On Your Daily Dracula, I’m also covering spinoffs which feature characters from Dracula other than Dracula himself – quite a few of the supporting cast (Van Helsing, Mina, Renfield, the brides) have had solo adventures. Here’s Peta Wilson as Mina Murray in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (2003).
In Tarzan Alive (1972) and Doc Savage: His Apocalyptic Life (1973), Philip José Farmer used biographies of pulp heroes to imagine a world where all the famous adventurers of history, from Allan Quatermain to Leo Bloom, not only shared the same universe but were intimately connected by an extended family tree. It’s an inordinately pleasing notion, and has encouraged many subsequent writers to fill in bits of secret history by pitting Sherlock Holmes against Dracula or Fu Manchu or to have the Frankenstein Monster knock about with Fagin’s gang of young thieves. In their comic book limited series (sequelised to cover The War of the Worlds), writer Alan Moore and artist Kevin O’Neill play a variation on Farmer’s game, though they also see that nothing is new under the sun and recall that Sir H. Rider Haggard himself laid the ground-rules for the crossover genre by writing She and Allan in which his two famous series characters meet up. Moore, always frustrated by the dominance of comics by the superhero formula and yet fascinated by the same genre, intends his League to expand the notion of the superhero, co-opting characters from popular literature to subsume the costumed adventurers of Marvel and DC into the greater, more ambitious tradition apprehended by Farmer. This big budget film version of the first League miniseries comes from creators who have some experience: producer Don Murphy shepherded the film of Moore’s other Victorian fantasia From Hell, while director Stephen Norrington made the surprisingly sharp initial instalment in the franchise spun-off from Marvel’s vampire-killing Blade character and screenwriter James Robinson has made inventive use of DC’s back catalogue characters in the comics series Starman and The Golden Age. Sadly, the finished version suggests a great many compromises and misjudgements along the way – some tiny lapses are telltales of too many script drafts, like the kidnapped scientists who aren’t mentioned until it’s time for their rescue or the misunderstanding of the rules laid down by Oscar Wilde for the destruction of Dorian Gray (here, Mina kills him by showing him his portrait rather than by having him stab it). Other blunders just betoken too many hands trying to open up the appeal of a work that risks being seen as a collection of inside jokes for consoisseurs of Victorian popular fiction. Sean Connery is ideally cast as the ageing Allan, but in place of the drug addiction that is his major trouble in the comic (an apparently modern element actually established by Haggard) we are presented with a typical script-doctor’s false arc, a man grieving over a son lost on an earlier mission who finds a replacement in a young American he decrees will epitomise the 20th Century in the way he did the 19th. Griffin, H.G. Wells’s invisible man, is replaced in film because changes in international copyright mean he would have to be paid for, while Fu Manchu is doubly exiled on the grounds that the character is in copyright and would be politically incorrect for a contemporary audience. Tom Sawyer (the wrong generation for this crew) is introduced as an emblematic American hero, boringly played by Shane West, but the film makes nothing of his Twain-mandated background; indeed, he might more usefully have been Nick Carter or Tom Swift, characters Moore would have made something of. The secondary characters, on the whole, come off best: Naseeruddin Shah makes a splendidly-bearded Captain Nemo, the first screen incarnation to remember that Verne’s character is an Indian, using kabbadi martial arts moves and piloting both an unfeasably large white submarine and a fin de siecle version of the Batmobile; Stewart Townsend follows up his drippy vampire Lestat with an arrogant, elegant Dorian Gray worthy of a genuine Wilde adaptation; and Jason Flemyng makes something of the symbiosis between meek Jekyll and huge Hyde even as CGI steroids make Stevenson’s nasty little creep into a huge-armed, hairy Hulk. Peta Wilson’s Mina works only when incarnated as a flock of bats, and all-purpose villain Richard Roxburgh (soon to be Dracula in Van Helsing) makes a disappointingly standard master fiend, employing an ineffective cockney git reading of the role when required to incarnate Professor Moriarty and doing mad Russian as the Phantom of the Opera. While the comic establishes a continuity of heroism down through the centuries, the film tends feebly to cop bits from various superhero movies just to keep the action going. It relies so heavily on CGI that stretches seem like a cartoon, and all the movement on screen fails to obscure the fact that nothing much is happening as the plot traipses pointlessly all over the globe in defiance of geography (such as how to get from Paris to Venice in something the size of the Titanic while passing through wide open seas) and the dialogue falls listlessly flat.
First published in a slightly different form in Sight & Sound.