On The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, based on the first volume of the comic book series of the same name, was never really that great. According to Box Office Prophets‘ article, “What Went Wrong: The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen“:

This column will go into spoilers, so if you haven’t seen The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, then you might be better off reading the graphic novel.

“In the end, retirement is too damn much fun.” Thus came Sean Connery’s reply on whether or not he would be appearing in Indiana Jones & the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. He had mentioned that it would have to be something “monumental” to get him out of retirement, and many thought Indiana Jones would have been it. His response stems from the film that drove him to quit acting; The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. “It was a nightmare,” said Connery in an interview with British newspaper The Times. “The experience had a great influence on me, it made me think about showbiz. I get fed up dealing with idiots.” Notorious for being a troubled shoot, Connery didn’t get on with his director, Stephen Norrington. “On the first day I realized he was insane,” said Connery.

Producer Don Murphy had brought the rights to Alan Moore’s graphic novels, From Hell and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, both for 20th Century Fox. However, it was with the latter, LXG (as it was referred to in the trailers and on the posters), which Murphy was most excited about, developing the film before the graphic novel was even published, which would explain some of the differences between the two. “The more British I could keep this, the better,” said Murphy; so in an interesting move, he hired British comic book writer James Dale Robinson (known for DC’s Starman) to script the film. The beginnings of why the film didn’t work would probably start with Robinson and the pressure he was under, revealing that the script was going through “serious plot changes,” having written 20 drafts (early drafts had the film set in America).

The film begins with a masked villain, The Fantom, attacking Britain and Germany. With both countries now blaming each other, they are close to all out world war. Allan Quatermain (Sean Connery) is recruited by the mysterious figure M (Richard Roxburgh), to join a league of extraordinary individuals to stop The Fantom from carrying out his next attack in Venice. He is introduced to Captain Nemo (Naseeruddin Shah), a pirate with marital arts skills and a huge submarine, the Nautilus; Rodney Skinner (Tony Curran), an invisible man; and Mina Harker (Peta Wilson), a vampire bitten by Dracula himself. Together they round up Dorian Gray (Stuart Townsend), an immortal who never ages; Tom Sawyer (Shane West), an American Secret Service Agent; and Henry Jekyll (Jason Flemyng), a doctor who can transform into his giant alter-ego, Mr Hyde.

Robinson had added the character of Tom Sawyer at the request of the studio, so that the film could appeal more to American audiences. Highlighting the addition, Robinson said, “I think 20th Century Fox felt more comfortable making a movie that was very expensive knowing that there was a young American character.” In keeping it British, Murphy also picked Stephen Norrington to direct the film; famed for his adaptation of Blade.

Alan Moore and the graphic novel’s illustrator, Kevin O’Neill, claimed to have based the character of Allan Quatermain on Sean Connery, so Norrington met with the man himself, who agreed to do the film. His reason was that he had previously turned down roles in The Matrix and the Lord of the Rings trilogy, citing how he didn’t understand them, yet they became huge successes. He felt compelled not to make the same mistake again. Connery was paid $17 million, and being credited as an executive producer meant he also had his way when it came to character changes, like refusing to play Quatermain as an opium addict, as in the graphic novel. I’m also willing to bet that he possibly reworked the script to have his character die because he didn’t want to come back and work on any potential sequel.

Troubles began in August 2002, when the shoot in Prague (doubling for Venice in the film) came to a standstill after the city was hit by the worst floods in over a century, destroying sets worth $7 million. As if this message from God wasn’t enough, causing filming to be delayed by around two weeks, Fox showed no compassion whatsoever towards Norrington, refusing to offer more time, yet still expecting to open the film on their set date: July 11, 2003. As the shooting schedule shifted to Malta so sets could be rebuilt, it’s likely that a frustrated Norrington was now finding it difficult to achieve what he wanted, and completing the film turned into a rush job.

It was in November 2002 when the cast and crew came back to Prague to finish an action sequence on newly rebuilt sets, and whatever was brewing between Connery and Norrington finally came to the attention of the world. They apparently almost came to blows, after a prop elephant gun that didn’t look quite right caused Norrington to shut the set down for the day. An infuriated Connery threatened to have Norrington fired. One unnamed source recalls Norrington reacting by telling Connery, “Come on, I want you to punch me in the face,” whereas Connery recalls him saying, “Do you want to hit me?” to which he responded, “Don’t tempt me.” Connery simply walked off the set.

There’s even a bizarre rumor that Connery kicked Norrington out of the edit suite, though producer Don Murphy explains that Connery never even set foot in there, and that Norrington simply worked with his editor Paul Rubell, delivering his cut of the film on March 2003. One unnamed source says Norrington only supervised the editing of three of the film’s seven reels, while another says he was still working on it just days before its release. Whether Norrington’s cut is the one that was screened theatrically is uncertain. Norrington has remained quiet about the making of the film, given that he doesn’t really do any promotion or give interviews. He does appear talking to his actors on the special edition DVD, though he is never talking to the camera. He didn’t even turn up for the premiere of the film. Connery fulfilled his duties in promoting the film, going to the premiere and doing press interviews.

The production budget on LXG ended up costing Fox $78 million. Opening on July 11, 2003, the film grossed an okay $23 million on its opening weekend, good enough to place it at #2, behind another opener; Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl. It finished its run with $66.4 million in the US. Given the horrendous reviews upon release, the fact that it managed to gross $179 million worldwide is something of an achievement. It wasn’t a flop, but it wasn’t enough to warrant a sequel either, which Shane West’s Tom Sawyer was supposed to lead.

LXG obviously isn’t a great film. The opening action sequence in Africa is a good introduction to Quatermain, and then there’s the grandiose production design. The rest of the film just comes across so dull, like it was being re-written as it was shot. Given the strain placed upon the shooting schedule, this is probably what happened. The action sequences are haphazardly edited together, as if to hide what little training the actors had.

Alan Moore’s graphic novel is a much darker story. It did make it out before the film, yet there are still many differences between the two, the main one being that Mina is the lead character. She is a strong willed survivor from her confrontation with Dracula, but she is not a vampire. Recruited by the British Intelligence to assemble a league of extraordinary individuals to protect the country, their first mission has them pit against Fu Manchu, who plans to build an airship to destroy the country. The ending is also different, with an aerial attack over London.

According to Kevin O’Neill, Moore wanted nothing to do with the film, so O’Neill was sent the script instead. In an interview with The Times, he said that upon reading it he thought, “I don’t recognize any of this – the Bank of England, Venice. The character names were similar, but they added Tom Sawyer. It was a bit of an odd thing and I didn’t think much more of it.” From watching it, O’Neill felt that the film had strayed too far from the original source, saying, “They made the film they set out to make…it’s nothing to do with our [League].” Moore claims never to have seen the film himself.

That it differs greatly from the graphic novel is, to me, the other reason why this film didn’t work. What is the point of getting a hold of decent source material only to screw with it? Sometimes changes can be beneficial, but with LXG there are so many that it’s altered beyond recognition. Kinda like everyone having their way with the cute girl, but only after the baby is born, no one can tell who the father is. The potential was there for this to become a franchise-starter in the vein of X-Men, with iconic characters at the turn of the 20th century. Instead, it ended up becoming The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.

Finally, according to Den of Geek‘s article, “Looking back at The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen film“:

The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen follows the exploits of a fan-servicing collection of superheroes, like Marvel’s Avengers or DC’s Justice League. Not only does it take this tried and tested mechanic for parting geeks from their gold but it makes everything retro by collecting its superheroes from nerd nostalgia – maybe more akin to Defenders Of The Earth (a series itself that would be worth revisiting).

And this concept has been a massive hit with the comic being a noted critical and commercial success. The sheer depth of the fictional world combined with the rich references to the real world of literature scored a direct hit on the steampunk psyche. The novels have inspired literary analysis efforts that would put some English dissertations to shame, with fans pouring over each panel in an attempt to pick out every pastiche.

Then there was the film whose reception, and continuing legacy, couldn’t be more different.

The film, sometimes abbreviated to LXG, came out in 2003. This was a mere four years after the publication of the first issue of the graphic novel. Indeed it is said that pre-production had already begun on the film prior to the first issue. This would be an ideal opportunity for filmmakers to work closely with the creative talent of the source material.

As such it is no surprise that the film sees a team of the greatest literary heroes the Empire had to offer assembled under the auspices of British Intelligence. Like the book they include Allan Quatermain, Mina Harker, Dr Jekyll/Mr Hyde, Captain Nemo and an Invisible Man. This motley collection are thrown together and tasked with investigating a robbery of British technological secrets.

Yet other than this basic premise, along with some of the comic’s story beats, the film seems to have developed relatively separately. This can be seen in the different plot points, characterisations and even characters themselves. It seems that having chosen to take a more distanced development of the film that the writers ran into difficulties.

Some difficulties were foisted upon the film and required some clever thinking to get around, such as was the case with character rights. In the novel all the characters were now free to use, but this was not the case in Hollywood. Which is why the Invisible Man simply becomes an invisible man, with a new name and a quick reference to having acquired rather than invented the formula.

Other changes and additions to the film, which have subsequently been sources of criticism, seem to have been more purposeful. An example is the inclusion of Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer, designed to make the film more appealing to American audiences. Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Grey also is also added to the roster, possibly to provide a younger (looking) love interest for Mina Harker than the elderly Allan Quatermain. Quatermain’s own backstory was changed from that in the comic to avoid the issue of opium addiction.

Nonetheless the film starts with effectively the same intriguing premise of the novels. However, while the movie ticks along in a reasonably average blockbuster adventure way, that great potential is slowly yet unrelentingly frittered away until all that is left is an average blockbuster adventure.

The first sign of this actually comes in the very opening of the film. In a big set piece, the Bank of England is robbed using a tank. While the spectacle of the event is fun and the use of a tank would be an anachronistic surprise, in hindsight, it is a very tame writing decision. Where the novels play with concepts as futuristic and retro as airships and anti-gravity the film settles with a much less ambitious tank. Indeed the whole film suffers in comparison to the novels for a relatively limited ambition in its vision for the fictional world in which it inhabits.

In addition to the film failing to fully live up to the Extraordinary part of its title due to its half-hearted world building, the changes to the characters partially undermine the League portion of the title. Many of the team have the darkest and more complicated edges of their characters toned down significantly. The biggest disappointment in the film is Mina, whose ambiguous background and leadership role is exchanged for a far less subtle re-depiction as a vampire. In the storyline and even the marketing it is clear that greater emphasis is directed upon Quatermain and thus Sean Connery.

Perhaps naturally enough, there were plans for sequels, with hidden references within the film pointing to an adaptation of the second volume of the comics. Yet the underwhelming commercial and critical reception the film received meant that this would fail to materialise. Although the film’s deviation from the plot of the novel is easy to blame the sad truth is that, incredibly, in stark contrast to the graphic novel the filmmakers had failed to create a world either rich or compelling enough to warrant sequels.

Sadly, if the filmmakers had got the first film right then the prospect of a cinematic franchise could have been fantastic. Such a series could have either followed the continued adventures of the same league, or kept things fresh with new leagues in new eras to tell new stories. With the concept of the League established writers would be freed of a lot of expositive burden. Casts of characters could be chosen with an eye on what rights were available or free – you can have great fun speculating as to the composition of such new cinematic leagues. The inability of this only film to translate the confident vision of League’s world is not only why no sequels were made, but also why no sequels were deserved.

The behind the scenes production difficulties put the final nail in the coffin for any sequel as well as effectively ending two careers, with both leading man Sean Connery and director Stephen Norrington quitting acting and directing respectively under the LXG cloud. It can only be hoped that the proposed TV series adaptation of the comics can avoid similar production difficulties and errors to bring us the giddy world of The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen.

Overall, the League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen is an okay, if rather limited, action film. It would never be considered a great masterpiece but its main drawback is that it doesn’t measure up to The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen graphic novels. Indeed once you have read these books the hollowness of their cinematic adaption hits home harder.

Therefore the trick if you want to get any enjoyment from the film is to try and view it before you read the comics from which it was adapted. That’s not to say that you shouldn’t read the books at all or even that you shouldn’t only read the book if you so wish as you’ll not miss out on much. However if you see the film before the book you will get at least a little enjoyment from the former – that’s really your only chance to think of it as anything other than a failure to capitalise on what has become a proven success.

Although the film is not arguably good, at least Stuart Townsend looked attractive.

According to the Empire review:

It’s 1899 and the British government asks retired adventurer Allan Quatermain to lead a group of ‘extraordinary individuals’. Their task: to combat a technological terror campaign led by a mysterious madman, named ‘The Fantom’, intent on world war.

Of all the comic book properties eagerly purchased by studios following X-Men, Alan Moore’s highly-acclaimed melding of Victorian adventure fiction and super-heroics was undoubtedly the most exciting. Teeming with inspired wit and invention, only a supreme effort could screw it up. “Prepare For The Extraordinary” screamed the presumptuous trailer. You should indeed – albeit, crushingly, an extraordinary display of creative cowardice and mishandling.

The drive to concoct a period X-Men results in a depressingly clumsy action movie, one which treats the audience’s intelligence with infuriating contempt.

The promising start – Quatermain (Connery’s craggy charm on form) is lured from his colonial African home to London (hats off to Carol Spier’s beautiful production design) to assemble the League – is quickly evaporated by the film’s most damning trait: the assumption we know nothing of these characters. They are, of course, literary icons of many decades’ cultural standing. The first hour comprises tediously detailed, ham-fisted character introductions via Robinson’s painfully expositional dialogue – the actors flounder with characters free of depth, life or chemistry. Nemo merely provides the gadgets and martial artistry, the now-vampiric Mina Harker is wasted eye-candy, the new Invisible Man is an irritating Cockney spiv, and the Hulk-like Jekyll and Hyde moans and sweats between appearances as poor CG. Ironically, Tom Sawyer and Dorian Gray, who are not in the source comic, fare better. West’s Sawyer has a good mentor/protege schtick with Quatermain, while Townsend’s Gray is undoubtedly the most fun role.

By the time the League actually does something, the film drowns in its own forced spectacle. Fight scenes are shoddily edited, ridiculous set-pieces fail to hide woeful effects and worse are the bewildering array of continuity errors. Anyone who has seen Blade knows that Norrington can direct slick action fare, but there’s scant evidence here.

No matter how troubled the shoot was, the movie was shanghaied from the off, courtesy of Hollywood’s dependence on market-defined ‘success’.

It’s not quite this year’s Avengers, but at times flirts dangerously close with one-star ignominy.

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