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Alan Moore & Eddie Campbell's From Hell and The Hughes Brothers' From Hell


From Hell

Moore, Alan and Eddie Campbell. Eddie Campbell Comics, 2000. 572 p., $35.00, paperback. ISBN: 0958578346.

Directed by Allen and Albert Hughes. Starring Johnny Depp, Ian Holm and Heather Graham. Twentieth Century Fox, 2001, $29.90. ASIN: B00005JKJM.

From Hell or Hollywood, or Ripper In Pieces: How Ho\\ywood Slashed the Script

<1> Allen and Albert Hughes' film version of From Hell is visually striking and strong on memorable images. For those who enjoy attending films based on graphic novels they have read, the first framed shot of a London skyline beneath a scarlet sky is superbly reminiscent of the menacing and yet enticing comic world of the novel. Moreover, the film develops its theme visually as well as narratively; the impulse behind the ripper murders is chillingly realized in some ensemble scenes at the Royal College of Physicians and police barracks where single female victims are counter-pointed against a metaphorical wall of uniform, uniformed men gazing at the dismembered victims of misogyny. Correspondingly, each victim preamble is intercut with shots of London's phallic skyline in a surprisingly subtle synergy that links Big Ben effortlessly to the more pagan obviousness of Cleopatra's needle. Further, the image of Queen Victoria dominates many of the signs employed in the movie. In scene after scene she appears in person, on coins, on official notepaper and in gallery portraits, with the accumulative effect that she floats like a spectre through both the juxtaposed worlds of Spitalfields and Westminster.

<2> "Spectre" is the appropriate word here. From Hell is based on the exemplary graphic novel of the same name written by Alan Moore and drawn by Eddie Campbell which posits the scenario that Sir William Gull, Physician Ordinary to Queen Victoria, was responsible for the murders commonly attributed to the now mythological figure "Jack the Ripper." However, Moore and Campbell's version is only spectre-like in relation to the film; its body and soul condensed and so displaced elsewhere. Thankfully, the semiotic interplay of Victoria's image is one of the tropes that the Hughes Brothers have chosen to reproduce directly from the pages of the comic. Similarly, the murder of the final victim, Marie Kelly (or perhaps not the Irish woman, as the film rather unconvincingly suggests) captures a layperson's perceptions of both Masonic ritual and the fascination that a physician might have for physical architecture, and in particular, the human heart. In both a chilling and fascinating manner, it gives the audience a brief glimpse through the alien eyes of someone whose emotional response to what we call mutilation might be very different from our own.

<3> Regrettably, however, Terry Hayes and Rafael Yglesias -- who adapted From Hell for the screen -- have excluded far too much of the original work to the detriment of the film version. The contextual information provided by Moore in a detailed appendix to the graphic novel is absent of course, but a removed appendix is not in itself fatal. This reviewer, for example, is aware of how criticism is both an act of mutilation and mastery. A reviewer butchers an original text, taking that which seems necessary to get the text to say what must be said, and excising the rest. In this manner, both elisions and excisions serve the false god of compressed coherence. However, the screen adaptors of From Hell have made some inclusions which threaten to obliterate the very characteristics of the graphic novel that doubtlessly propelled it onto the pitch table in the first place. In this instance, mutilation takes the form of addition.

<4> There is a scene common to both versions where a close up shot of Netley -- played convincingly in the film by Jason Flemyng -- indicates the degree of psychological distress the designated coachman is undergoing at the nature of his master's crimes. He tells Sir William Gull "I don't know where I am any more," to which Gull responds "We are in the most extreme and utter region of the human mind; we are in Hell." It is all quite dramatic in its necessarily truncated and therefore pop psychological import, but it is also a million miles removed from the response to the question provided by William Gull in Moore's characteristically layered and semiotically resonant work.

<5> Having rather improbably received the order from Queen Victoria herself that five women who know of Prince Edward's (known as Albert) predilection for prostitutes must be removed if the empire is not to have a scandal that could topple it, Gull, physician to the Royal family and chosen executor of this task, directs Netley on a sightseeing tour around London. Stating that "a great work must have many sides from which we may consider it," the subsequent "history, symbol and myth" tour is so potent in pagan symbolism that it quickly becomes clear in which particular branch of London myth Gull wishes to become enshrined. Displaying a compendious knowledge of London history, in equal part pagan and misogynistic, Gull points out to Netley that early life hinged on the childbirth mystery with the result that all the first gods were female, until patriarchy claimed its current "stranglehold" with the Romans reaping rape-revenge on Boadicea and the Iceni at Battle Bridge, their first stop on the tour. From there they proceed to Hackney Marshes -- "Hakon's Ea" -- where Saxons lived and toasted Hengest's father Ivalde Svigdur who they proposed killed Mani, the lunar deity. Here Moore cleverly utilizes the bi-polar brain theory gaining currency in what would have been the early stages of neurosurgery, by having Gull suggest that the creative right side is governed by Dionysus whose symbol is the moon, in contrast to the Apollonian left, symbolized by the sun. Thus, with a patriarchal/matriarchal mythic struggle established, their tour continues around London's stock of phallic symbols from Pagan Obelisks to Cleopatra's needle; all symbols of the sun and man's ascendancy. Gull shows Netley how even Christ, complete with sun-disk halo, evolved from the Egyptian myth of Osiris. To bridge the gap between pagan and Christian architecturally, Gull brings the work of Nicholas Hawksmoor to the center of the tour. Gull posits the notion that Hawksmoor's pagan spires are Masonic reenactments of pagan phallocentricism and Apollonian worship. Finally, in Spitalfields beneath Hawksmoor's Christchurch, Gull directs Netley to trace their route on a map which reveals a pentacle (and a second pentacle within its confines which Gull intends to replicate by predesignating locations for the five killings). Here Gull claims that this pentacle of "sun gods, obelisks, and rational male fire is where the moon and womanhood are chained" just as chains appear on the dome of Saint Paul's in order that the power of God does not desert it. The great work that Gull and Netley must do is to maintain such traditions in order that suffragettes and labourers who talk of socialism and riot in Trafalgar Square do not assail the true Apollonian nature of the British empire's rise to power.

<6> In conjunction with episodic accounts of Gull's skills as an anatomist, a brief flashback to a childhood characterized by the cold nature of barge-work, and his initiation and rise in the freemasons, Moore paints a rounded and vivid picture of the tabloid-coined "Jack the Ripper." For example, Gull is clearly a misogynist, but one with a historical understanding of how misogyny is fostered. Although necessarily indifferent to the individual human body he is a man in possession of the necessary respect and admiration for "God's architecture" as he calls it. In short, he is that curious contradiction known as surgeon, or physician. Further, although he recognises and respects the rich diversity of cultural difference, he is an unswerving imperialist and hierarchical member of the freemasons; the brotherhood of myth that in the nineteenth century was synonymous with the mercantile interests that characterised imperialism. This is perfectly illustrated in Moore's From Hell when Gull visits John Merrick and reassures the unfortunate that were he Indian he would be worshipped as a descendant of the elephant-headed god, Ganesa. Indeed, before Gull murders Polly Nichols he offers her as a sacrifice to Ganesa to whom Indians make offerings before embarking on any important enterprise (Moore himself offers his story to Ganesa on the first page of his nine volume enterprise); and yet Gull is fully aware that this murder is undertaken to maintain the crown, the most potent national emblem against the threat of the Other. In contrast, Merrick is used in the Hughes' version only as proof that the investigating officer, Inspector Abberline, has visions, appearing first in a dream and then as a curiosity at the Royal College of Physicians when Abberline is in attendance for an inquest. In other words, Merrick's inclusion in the film is superfluous because it serves no apparent purpose, whereas in Moore's hands the reference is sublime.

<7> This is the nub of the problem. What Moore teases out and establishes, the Hughes compress and gloss over. In the graphic novel, Gull envisions himself as a modern architect of Masonic, pagan myth and royally approved anatomist to the five motley women who threaten the crown. As Moore pieces together Gull's delusions, the latter's preparations for entry into the pantheon of the pagan myths he cherishes seem a rational choice, freed from the vagaries of emotional and moral (if not mental) qualifications. Moreover, after the crucial passage of the graphic novel mentioned above, and with the reader placed as Netley, ignorant of London's secret histories, Moore, with anatomical precision and no small rhetorical skill, renders problematic any easy dismissal of Gull's crimes on moral grounds alone. In the Hughes' From Hell however, Gull's cartographic pentacle becomes Abberline's recognition of the formation in which a few scattered coins fall around one victim. In such a manner, Moore's symbol of mythic and ritualistic containment is condensed and conveniently reduced into a sign of the devil.

<8> So in the film, when Gull responds to Netley's question with the refrain "we are in hell," we are in a hell of Hollywood reduction, where, similar to the condensation practised on Moore's The Killing Joke to produce Tim Burton's 1989 Batman, ethical ambiguity is erased in favour of the satanic scare and doses of crowd reassuring moral certainty. Here, amputation -- as a form of mutilation -- "cuts off" opaque ethical conundrums and the reviewer's desire for mastery necessitates a Frankenstein-like rebuilding from the corpse of the original.

<9> For example, in Moore's version, Gull is identified as the murderer in the first episode so the dramatic tension is not built, as is that of the film, on the final revelation that Gull is indeed the terror of Whitechapel. Wary of such manipulative tricks, Moore establishes this fact immediately and instead builds dramatic tension on his readership's slow realization that in the Whitechapel murders the disfigured concerns of the next century were brought to life. Moore undertakes this weaving together of layers through the medium of Gull's expansive and inclusive mind, indicating at all times that Gull is calculating what he is doing and intellectually celebrates the myth he is creating. In contrast, when Abberline, played by an impressively cockney Johnny Depp, confronts Gull over his crimes in the film, the latter's primary motive is established as revenge. Abberline's conclusion is that Gull is the Ripper because as physician to the Royal family he resents the fact that Prince Edward contracted syphilis from London prostitutes. His extravagant mutilations are indicative of his anger at such an injustice. Ian Holm (as Gull) conveniently concurs with twitching cheeks and a brief rant about monarchy and creating history. Here the Hughes Brothers have sacrificed intellectual depth at the altar of that common denominator: emotion. Similarly, the preposterous love story concocted between Mary Kelly (who escapes the ripper to a John Hinde postcard) and Inspector Abberline serves to introduce love as the salvation of all concerned when Moore's original creation is designed to show, episode by episode, piece by piece, how the grand humanism ideal is dismembered by industrialization, and how the principle of utilitarianism serves only the hierarchy. This is wonderfully realized in the graphic novel when Moore juxtaposes a sincere William Morris reading his poem "Love is Enough" to a meeting of the International Worker's Educational Club while below him in the alley Gull disembowels his third victim. Conversely, in the film, Depp's fellow officer John Godley is a literary man, quoting at random from Shakespeare and Milton. Thus, in a very clumsy way the film aligns the good guys with culture, whereas in the graphic novel, Godley utters almost nothing but profanities designed to express his incredulity at what is happening around him. With Moore, it is Gull the murderer who knows his literature, swiftly dismissing Yeats and his "Spiritus Mundi" when they meet in the British museum. Thus a Benjaminian awareness of the barbarity behind culture, one of the most interesting elements of the graphic novel, is cinematically transformed into an Arnoldesque resistance to the anarchy of "this filthy modern tide." This is designed to enforce the bourgeois notion that knowing a bit of poetry will make you a better person, but only serves to contradict the film's main theme in the process. The cumulative effect of Gull's rage, Abberline and Mary's love affair and Godley's sensitivity only serves to individuate what is the central and centralised metaphor of Moore's work; namely, irrespective of Queen Victoria's personal involvement in ordering the execution of five prostitutes, the industrialized empire over which she presided brought about the very circumstances that required Gull's emergency surgery. Victoria/Gull/Jack the Ripper and the emergent bourgeoisie are interchangeable signs for a historical moment which dissected English subjects into a class system and 'dis-embodied' their sense of the feudal life that industrialization replaced. Moore underscores this by drawing attention to the Whitechapel traders cashing in on the crimes with cheap memorabilia and the hundreds of copycat letters sent to the newspapers, fantasizing about sex and murder; something the film conveniently omits. The pity is that Moore's central metaphor has been so painstakingly constructed and built on such layered foundations that what should be a cinematic study in the social dissection of traditional values, instead presents them as the antidote to the very historical moment that called their legitimacy into question.

<10> Alternatively, the time spent building Abberline and Mary's romance could have been better used drawing attention to the social and cultural context of the period. Moore's text is littered with anecdotal references to Swan and Edison's light bulb, to the first electric tram in Berlin, to Fleming's cell division in 1882; to Pasteur's bacterial warfare; to Maxim's steam turbine; to Benz's motorcar; to Hertz's radio waves; to Michelson and Morley's dismissal of ether which paved the way toward splitting the atom, and on, to Hiroshima; to the Mahdi uprisings and the West's first confrontation with Islam; to France taking Indochina, the first of a series of events that culminated in the Vietnam war; to the first Zionist movement conference in 1884; to England's belligerent refusal to grant Ireland Home Rule -- and to Gull's crimes as the crystallising moment of tabloid newspaper history. Further, given that all of these events preoccupy our current social, political and cultural moment, in a quite brilliant calibration that one would think worthy of cinematic treatment (given Hollywood's current preference for "twist" movies) Moore uses Howard Hinton's 1884 pamphlet "What is the Fourth Dimension?" (in which the author argues that history repeats itself in diminishing fractions like algebra) as a vehicle for time travel. In tune with a historical period in which notions of time and space were far less chronologically linearated than they are now (one need only consider Yeats' A Vision and his temporally spiraling gyre), Moore neatly reversed the traditional uncanny moment where people see ghosts, by prioritizing Gull's point of view in visions where he sees the future seeing him as its ghost and architect, his dream fulfilled.

<11> Unfortunately, and probably through studio pressure generated by a fear that people would be confused, the Hughes' Brothers have passed on some superbly eerie moments such as Gull committing one of his disembowelments as he watches twentieth century office staff close deals on mobile phones around him. It is in moments such as these that Moore consolidates his position as one of the most innovative and insightful writers of the late twentieth century and in the process, confers upon the graphic novel the status of important cultural product. From Hell, the film all the way from Hollywood, opens with a fictional Ripper quote culled from Moore's treatment: "I have given birth to the twentieth century." For the proof? Read the comic.

Rodney Sharkey