It’s difficult to be very excited about some titles when you think you know what you’re getting. Dracula, Oliver Twist, Pride and Prejudice: these classic novels have hit the screen more than a few times, and they come with expectations. There’s going to be a bloke with pointy teeth, or a pickpocket, or an embarrassing mother. Transylvania will look foggy and mountainous and Victorian London will be really grimy. That’s not to say there isn’t room for a new version, but it would have to work really hard to take anyone by surprise.
The 1977 version of The Island of Dr. Moreau managed to surprise me. I had a certain idea in my mind of how this amazing HG Wells novel gets turned into movie magic. It seemed the screen had to have its megalomaniacal, twisted weirdo of a mad scientist, and torchlight through the jungle at night, and close-ups of leering, distorted faces to make you shudder. All of these things have tended to detract from the debate at the centre of the novel about what difference there is between humanity and the rest of the animal kingdom; everything Dr. Moreau does, when he’s been played by either Charles Laughton in the 1932 version or Marlon Brando in the 1996 version, is obviously crazy, so the obligation to take anything the character says seriously is removed.
Not so with Burt Lancaster’s performance of Dr. Moreau. He’s not an actor, come to think of it, who’s ever been one for big gestures. Instead he projects a sense of completeness here – he’s very sure of who he is and what he’s doing. And this makes Dr. Moreau a very different sort of scientist. There’s no evil laugh or bizarre dress sense. There’s a man who is looking for scientific answers and thinks sometimes cruel acts have to occur in order to reach for knowledge that will help all mankind. He points out early on in the film, in a soft and reasonable tone of voice, that man’s understanding of anatomy comes from dissecting corpses – a process that was once considered evil.
Of course, there’s a long way to go from dissecting corpses to the kind of thing Moreau gets up to, but a build-up is always so much more rewarding than simply starting out with the horror up front. I would say, with this in mind, if you don’t know this story you might be wise to avoid reading the blurb on the back of the Blu-ray box or even looking too closely at the screenshots provided there, which give the entire game away.
We also don’t get a lot of night-time antics in this version. Great use is made of the sun shining down on this tropical paradise (it was filmed on Saint Croix, US Virgin Islands, and it is stunning) and of the flora and fauna that abound, building the sense of exposure, isolation and confusion that Andrew Braddock (played by Michael York) experiences. Braddock is a shipwrecked sailor who lands on the island and slowly uncovers what Moreau is doing, and Michael York brings a great physicality to this, particularly as he becomes attracted to the strange and beautiful Maria (Barbara Carrera) who lives with Moreau.
So there are some really strong performances here and an amazing setting; I think what lets this version down is the element of transformation that has proven troublesome for all the film versions of The Island of Dr. Moreau. On the page, the results of Moreau’s experiments are as hideous or as dignified as you can imagine them to be. The film versions have to show us these experiments, and I don’t know if it’s possible to create a balance that retains both the shock factor and also provokes a desire to look objectively at the results. It’s the gap between the written word and the visual presentation, perhaps – there’s something about HG Wells’ book that I’m not sure will ever be successfully translated to the screen.
Having said that, I would love to be proved wrong. I’m sure at some point there will be another version of The Island of Dr. Moreau and maybe next time all the elements of horror, surprise, disgust, and sympathy will come together without losing the big questions at the heart of the story. In the meantime, this version is as good as it gets. If you can accept the fact that the transformational element requires a heavy suspension of disbelief, and concentrate instead on the main performances, then there’s a lot here to enjoy.
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