Jason Pettus's Reviews > From Hell

From Hell by Alan Moore
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Apr 22, 08

Read in April, 2008

(Reprinted from the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography [cclapcenter.com:]. I am the original author of this essay, as well as the owner of CCLaP; it is not being reprinted here illegally.)

So in what I think is a first since opening CCLaP last year, I got a chance recently to not only read a book for the first time but also watch a movie based on it for the first time in the same week; in this case, it was the "Jack The Ripper" conspiracy tale From Hell, with the original 1999 graphic novel by Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell and the subsequent 2001 movie version by Allen and Albert Hughes, known professionally as The Hughes Brothers. I thought it'd be fun, then, to take a cue off the Onion AV Club's "Book Versus Film" essay series, and write one review encompassing them both; I'm not expecting this to happen very often in my life, though, so don't hold your breath waiting for this to become a regular series.

And indeed, the only reason I took on the original graphic novel in the first place is because I'm a big fan of Moore's, with this for example being the fifth full-length project of his I've now read (after Watchmen , Miracleman, V For Vendetta, and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen); and the reason I'm such a big fan of Moore's is because he is one of the most complex writers in the history of the comics format, penning project after project that not only have the gravitas of a traditional text-based novel but that perfectly exploit why they could only be published as comic books anyway. And in fact From Hell is yet another good example of what I'm talking about; set right before the turn of the 20th century, in the waning years of the Victorian Era, it relies as much on the pacing of the graphic boxes on each page as it does on the plot itself, with Moore deliberately breaking the story at certain points precisely because of knowing that it's where that page will end in the finished book.

Taking place in a grimy, crime-filled East End London, like I said this is Moore's take on the infamous Jack The Ripper legend, the notorious serial killer from the late 1800s who was famously never caught nor even identified; and this being Moore, of course, his take on the whole affair is a complicated and fantastical one, a grand conspiracy involving the royal family, an illegitimate child, the Freemasons, a respected surgeon who doubles as a violent psychopath, brain strokes misinterpreted as religious visions, Medieval Christian churches whose architects snuck pagan references into the plans...oh, and a little time travel to boot, just in case Moore hasn't screwed with your head enough at this point. In fact, the more you read the massive From Hell (which, be warned, is almost 600 pages long), the more you realize that the Ripper story isn't really the main reason Moore even wrote this in the first place; this is more of a dark love letter to the city of London itself, one of the bastions of Western civilization and a place so steeped in history according to Moore that you can almost taste it while there. Like many of his other projects, Moore's main theme here in From Hell is actually the complex and hidden patterns that are layered one by one by society onto history, of how these overlapping patterns both work in tandem and against each other, and how in a place like London it results in a 3,000-year-old matrix of power and magic, full of "hot spots" around the city where literally dozens of important events have all transpired over the centuries.

Ah, but then this delicate web is handed over to The Hughes Brothers (Menace II Society), and things start falling apart alarmingly fast; there's a reason, after all, that this was the movie to make Moore famously declare that he will never again in his life sell the film rights to any of his future projects. Although to be completely fair, the problem is not really with The Hughes Brothers per se (although as directors of the project, they are the ones ultimately accountable for the finished film); no, the real mess starts right off the bat with the muddled, messy script by Terry Hayes and Rafael Yglesias, who surprisingly enough have a number of solid movies in their pasts (including Death and the Maiden, Payback, and Mad Max: Road Warrior), so you would think would know better. For example, the character Johnny Depp plays in the movie version is in actuality an amalgam of three different characters from the original book -- a policeman, a psychic, and a crazed opium addict -- not to mention that in the book, these three characters are supposed to not like each other, with personalities that naturally clash against the other two. Then add the fact that in the book, the psychic is actually fake, and admits so right on page 2 of the manuscript; in the movie, however, Depp's psychic visions are supposed to be real, brought on by the massive amounts of opium he is constantly smoking in seedy Chinatown dens, yet with all of this being suspiciously tolerated by his bosses at Scotland Yard.

It essentially turns the film version of From Hell into a schizophrenic disaster, a movie that can't decide if it's a fact-based police procedural, a horror movie with supernatural elements, or the Hollywood version of a historical thriller (i.e. the Victorian prostitutes are way too hot to be actual Victorian prostitutes). Say what you will about Alan Moore's writing style (which I admit can get awfully overblown at points, especially when he was younger), but at least he is a master at putting together a sharply focused yet wildly digressive story, and smart enough to understand how two such seemingly competitive elements can actually complement each other when done in the right way. It's a lesson that completely eluded the group of people responsible for the movie version; and that's why the book version of From Hell is ultimately so brilliant, and why the film version is ultimately so terrible.

Out of 10:
Book: 9.0
Movie: 4.5
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