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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