jones from Edwin L. Arnolds stories and Michael Moococks Mars stories. The popularity of the graphic novels also saw the creation of a role-playing game and has even spread to a (now defunct) amazingly detailed fan website that debates in extraordinary minutiae the references that Alan Moore has littered throughout the background of the series.
The film version of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen is a more variable affair. There is the distinct sense that Alan Moores game playing with Victorian fiction has been dumbed down. The film is disappointingly stripped of many of the other characters and references that Moore made we do get an appearance of Ishmael from Herman Melvilles Moby Dick (1851) as Nemos companion; there is a cute link up between the rampaging Mr Hyde and the ape in Edgar Allan Poes Murders in the Rue Morgue (1841) (although, as below, a reference that has to substantially distort the bulk of the Poe story); Richard Roxburgh appears as the predecessor of what is presumed to be M from the James Bond stories; and Quatermain gets a throwaway reference to Phileas Foggs journey around the world in 80 days. The film also has a far less complicated plot than the one that Alan Moore swings in the graphic novels. Out has gone the secondary villain of Sax Rohmers Fu Manchu. Out also has gone the character of Campion Bond, the ancestor of James Bond. In comes the character of Tom Sawyer (who never appeared in the graphic novels) who has notedly been written in to essentially fulfill Campion Bonds place because the producers statedly feared the line-up of non-American characters would alienate transatlantic audiences. Of course, this is not a Tom Sawyer that Mark Twain/Samuel Clemens is likely to recognize its a Tom Sawyer a few years on who is now a US government agent, a crack six-gun shooter and gets throughout the course of the film to stunt-drive a customized Rolls Royce Silver Ghost (upon getting behind the wheel for the first time).
This is to a large extent symptomatic of the problems with The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Fun and all as Alan Moores game of literary line-ups and name-droppings is, it is one that has to ignore essential details or at least distort the original characters. This is particularly noticeable here in Oscar Wildes The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891), Dorian Gray was a cad and a libertine who was eternally youthful because his aging and immorality had been transferred onto a portrait; in Robert Louis Stevensons The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886), Dr Jekyll was a nobly upstanding doctor who devised a potion that brought out his brutish animal instincts. Both of these stories are essentially Victorian morality plays about the war between socially upheld virtue and the repression of carnality. Moreover, in both cases, the respective authors kill the title characters off at the end of the story. In The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen they not only survive but in one characters case a new death is devised for him.
Even more noticeably, the film pushes the characters out of shape to now become essentially superheroes. Dorian Gray is not merely eternally youthful but has also picked up an invulnerability to bullets and sword cuts, while gaining an Achilles Heel that Oscar Wilde never gave him to look upon his portrait will destroy him (whereas in the book he is more mundanely killed when the portrait is stabbed). Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde now emerges as a variation on The Incredible Hulk indeed the three-metre tall Hyde that Jekyll transforms into is uncannily like the Hulk that turned up in Ang Lees Hulk (2003) around the same time where Jekyll is not so much fighting against the beast within but merely trying to redeem the beast so that he can be made to fight on the side of good. Captain Nemo goes from being a brooding anti-hero-come-terrorist to heroic stalwart of the mission. Considering that Jules Verne had Captain Nemo as a vigilante of the seven seas who actively destroyed all ships of war, having Nemo set sail here to save a collected gathering of international ministers of war seems ever-so-slightly a betrayal of the essence of the character. (It is nice however to see Captain Nemo portrayed as a Hindu in keeping with the origin story that Jules Verne outfitted him with in Mysterious Island ). For reasons unknown, the Invisible Man here is a different Invisible Man to the one in the graphic novel. There the Invisible Man was the same one from the H.G. Wells novel The Invisible Man (1897). Here he is another scientist who has perfected the formula and removed the madness-inducing effects in so doing, the film actually makes this Invisible Man a character who perfectly dovetails in with the original, rather than having to conveniently ignore the fact that H.G. Wells killed his Invisible Man off at the end of the story and that the drug made him a raving megalomaniac, as Alan Moore had to do.
The upfront news on The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen film did not seem at all promising the dumbing down of the story, the introduction of a character for American mass-appeal, a muchly troubled production including the sets in Venice being flooding. Most of all, there were the stories of on-set squabbling between Sean Connery, who takes an executive-producing role on the film, and director Stephen Norrington. Various stories emerged that Connery was concerned about Norringtons slowness of approach and disliked being made to endlessly wait around on set. Other stories were less kind to Stephen Norrington and called him a bad-tempered, bawling martinet. The situation descended to the point where Connery and Norrington would not talk to one another during shooting and communication would only go through intermediaries, with Norrington at one point purportedly inviting Connery to punch him. Norrington even boycotted the films world premiere, where in his absence Sean Connery loudly commented to the press that Norrington would be better off placed in an asylum. It all seemed like a disaster in the anticipating on the order of The Island of Dr Moreau (1996).
All things said, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen works better than it looked like it was going to. That the film works directorially and that Sean Connery manages to emerge with dignity throughout is surely a testament to professionalism on everybodys part. Stephen Norrington began in the industry working on the effects crews for British-shot films like Return to Oz (1985), Aliens (1986), Hardware (1990), The Witches (1990) and Alien3 (1992). He first appeared with the excellent low-budget killer robot effort Death Machine (1995) and then went onto the big-budget vampire film Blade (1998) (which was also a comic-book adaptation). He mounts The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen as an adventure film no more than that, no less. For all the twisting of the characters out of shape to make up a sort of Victorian superheroic pantheon, the script makes a fair effort to get inside them, most successfully being the relationship between Sean Connerys aging Allan Quatermain and Shane Wests youthfully enthusiastic Tom Sawyer. Norrington shows a clear flourish with the effects and action sequences, most exhilarating being a car race through the collapsing streets of Venice.
The unexpected scene-stealer of the entire film however proves to be David Cronenbergs regular production designer Carol Spier. From the breathtaking new Nautilus cruising through the oceans and its interior all lit up in pure white like a rajs palace, to gloomy Victorian libraries, the villains factories of tanks stretching as far the eye can see, and gaslit London and Venetian exteriors that look far more brooding and dazzlingly fabulous than probably the real things ever were, the work that Carol Spier does is utterly stunning and is the real star of the show.
The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen is the last film that Stephen Norrington has made to date. At one point, it was claimed that he had retired, although his name has since been associated with other works such as the remakes of Clash of the Titans (2010) and The Crow (1994), although in both cases was replaced by other directors.
(Winner for Best Production Design at this sites Best of 2003 Awards).