Saturday, July 12, 2003

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, or I don't do normally do comics and cartoons, for some reason

There is a lot of overlap between science fiction fans, movie fans, and fans of comics / graphic novels. Oddly though, comics are a medium that I can't properly appreciate. I like the purely written medium (in the form of both fiction and non-fiction) and I love the visual medium of movies. However, mixtures of written and visual I tend not to get at all. If I attempt to read a graphic novel, I simply read the words, and pay no attention to the pictures, which is (obviously) not a way to appreciate them. I don't read comic strips in newspapers. I don't even pay attention to political cartoons in newspapers. If a fiction book I am reading contains illustrations, I am unlikely to even look at them. I don't know why this is. Some of it is perhaps just the way my mind works. Some of it is simply that the grammar of comics is something I have simply never taught myself, whereas I know those of the other media intimately. Comic fandom is something I am very comfortable with (I come a branch of geekdom that speaks a different dialect, but there is still mutual intelligibility).

There have been a lot of movies adapted from comic books and graphic novels in recent years. While I have a familiarity with some of the characters in some of the films (particularly those that have had television incarnations when I was a child (such as Superman, Spiderman, Batman, the Hulk, and the like) but many of the others I have heard of but I know nothing of the characters and mythology. The X-Men are largely new to me when I watch the movies, for instance. (In this particular instance, both comics fans and non-comics fans such as myself tend to think that the movies are terrific, particularly the second one).

This weekend the movie of Alan Moore's graphic novel The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen has been released at American cinemas. The first I actually knew of this graphic novel was when, several years ago, I noticed that the film was listed as being in development on a list of such things that I follow. The summary of the plot told me that the story features a number of larger than life characters from 19th century fiction essentially working together: Mina Murray from Dracula, Allan Quartermain from King Solomon's Mines, Griffin from The Invisible Man, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde from, well, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Captain Nemo from 20000 Leagues Under the Sea, and a variety of other famous characters in smaller parts. This was sort of a superhero comic based set in the 19th century. I thought that the central conceit was delightful, and even did a little research about the graphic novel. I discovered that it was very highly regarded, and fans considered the story, the writing, and the illustrations to be utterly wonderful, particularly due to great faithfulness to the original characters.

Still, though, I didn't read it, because I don't read that kind of thing. I thought I would wait for the film and see if it was any good. But I found the idea of throwing the great characters of Victorian genre literature together, and seeing how they interact, to be a wondeful idea. I heard that Sean Connery had been cast as Quartermain, which was fine. The character of Dorian Gray had been added, which seemed in the right spirit, so no trouble. The character of Tom Sawyer had been added, presumably to appeal to an American audience. This seemed a little problematic, due to the fact that the character was historically anachronstic (Tom Sawyerwas set too early) and somewhat out of the spirit of the other characters. (He is not larger than life in the same way).

Futher information told me that the script had been written so as to make Quartermain the central character. In the graphic novel, Mina Murray was the central character. One of the laws of Hollywood is that when a big star gets cast in a film, the script of that film will get warped so that his character dominates the film, and becomes a straightforward heroic character. (Quartermain in the graphic novel was apparently very morally complicated). Also, Hollywood still shies away from female stars in big budget action movies. Television is full of female action heros. (Three cheers for Joss Whedon). And though the movies are starting to change and we have the odd Lara Croft, there is still a way to go. The role of Mina Murray is played in the film by Australian actress Peta Wilson. She is right for the part, but isn't a star, at least not amongst people who do not watch relatively low buget cable television adaptations of Luc Besson movies in the middle of the night. Therefore, there was no way of letting her carry a film ahead of Sean Connery. If you were going to cast a star in the part, it is a bit hard to think who you would choose. There is a certain hardness of character necessary that doesn't really go with female stardom. Winona Ryder played the part in the last movie adaptation of Dracula, and would probably make a good fist of it, but her star isn't really shining at the moment. It's either cast someone against type, or cast someone who isn't really a star, and they decided not to do that.

Anyway, there were still reasons to be hopeful. Nothing had been announced that would inherently spoil it. A couple of months ago, I saw a trailer. This did not look like good news. This just appeared to be a trailer for an action movie starring Sean Connery, and didn't make it clear who he was playing, or who any of the other characters were. If the plot had been blanded down to the extent that they had just turned into generic characters in boring Hollywood movie, this was bad. Still, trailers are put together by people in marketing departments who often haven't seen the film, so even that wasn't a killer.

Until, this week the film was released. It's apparently a mess. The standard pattern of "Hollywood buys some property because it has some unique quality. Hollywood puts it in development. Talentless guys in suits chip away with it to turn it into a bland Hollywood movie, and the first thing they do is remove the unique quality because that doesn't fit their pigeonholes for the project" appears to have been applied. Such a shame.

A real shame. Because the idea of Mina Murray, the invisible man, Allan Quartermain, Sherlock Holmes, and a whole variety of other characters (who could be in future movies) all running around together in the same movie is just delightful. I would love to see it done well. Now, anyone else who tries it is going to be at best accused of copying the idea and at word sued because the idea (although not the original characters) belongs to 20th Century Fox. This is a real shame.

Of course, what this all means is that I should read a few graphic novels so that the grammar of the medium is burned into my neural pathways, and so that I can properly appreciate the original graphic novel. I now must really do that.

Update: Interestingly enough, the LA Times has an article on the production. It was clearly one that Hollywood euphemistically calls "troubled", and there were fights between the star and the director, serious studio interference, a director who wasn't there in the editing room and refused to show up at the premiere, and the like. The LA Times is read by most of Hollywood, and it does have a tendency to give the industry a soft ride. Therefore one must read between the lines a little. Most troubling is this

"But as brilliant as the graphic novel is, it is not a movie," said the film's screenwriter, James Dale Robinson, who also is a top comic book author. "And unfortunately, the reading level of the world has declined, so [introducing the literary characters] was something that had to be dealt with head-on."

Translation: We have such contempt for our audience that we don't believe they had heard of the great characters of 19th century literature. (Personally, I think the precise opposite, and that today's audience is one of the most literate ever. But that might just be me).

Hoping to position the movie as a classy, Indiana Jones-style adventure, Fox didn't hesitate to sink most of its cast budget into Connery's salary.

Again, we don't see much interest in character. Which is a shame, because this sort of thing should be all about character.

Interestingly, though, we also see that Monica Bellucci was originally cast but dropped out due to "exhaustion". (I wonder what that actually means). I think that's a blessing, as she would be completely wrong for Mina Murray. Peta Wilson is at least right for the part.

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