Looking back at The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen film

Feature Philip Tibbetts 1 Apr 2014 - 05:57

LXG, The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen, famously led to Sean Connery's retirement from acting. We look back at the movie...

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.

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It should have been great, but was absolutely terrible. Its no wonder Alan Moore refused to have anything to do with it or other adaptations since, although to be fair, V for Vendetta wasn't bad at all.

A few years back me and my sister decided to have our usual movie night but with a guilty pleasure. I chose this. I hadnt watched it for a few years but claimed over and over again that it was just "mindless fun". I don't know whether I'm just a more seasoned film fan or just plain grown up but watching it was painful. It really was bad...

I went to see this in the cinema when I was 12. I really enjoyed it. I haven't seen it since but just loved the concept of worlds greatest literature monsters come together.

I have fond memories of Connery's first scene in the African bar/club. Seeing him act again, hitting the lines, the joke about automatics being unsporting, a pretty good fight scene and even a positive take on Africa.

The moment they arrive in London, the film goes downhill and never stops.

I read the graphic novels very recently and, er, the film doesn't exactly stick to the source material which is probably a wise decision. Still a tad weirded out. But the film was pretty awful.

While I don't really like this movie's execution of its story, because of how clumsy it is at many points, I still found their version to be more appealing on an idea-level than the original graphic novel. One of my problems with Alan Moore's writing is that he tends to forget to write an actual story and instead writes a big metatextual essay about stories, masked as a story. This is why I really like the concept that the filmmakers went with: A Victorian steampunk superhero-team, going on James Bondian adventures. The simplified concept has a lot of potential for a fun series of movies and the art direction was gorgeous, but unfortunately that was not enough on its own. It's the same with the film adaptation of "Wild Wild West", which should have followed the original TV-show more closely. Despite its many, many problems WWW had gorgeous sets and imaginative steampunk-technology, as well as many cool ideas for a Weird West story.

But even though LXG, WWW and the more recent Jonah Hex-movie failed, they still showed enough potential to inspire me. I'm still waiting for the ideal steampunk-movie or Weird Western that also has a good story, but in the meantime I've dreamed up my own story in the shape of a long-running RPG-campaign:
http://mara999.deviantart.com/gallery/27067474

That forthcoming Penny Black show looks like it's cobbled together from leftover LXG dna, for better or worse.

I'm a big fan of Moore's books (the recent Nemo one is a cracker) but there's no way they could have replicated the depth, detail and nuance that he fills his pages with. Which is a shame, especially when as you say, it made both James Bond and the director of Blade give up for good.

"Okay"? "Okay"!?

It's a fecking travesty!!!

I agree that the source material isn’t that good, and I like the film (several good performances, some nice set-pieces, the production design is truly great, and the Mr. Hyde practical effect/ costume/ make-up is fantastic). Moore getting all the kudos for the character-mixing and genre melding is like J.K. Rowling being hailed for inventing stories about magical schools; Kim Newman stands head and shoulders over the ‘League’ comic, for example, with his ‘Anno Dracula’ books, and the “Riverworld” saga beat them both chronologically for mixing historical, if not fictional, figures in a similar way.
I understand why those who really like the comic might be disappointed by the film which is less of a free adaptation, more of a “here’s a thing with the same name and a similar premise”, but personally I prefer it to the comic. LXG may not be the best film ever, but it’s far better than many.

I still imagine that there is plenty of potential in making another movie with a similar premise. LXG is a bit like a steampunk-version of the Avengers and other superhero-teams, so they could just as well make another attempt at the same concept and making it work much better.

The movie was nice (not having read the graphic novels), but I am really looking forward to the TV series. At least the pilot episode will be broadcast. However, if it can be as awesome as Sleepy Hollow, I think Fox will have a new hit on their hands. Expacially because it's a literature The Avengers.

I cannot begin to tell you how disappointed my sons and I were with this. Not knowing the Graphic Novels and going by the early teasers and trailers our enthusiam grew. Then we saw the movie. Oh dear. What should have been a tight, rip-roaring adventure movie became a sloppy, soppy travesty of a film. Poor scripting, poor casting, poor direction. The list goes on. Im still smarting from this film ruining my movie hopes and dreams. That will teach me.

The graphic novels are superb and the continued growing universe that the books encompass are subtle and at times brilliant. Where else can you get cameos from Beano characters next to HP Lovecraft and Popeye. Still there is no real way that like a lot of Alan Moores work that the book will work on screen. From the drug induced visions of Quatermain to the very violent revenge Mr Hyde takes out on the invisible man there is no way that any certification would have been given to the film with these in them. I think LXG is deeply flawed, if they had gone the route of the recent Sherlock Holmes films and grounded it more in the dirt and grit of the time while adding the 'extraordinary' to it it would have worked. The characters were also paper thin with the malice of Mina and Nemo completely removed Quatermain being a hero front and centre rather than a washed up has-been. Hyde looked perfect (until they did the CG mess at the end) and the idea of a secret society with advanced weapons could have worked - if they had kept things subtle and maybe used things like Cavorite or harnessed lightening from say a Edison made blueprint or even a Teslar coil would have added a bit of depth to it. I can see why the director walked from the film full of stupid decisions like the Nautalus in canals of Venice (why didn't they use mini-subs?) or the addition of a poorly conceived Tom Sawyer - but then i am not a Hollywood Producer who thinks he knows better than everyone else.

I've had that happen with so many films, re-watching films can be a dangerous past-time.

Yeah Moore's refusal to play the "Hollywood game" pretty much comes from this and From Hell (which is arguably worse). V for Vendetta and The Watchmen are pretty watch-able, not classics or great, but certainly above the likes of Transformers.

I keep thinking I've watched Wild Wild West and but I cannot remember anything but a giant mechanical spider thing. I may not have watched it.

Sleepy Hollow was a genuine surprise, I never thought I'd end up liking that as much as I do.

My advice is to keep it that way. Don't watch it, because it's not even bad in a fun way, but awkward enough to sit through that I realized how bad it was already at the age of eleven.

I suppose that between this and Wild Wild West, Steampunk movies will have to stay undercover for a while before trying to resurface...

It is really sad that there have been so very few good Steampunk-movies. The few that I can think of are "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954)", "Back to the Future, Part III", "Stardust", Guy Ritchie's Sherlock Holmes-movies and "Steamboy" (2004), but otherwise the genre has faced many disappointments over the years.

The music video is better than the film. But grinding your teeth with a bastard file is more enjoyable than Wild Wild West.

this is so typical of hollywood. studios and directors want to put their own spin on the graphic novels, comic books, and their characters when they adapt them to film and too many times they get so far off base from the source material that it makes the films terrible.

They're comic books not graphic novels.

That's Superman Returns you're thinking of.

Agreed - all it really needs is a high-profile, successful steampunk movie and the genre would get an overall boost.
To that list I'd add the animated film Atlantis: The Lost Continent, and maybe The Golden Compass.

I have the graphic novels, although I'm yet to read them. I remember being disappointed with this movie even when I was a kid, but I was and still am very impressed by the production design work.

I forgot about Atlantis. I really like that one.

One problem with many steampunk-novels seems to be that they focus way too much on making the setting weird and make the story more like an afterthought. The same applies to some movies as well. "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea" did an excellent job in creating an exciting adventure that happens to take place on a high-tech 19th century submarine. So I'd like to see them plan out an exciting adventure and then adding steampunk-y elements to it.

Oh yes, definitely. Create an exotic background, but don't forget that this is what it is, a background.
I adored Disney's 20,000 Leagues, and Mason's portrayal, even if it wasn't accurate to Nemo as Verne described him (one thing LXG did get right).

nah that's Superman Lives, the Kevin Smith script, I remember reading that!

I mean, what was so dull about Moriarty trying to start a gang war with Fu Manchu?

Wild Wild West is quite possibly the most well-made bad movie ever. Everything about it is top notch except the script, which is horrendous.

They are both. originally printed as comic books, but reprinted, and more successfully so, in the graphic novel format, and many of the sequels were _only_ printed in the GN format.

I think with Moore it wasn't so much the quality of the movies but the legal hassle he had when Larry Cohen tried to sue the studios because of a lot of similarities to a script he had written called 'Cast of Characters'. Moore seems content enough to have sold the rights to his stories and just ignore the films but as soon as he was accused of writing the comics simply so that the studio could rip off Larry Cohen, and for the studio then to settle out of court I think that's when the process soured for him.

Don't forget the god-awful Sucker Punch (Zack Synder).

I've tried to forget it - I console myself by labelling it dieselpunk rather than steampunk, like Captain America, Sky Captain, Brazil and The Rocketeer.

While Captain America, Sky Captain, Brazil and The Rocketeer aren't steampunk, I like to count them into the larger category of retro-futuristic movies that work. :)

For me, the comic series' "jumping the shark" point was when they killed off Hyde and Griffin, had Nemo leave the group, and had the two least interesting characters become immortal and have adventures throughout the next century.

I think that part might have to do with the filmmakers wanting to avoid the backlash of presenting an old-fashioned "yellow peril"-type villain, even though other subsequent movies have featured even more blatant examples.

I am so glad someone has decided to honour LXG, no matter what anyone says The League of Extraorinary Gentlemen is an incredible movie, i must have seen it a dozen times and i could watch it a dozen more thanks to Sean Connery. Next to the legendary Wild Wild West the league is probably my favourite worst movie ever next to episode 1.

Exactly! That's why I'm looking forward to the TV adaption of LXG and Fox's other adventure series Hieroglyph.

Alan Moore's comics to me can always be summed up to me with one word, and that's "disappointing". The concept of the League (or unfair to give him the credit as if he's the first to thing of a mashup) is fantastic. But the comics fail to live up to what that premise could give to me. So much so that i feel any adaption is better off taking steps in other directions.

This movie, while IMO does somethings better than the comics, does other things that aren't that well to live up to the hype as it could be. If i had to pick, i'd watch the movie over reading the comics, but i'd really want another attempt at it by different parties.

Fox's tv show attempt could be cool, but deep down i hope one day the BBC does their own lit mashup show. That might have the chance of delivering something really good out of the idea. We've got a whole bunch of lit based shows hitting tv within the last several years, so i do hope to see a really good stab at a lit mashup that isn't going to be under the presence of Alan Moore's lit head and depraved mind or the constraints of Hollywood's blockbuster pattern.

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