It’s probably fair to say that with news breaking recently to the effect that Fox are planning to reboot The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen, their Alan Moore-created literary super-team franchise, reactions were a trifle mixed. For ardent fans of the original graphic novels, the response was polarized between excitement and disgust; to those whose only exposure to the League was the much maligned 2003 film adaptation starring Sean Connery, the announcement was most probably met with an iceberg of apathy floating amidst a sea of indifference.
In case you’re unaware of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, it was created by Alan Moore and artist Kevin O’Neill in the late 90s. The original incarnation of The League are a disparate group of Victorian-era public domain literary characters, brought together by British Intelligence to face turn-of-the-century steampunk evils, for which MI5 were otherwise wholly unprepared.
Moore blended together a diverse range of creations such as Mina Murray, former husband of Jonathan Harker and survivor of Count Dracula’s affections; Hawley Griffin, the original Invisible Man; the dual-identity Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde; Allan Quartermain, the legendary colonial adventurer created by H. Rider Haggard and Jules Verne’s seafaring antihero, Captain Nemo. Moore has freely admitted that his original intent was to create a “Justice League of Victorian England” although in later volumes this gave way to something much more grandly designed and ambitious in scope.
At the time of the book’s creation, Moore’s work was already a hot property in Hollywood. V For Vendetta, From Hell, and the iconic Watchmen had already been sold to studios by the writer and The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen soon followed suit, being optioned by producer Don Murphy when the property was reportedly no more than a three page treatment.
Although Moore’s initial attitude towards silver screen adaptations of his work was somewhat laissez-faire, that changed considerably with the 2003 cinematic release of The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen, or LXG as it was sometimes abbreviated. Dealing with the studio system and feeling unsupported throughout a legal case linked to the film’s release left Moore disillusioned and bitter. He turned his back on both Hollywood and mainstream American comics, refusing royalty payments and demanding that his name be taken off future projects.
In truth, nobody came out of LXGunhurt.
Although the film was released 12 years ago, director Stephen Norrington has yet to helm a movie since. Perhaps the most high-profile casualty of the movie’s tortured production and critical drubbing was the aforementioned Connery, one of Hollywood’s most recognizable icons. Amid fallings out with Norrington that allegedly verged on violence, and a production beset by disaster including floods on location in Venice that were the worst seen in a century, Connery decided that enough was enough and left the film business altogether. Our full look back at the first film can be found here.
Connery famously took the role of Quartermain because he didn’t understand the script; having previously turned down roles in both The Lord Of The Rings and The Matrixtrilogies (which would have presumably made him richer than Donald Trump) because he didn’t understand them, he made a point of accepting the next screenplay with franchise potential that made no sense to him.
It goes without saying that his gambit failed. It is often said that life imitates art: within the world of The League, Campion Bond, the group’s government handler forms them from “a host of nightmares,” combining forces that he cannot hope to understand. Ultimately, the League’s defection destroys Bond’s career, reducing him to a “desk job in the files department.” It is then, an interesting parallel that Connery, also a notable Bond, similarly embraced something that he did not understand and unleashed a nightmarish experience on himself.
Despite a decade having passed, the franchise is still widely associated with its cinematic failure and this, coupled with almost certain opposition from a vehement and vocal Alan Moore means that starting anew is a somewhat tricky proposition. Indeed, previous to their reboot announcement, Fox had already spent a couple of years trying to get a LeagueTV show off the ground but were unable to even get as far as casting, let alone ordering a pilot.
It’s somewhat hard not to suspect that the successful emergence of Showtime’s Penny Dreadful contributed to the eventual demise of a small screen League series; the Victorian-era drama borrows liberally from Moore’s work, right down to the archetypal formation of the group itself: elderly, colonial adventurer? Check. High-society lady both tortured and shamed by her brush with the supernatural? Check. Twisted scientific genius attempting to reconcile the duality of nature? Check once more.
The series’ creator, John Logan (of Skyfall and Hugofame) has openly admitted that Moore’s work is an obvious influence and although the League’s many adventures would be perhaps better suited to TV’s long form storytelling, it is probable that the success of Penny Dreadful contributed to Fox’s decision to revert instead to a cinematic revival. The studio need this too: with the plans for a Fantastic Four franchise seemingly in ruins, Hugh Jackman hanging up the claws after the next Wolverine movie, and Singer and Kinberg facing the tricky task of a second soft reboot of the X-Men series, it’s clear to see that the studio needs an injection of fresh ideas to boost its franchise portfolio.
So where to next? It’s very early days for the production and details are very thin on the ground. Also, it’s unclear as to what extent the rights allow Fox to mine Moore’s work. Certainly the first two volumes of the group’s adventures are fair game: the 2003 adaptation was based (very, very loosely) on Volume I‘s plot and had the film been successful, easter eggs in the movie pointed towards plans for Volume II to follow. This suggests then that Fox certainly are able to adapt the original and most widely celebrated of The League’s adventures without inciting legal action.
Or perhaps not.
This is Hollywood after all, and even characters and stories that should be in the public domain can cause legal entanglements. A case in point being the character of Hawley Griffin: the original Invisible Man created by H.G. Wells was omitted from the film and replaced instead by an invisible man by the name of Rodney Skinner. Skinner’s character was said to have somehow acquired the serum through being a “gentleman thief” but the film was clear to point out that he was no way The Invisible Man for fear of legal repercussions.
Continuing along this line of thought, the series’ entire second volume is a stupendous retelling of the same author’s The War Of The Worlds, another project that is presumably in some stage of development at any number of Hollywood studios and could therefore trigger an avalanche of lawsuits should Fox press ahead in that direction.
The same is true of Volume I which utilizes classic villains such as Fu Manchu and Professor Moriarty as well as none other than Sherlock Holmes himself. It’s hard to see other studios such as Warner Bros. sitting idly by and allowing Fox to use characters worth billions to them, without issuing some sort of legal challenge.
Conversely, Fox will be wary of deviating too much from the magic of Moore’s source material, legal warnings or not: LXG ultimately strayed too far from what made the comics great, resulting in a tepid action blockbuster rather than an intriguing character-led ensemble piece. Much of the blame for this seems to be laid at the feet of Connery who, as Executive Producer of the movie, made fundamental changes to his character and to that of the group dynamic.
Not only was it reportedly written into his contract that each new movie in which he starred had to contain a bigger explosion than the last (hence the completely gratuitous destruction of the hunting lodge in the film’s opening scene), he also refused to play Quatermain as an opium addict, irrevocably changing the character’s nature. In turn, this amendment, along with Fox’s over-reliance on Connery’s star status resulted in perhaps the most galling revision for fans of the source material: instead of being led by the unshakeable Mina Murray, whose iron will throughout the books is strengthened not only by her survival of unspeakable horrors, (but also by her unyielding resolve in the face of idiocy masquerading as patriarchy) the movie incarnation were instead led by a stock action-hero Quartermain, free of his vices and flaws, with all traces of Moore’s delightful subversion of a patriarchal era well and truly lost.
In this area at least, it seems that Fox may have learned their lesson. Producer John Davis was quoted at the Television Critics Awards back in August as saying that the reboot would be “going back to the roots and making it authentic to what the fanbase was[sic] originally excited about.” When pressed further, Davis revealed that the story would be “female-centric” and went on to reference the success of the female-focused Mad Max movie along with the upcoming all-girl Ghostbusters reboot as being emblematic of a new wave of cinema with the ladies in the driving seat.
This will be joy to the ears of most fans of The League; in a meeting of minds between a legendary colonial hero of the Empire and a female divorcee in disgrace, there was only ever one winner and Moore repeatedly subverted our expectations by demonstrating Murray to be the superior wit, the more effective leader, and the more dominant lover than her male counterpart. Perhaps it’s even possible that Davis was alluding to a wholly-female reboot: The League has contained enough female characters such as Fanny Hill and Miss Joan Warralson to make the venture plausible but it seems unlikely given that Fox will want their most identifiable and therefore marketable characters taking centre stage for this all-or-nothing relaunch.
However, there is one vital aspect of the source material which any adaptation of The League will struggle to recreate: Moore’s writing is famous for the density and complexity of its literariness and this is never truer than with The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen. What began life as an attempt to create a “Justice League of Victorian England” had by the third volume, The Black Dossier, grown into a wildly ambitious attempt to chart the League throughout recorded history, merging countless disparate fictional figures and places into one seamless work of literature: a fleeting appearance by King Arthur; references to comic book locations such as Gotham City and Archie‘s Riverdale; thinly-veiled characterisations of both Emma Peel and James Bond and even an appearance by Jack Kerouac’s alter-ego, Sal Paradyse to name but a few, reflect the sheer magnitude of Moore’s undertaking.
At least one of the directors who have attempted to adapt Moore’s work for the silver screen has tried to retain his heavily referential style. Zack Snyder’s Watchmen adaptation slavishly recreated and in some cases developed upon Moore’s pop culture-laden work: the single-line reference to Dylan’s “All Along The Watchtower” at the commencement of the book’s tenth chapter (…two riders were approaching…) was expanded by Snyder to instead use Hendrix’s iconic cover of the entire song, with shots and lyrics seguing perfectly throughout.
But pop culture and literature are not the same, and the ease with which the former can be identified does not necessarily transfer to the latter. A Hendrix or a Nixon reference in Watchmen is much simpler to appreciate than say, Moore’s use of iambic pentameter to ape Shakespeare or his obscure referencing of Doctor Sax, a character from a ’50s beat novel. Moore’s re-imagining of Shakespeare’s The Tempest is deliciously clever: the Bard was royally commissioned to write the play to create an alibi for Duke Prospero. Instead of being on the island where the play takes place he is in England, charged with the top-secret mission of forming the inaugural official League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.
The mind also boggles as to the amount of law suits that this could entail: DC Comics refused to issue The Black Dossier outside of the United States “due to international copyright concerns” and one can imagine Fleming’s estate, for example, being particularly keen to object to the use of 007 within the film, no matter how thickly-veiled the satire may be. No wonder then, that Moore has been quick to deem so many of his projects ‘unfilmable’.
What to expect then? The safe bet is on a much more faithful adaptation of the Victorian-era team followed hopefully by a sequel where they take on the might of Mars in a War Of The Worlds-style clash. And then? Who knows? Perhaps an anthology-style film in the manner of The Black Dossier where The League’s secret origins throughout history are revealed: Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Kerouac’s On The Road and even some of P.G. Wodehouse’s Jeeves & Wooster (another Black Dossierentrant) are free from copyright meaning that a faithful adaptation is unlikely, but not entirely out of the question.
Unfilmable it may be, but Fox are pushing ahead regardless. Hopefully this time the film will be extraordinary for all of the right reasons.