Wednesday, 28 June 2017

Adaptation: The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen

The A-word.
It's the bane of cinephiles, everywhere.

That book you love; the comic you remember; the show you used to watch; the game you lost an entire summer playing? Oh, someone's adapted it and it's getting made into a movie! Whether a cause for pre-emptive celebration or foreboding caution, it leads to only one thing: expectation. And expectation is the death of the 'clean' movie-viewing experience; no matter how closely the film sticks to its source material, or how much it tries to distance itself, it will be faced with the hurdle of comparison.

And while the movie industry loves the pre-built marketing buzz of 'now a major motion picture!', they loathe the comparative references which will be made from the first review onwards. Because many punters will expect to get exactly the same reaction from a completely different medium, to a story they already know. And therein lies the problem.

In this monthly series, we'll look back at some of the most respected and best-loved properties which have made the perilous journey to the big screen; often with some controversy, and almost always with far too much hype. This isn't so much a review of the films themselves, more an appraisal of their suitability as an adaptation.

The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen
The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen
Alan Moore & Kevin O'Neill (1999)

The final comic-adaptation of this run makes makes an interesting counterpart to the last two works of Moore's I've read. Whereas Watchmen took place in an alternate-present USA and V for Vendetta showed an alternate-future England, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen inhabits an alternate past.

Just before the dawn of the twentieth century on Blighty's shores, the literary heroes (and villains) of the era share a borderline steampunk world. Campion Bond, a government agent supervised by the mysterious M, draws together a strike-team to defend the interests of the British Empire, knowing a fantastic threat calls for an extraordinary solution. Calling upon Wilhelmina Murray, Allan Quatermain, Captain Nemo, Henry Jeckyll/Edward Hyde and one Hawley Griffin, the table is set for a rollocking adventure. A Victorian Avengers, if you will.

On the surface at least, League is an interesting combination of those previous works I've covered, in that it's a tale of bickering costumed adventurers pulled together to face a greater foe in the name of national security (Watchmen), and has a borderline fixation with an unattainable (or certainly unsustainable) Glorious Britannia™ which only existed in the minds of those who were benefitting from its excesses (Vendetta). But whereas Moore's earlier pieces had heavyweight social themes running through meticulous plotting, this story is more of a rip-roaring homage to Boys' Own adventure journals (although it is not a child-friendly tome), tongue-in-cheek and aimed at an audience for whom mockery is one of the sincerest forms of flattery. While the coarser humour never reaches levels of outright discomfort, Moore's comedic digs at colonialist attitudes of the past are, at times, barely distinguishable from the real thing. But he's always had a dark-streak when it comes to laughs.

The first book is steadily paced but it struggles to fit the main story-thread alongside all the character introduction (comprising six collected issues of the comic-run), although there's also a wealth of background in-universe material presented as an appendix. The second volume feels more problematic, beginning on Mars and working in characters from John Carter*1 and War of the Worlds. It's a strong start, but again the six-issue structure hampers the amount of storytelling which can reasonably occur with the now considerable cast. In the middle of the run you can feel Moore's attention wandering away, and the focus of the writing dips markedly, as a lengthy detour works Dr. Moreau and his menagerie of visual gags into the proceedings and any previous character-building is pretty much thrown in the bin.

The actual conclusion to the main narrative of Vol.II takes place over six panels, two pages from the end, and pretty unconvincingly to boot. It's as if Moore and O'Neill had suddenly realised that this was the arse-end of the last issue. This could, to be fair, have been a nod to my existing bugbear with some of the inspirational source-material, but it feels like a tacked-on ending to a gradually unravelling story.

Also, it would have been nice to see Mina actually using her 'super-power'. One proper female character in the whole thing and she gets pretty much nothing to do. I imagine that could be addressed in Volume III, but Vol.II's shenanigans*2 have put that well on the back burner to be honest…

Not as culturally insightful or impactful as the author's earlier works, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen is nonetheless to be commended for its its scope, methodology and (for the most part) its execution. It's not that the books have nothing to say, just that they have enough trouble telling their own central story without throwing subtext into the mix.

But can I see why it'd be optioned for a film-release? Absolutely

The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen
The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen
Stephen Norrington (2003)

Wow, this film's taken some flak over the years. Some of it well-deserved admittedly, but in terms of an ensemble-cast Victorian superhero movie, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen delivers just fine. And it's not like the source-material is quite as iconic as others on the same shelf...

Landing in the same year as X-Men 2 and from the same studio, the film's very much of a similar style and tone, but that was largely 20th Century Fox's modus operandi circa 2003. Pretty much all of Alan Moore's arch humour has been replaced with an altogether more pedestrian action-movie-slapstick. Some of the visuals haven't aged particularly well in the intervening years, but it more or less holds up for a fourteen-year old movie crowbarred into the marketplace by a studio not content with having All The Mutants. And when you look at what Universal were putting out the year before with The Scorpion King, it ain't so bad.

Updates for the screen-version include the addition of Special Agent Tom Sawyer, the near-invincible Dorian Gray and the book's original villain (half) appearing under the pseudonym of The Fantom (spelling deliberate).

As screen-time gives more leeway than comic-pages, the actual character interaction is far better in the film (and many of the less savoury aspects of the book have been eliminated altogether), although the dialogue itself is perfunctory to the point of patronising. Sean Connery's Quatermain isn't just there for random bouts of exposition, he basically just describes things as they happen, like an in-universe Audio Description channel.

Is it a faithful adaptation of the book? Not particularly. Would it have been afforded the same cast, budget and distribution if it were? Absolutely not. But the book was an uneven pastiche mash-up at best, frequently getting sidetracked by its own gimmicks. The film may be imperfect, but it's consistently that way. It's not that the original work is 'unfilmable', just that Fox don't make movies like that (although we'll see what they do with the rumoured reboot, now that Deadpool and Logan have widened the scope a little).

Okay, it's not the best film of its genre (it's not even the best film of 2003), but LXG is a perfectly acceptable, if disposable, action/adventure movie.

Is the original thing any good, though?
...It starts better than it ends.
I'd read the graphic novel back in around 2004 and didn't really 'get' it, as I'd seen the film first (indeed that's why I bought it). Having revisited it and its companion volume in relative 'isolation', I get it more now but think I somehow like it less

Is the film-version any good, though?
Many would say not.
I've seen far worse.
In the last week

So, should I check out one, both or neither?
If you're intrigued by the idea and its possibilities, both.

Oh, is there a Wilhelm Scream in it?
I didn't hear one.

Yes, but what's the Star Wars connection?
Level 2: That Sean Connery's in this (he's in next month's Adaptation, too), and he was in that Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade alongside Harrison 'Solo' Ford, Julian 'Veers' Glover, Michael 'Ozzel' Sheard, Nick 'Drallig' Gillard and Derek 'Yavin IV Guard' Lyons.

*1 At the risk of getting ahead of myself, I think we're all aware that the movie-version of League currently enjoys a less-than stellar reputation, with a critic-score of 17% on Rotten Tomatoes, whilst 2012's John Carter adaptation languishes at 51% (even though it's near-universally derided) and 2009's Dorian Gray sits at 43%. What is it about Victorian sci-fi that doesn't translate to the modern screen for audiences and critics? For the record and in the interests of full-disclosure, I'm one of about twelve people on Earth who enjoyed John Carter. I think the other eleven work at Disney, and even one of those sat in a Monday meeting after release and asked "…why can't we just buy Star Wars, though?". [ BACK ]

*2 And not to put-off anyone who hasn't read the books, but while Moore's fascination with erotica is well documented, League is a bit 'rapey' in more than one sequence. By which I mean four. It's not a defining trait of the book, but it doesn't have to be to leave a bad taste. [ BACK ]

• ^^^ That's dry, British humour, and most likely sarcasm or facetiousness.
• Yen's blog contains harsh language and even harsher notions of propriety. Reader discretion is advised.
• This is a personal blog. The views and opinions expressed here represent my own thoughts (at the time of writing) and not those of the people, institutions or organisations that I may or may not be related with unless stated explicitly.


  1. I found the Venice scenes annoying in the film. I don't know why, but there my suspension of disbelief failed and I found myself ranting about the canals not being deep enough for the sub.

    Kim Newman is my go-to for 'fiction and history all mashed up', and I thought League... was disappointing by comparison. Perhaps it deserves another go...

  2. Haha, I don't mind it so much since it's only mashing together works of fantasy fiction, anyway. Although I admit that even back in the day I'd had the very same reservation about the Nautilus being able to even fit (never mind submerge) in the Thames like that...