November 2002

Liz Miller

hollywood madam

Hollywood Madam Does From Hell

A note -- readers who haven't read or seen From Hell may find the endings given away here. Read at your own risk.

I've realized something over the past month -- it would be very easy for this column to become an overly simplistic, movies-bad books-good sort of piece, which is not my intention at all. After all, different movies work for different reasons, and the same goes for books. Sometimes, an adaptation will deviate so drastically from the source material that it's almost completely unrecognizable -- yet it will till work, on its own unique level. In fact, it's tempting to think that those are the most successful adaptations, in the end -- because those are the ones without baggage. The ones that try to succeed on their own terms.

The word try is important, though, especially in the case of From Hell, which wobbles occasionally as it attempts to break free from the graphic novel, and while it finds its own way of telling the story, in the end the departures the film makes leave its ending gutted and pointless.

To be fair, while I have a great deal of respect for Alan Moore and cherish my copy of Watchmen, From Hell is not my favorite graphic novel ever. I like Victorian England (in case you couldn't guess by my last column), and the thorough reconstruction of the mystery surrounding Jack the Ripper is more than impressive. Much has been written already about how well From Hell captures the sooty, dirty world of Cheapside London, a world populated by crooks, whores, and bars -- Eddie Campbell's intense black and white art is printed so thickly on my copy of the novel that the smell of ink now makes me feel like there's a hole in my wool stockings, coal dust in my lungs.

But, as much as From Hell has going for it... I get hung up on small things. Like the fact that Campbell's inking is impressively impressionistic -- to the point where I can't tell any of the female characters apart. And did there need to be an entire chapter about how London is a Freudian wet dream? In the end, it was a long, slow read for me, and when I finished, I was a bit relieved, more than ready to move onto something else.

So, free of the desire to see a completely faithful adaptation, I was actually prepared to enjoy the 2001 film more than the novel, at least on a Johnny-Depp-is-pretty level. And yes, Johnny Depp lived up to his promise, and yes, parts of the film work quite well - Terry Hayes and Rafael Yglesias managed to boil down the complex conspiracies surrounding Jack the Ripper, the British crown, and those crazy Mason guys to the essential scenes, the simple storyline -- while managing the occasional nod to Moore's larger themes. In one shot through the window of Jack the Ripper's carriage, we see Cleopatra's massive needle, while, reflected in the glass of the window, one of the unfortunate prostitutes snacks on grapes. Behind her, Jack tells the story of the needle's transport to London -- "ten men died to bring it here" -- before leaping to strangle the prostitute, as if spurred forth by London's bloody history. It's a two-minute scene that incorporates the ideas of the London-penis-metaphor chapter while moving the plot along -- almost enough to make the rest of the movie work, thematically.

That's pretty much the resonating theme of this particular adaptation. Combining the characters of Abberline the constable and Lees the false psychic into Johnny Depp, psychic constable, gives the film a clear protagonist with clear objectives. But there's no depth to his backstory, and while his visions are an interesting visual way of showing Jack the Ripper's attacks, they primarily serve the purpose of letting Johnny Depp smoke opium, gulp absinth and look tortured. The romantic subplot, only somewhat stretched from the comic's gentle friendship between Mary Kelly and Inspector Abberline, takes a step past believable at the end -- mostly because there's no good explanation for why they're in love to begin with.

It's really, really easy to break into shallower criticisms of From Hell by, say, mentioning Heather Graham's name. Or noting that when Sir Ian Holm goes crazy, he wears black contact lenses -- just like Evil Willow from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, only without the leather pants. Or, heck, asking why the best resolution they could find for the story was for Abberline to die of an opium overdose.

For me, though, the biggest loss of the film is the one part of the comic book that was completely abandoned. The last we see of William Gull is post-lobotomy, abandoned to an insane asylum. By now, he's spent a good twenty minutes ranting about how his eyes have been opened to the reality of the world, how he has "given birth to the twentieth century" -- but the ravings of a hooker-killing crazy guy are always hard to swallow.

When I was watching the film, I saw the camera begin to pan in on Gull's blank stare, and for a moment my hopes were raised sky-high as I remembered my favorite portion of the comic -- Gull's vision of a violent, serial-killer-filled future -- the future he created. I leaned towards the screen, eager to see how they would depict the insanity of the 20th century, how they would contrast it with that of the 19th...

And then, nothing. The film moved on, abandoning a potentially brilliant sequence. Abandoning a chance to put all the pieces together and see what the puzzle looks like. Abandoning the chance to hint at why.