From Hell

fromhellAlan Moore’s graphic novel, From Hell, is an amazing piece of work; an encyclopedic document on the Jack the Ripper murders and a dizzyingly detailed slice of historical fiction. It combines bizarre theses with thorough research to meticulously recreate the Whitechapel murders. In short, it is a hell of a lot better than its kinda goofy horror movie adaptation.

Calling the Hughes brothers’ picture a horror movie isn’t quite correct, because they get their cliches from a different genre – the police procedural. In fact, it is so beholden to formula that at one point Johnny Depp’s Inspector Abberline is suspended from duty (unfortunately, we never see him turn in his badge). The film may attempt to scare or disgust, but it never creates the sense of awe that permeates Moore’s magisterial novel.

The movie’s story is simple: Abberline is the hero who gets everything right without ever working for it (thanks to his opium-fueled visions, which, for a lazy ‘deus ex machina’ device not really present in the novel, is weirdly underutilized), and Peter Godley (Robbie Coltrane) is his sidekick who doesn’t do anything. Together they solve the Jack the Ripper murders, and Abberline falls in love with the impossibly beautiful whore, Mary Kelly (Heather Graham).

The theories that From Hell proposes (government conspiracies, et al.) may be far-fetched – I think even its graphic novel artist Eddie Campbell complained when Queen Victoria was implicated – but they are grounded in a sort of sense. That sense is much more believable and complex in the novel, but in the movie the theories just sort of happen. The implied connections seem like they are thrown together, as if some screenwriter said, “Wow, wouldn’t it be cool if Queen Victoria ordered them hookers dead!” All the logic and grandiosity of the source is gone.

The major problem here, and one that is in contrast to the novel, is that Jack the Ripper’s identity is a mystery. Moore’s approach doesn’t center on rudimentary surprise. It works toward an understanding of the murders by giving them a foundation and a context that explains how these atrocities are, in the mind of old Springheel Jack, a great work. Thematically, the slow and steady creation of place through architectural concordance is what Moore’s From Hell is about; how the creation of sequences and events flows out of everything that came before, and how these events influence other times and places so that they can be seen as divorced from singularity and part of a larger, grander tapestry of Event. The Hughes’ From Hell is about a crazy guy who kills people. When Jack says that he has given birth to the 20th century, it sounds like the raving of a nutbag. The novel’s Jack never says that, but his actions and activities make a damned better case for it.

Authenticity is another sticking point that hampered my enjoyment. Here, Whitechapel doesn’t feel like a nasty urban hell, but rather a Disneyfied Urban Hell. There’s a cleanliness to the dirt, like all of it had been production-designed to perfection. This material deserves a grungy, infernal atmosphere, the kind that Terry Gilliam usually brings to his films. Instead, the Hughes brothers opt to create a comic-book feel, the sort that is conspicuously absent in the novel, which, with its b&w pen drawings, has a scratchy, gritty, and real quality that the film lacks. Indeed, the film’s most startling images are neither sexual nor violent, but the bizarre shots emphasizing architecture are, I’m sure, incomprehensible (or at least ineffectual) to those unfamiliar with the novel.

By the way, since when did big-budget period-horror flicks become the breeding ground for soppy romanticism? Ten years ago, Bram Stoker’s Dracula saddled a fine adaptation of a good story with unnecessary love-through-the-ages doggerel, and here Abberline and Mary Kelly are joined in ‘true’ love for a faux-tragic ending. Mary Kelly… In no other movie has a whore had a heart so golden – throughout, in fact, she’s the only one we never see whoring. She has some kind of street job, but it takes time away from her helping to solve crimes and care for lost babies. Her character is rendered so cloyingly good that it pisses me off: Moore’s Mary Kelly is human, and she whores because that’s what she is.

There is also a side passage with a whore who is always trying to force the other girls into some hot lesbian action. This is prevalent in the novel, too, and in Moore’s copious footnotes he states that it was common for London streetwalkers of the time to take up with each other for kicks, since sex with men wasn’t much fun (you don’t like taking your work home with you, do you?). In the film, the lesbian is treated like a ravenous, alien force attacking the other whores. If the Hughes brothers don’t like the homosexual aspect of these women, they should have dropped it altogether. What they do here is pander to supposed audience interest and distaste – we like seeing girls kiss, but naw, it ain’t right, so the girl who’s doing the kissing has got to be bad. It is merely exploitative.

And that is the major component of this movie – exploitation. Here, there’s little thought given to murder: few rhymes and fewer reasons. It is pitched as an evening’s entertainment, and for that it may very well suffice. I drub the film for falling short of the graphic novel’s greatness, but it is not a horrid piece of cinema. However, I cannot unread the novel, and its obvious superiority in dealing with the same material must be noted. The movie looks good (if overly garish) and the performances are universally fine (except for Heather Graham who, as the wise woman of the streets, looks a bit like a puppy), but the movie is a little thing, and the novel is a big thing. Any pleasures taken from this little thing are squandered, while those mined from the graphic novel are gold.

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