This review will look at how H.G Wells’ novel The Island of Doctor Moreau, written in 1896, was adapted into a cinema screen portrayal in 1932. The film directed by Erle C Kenton was met with critical acclaim and is still revered as the closest portrayal to the actual novel today. I have chosen to review the first movie portrayal because it is deemed as the best effort in reflecting the novel and the novel has ecological themes running through it that include human’s position in comparison to animals and to the rest of nature and how we often adopt the role of being Earth’s God. Wells provides voice for all Victorian society that struggled with the theory of evolution with one of its side effects being the dismissal of humans as being a special entity separate from other living beings. I will look at how the two compare including what the film misses and the impact of these missing scenes, the ecological elements in both and whether the film delivers on the deeper ecological undertones and whether I thought the adaptation did the novel justice.
The Island of Lost Souls lacks the kind of ecological content that appears throughout the novel. The film begins with Edward ‘Parker’, his name is changed from Prendick, being rescued. Although Edward has apparently been lost at sea, his appearance does not seem to reflect this. Animals on board the ship are caged and unhappy, the first example of ecological themes in the film. During this scene Edward learns that Dr Moreau is the owner of the animal shipment and discovers the beast people. Edward is involved in a fight with the Captain resulting in Edward leaving the boat and joining Moreau on the Island. As part of Moreau’s quest to vivisect an animal and make it the perfect human he tries to set up Lota, a black panther turned woman and Edward in a romantic sense to discern whether Lota can be attracted to another human. Whilst spending time with Lota Edward discovers the house of pain and becomes afraid that Moreau is vivisecting humans. He is made aware by Moreau that it is not human vivisection but just animals. Edward’s wife-to-be, Ruth Thomas and Captain Donahue journey to the island in an attempt to rescue Edward. That night proves to be an eerie and fatal one. Montgomery shows his first signs of being dissatisfied with Moreau and decides to help the rest leave the island. Moreau tries to prevent this by having one of his creations kill Captain Donahue. The killing of Donahue compromises ‘not to spill blood, that is the law’ (Kenton, Beast people: 1932) rendering the rules they live by meaningless. This results in the beast people’s rebellion and killing of their torturer Moreau in the house of pain whilst the others escape. Lota returns to her animalistic ways and kills one of the beast people that is gaining on the escapee party. This then leads to her death leaving just Edward, Ruth and Montgomery to escape. The island is burnt down and no trace of their existence remains.
The novel contains key scenes that are neglected in the film. The trauma Edward faces being lost at sea is omitted. This initial event in the book explores the reliability of the narration which is vital to how much we as the reader believe the events that take place. The characterisation of Edward is changed as well as in the novel Edward is not a Hollywood hero but instead fragile, representative of a ghostly figure with his hand ‘so thin that it looked like a dirty skin-purse full of loose bones’ (Wells, 2015: 102). His appearance in the novel accentuates his vulnerability which in turn, relates him to the beast people. His heroic demeanour in the film distances him from this. The film does not capture the turmoil Edward faces between science and ethics. Edward’s first thoughts seem to be accepting of Moreau’s work. He expresses his dismay at Moreau being outcast because of his experiments in England stating that ‘it was not the first time that conscience has turned against the methods of research’ (Wells, 2015: 453). However, as the novel persists and Edward’s interaction with the beast people increases he has a moral epiphany that occurs ‘like a wave across [his] mind… of the unspeakable aimlessness of things upon the island’ (Wells, 2015: 1362). This conflict between science and ethics undercuts the deontological argument of something being intrinsically right or wrong as Edward seemingly advocates torture of animals as ‘natural’ and a way of furthering science but also condemns experimentation on evolution as pointless. His eventual feeling about the natural world sees him expressing that ‘before they had been beasts, their instincts fitly adapted to their surroundings, and happy as living things may be’ (Wells, 2015: 1370) suggesting that the environment should not be tampered with.
Wells’ intentions for the novel are not mirrored in the film. Wells intends to deliver a confused argument about ethics versus science. in the Island of Doctor Moreau Wells ‘warns of the dangers of scientific overreaching and suggests the ineffectuality of human attempts to intervene in evolutionary processes’ (Alt, 2014: 34) Wells himself had a scientific background and like Edward Prendick ‘had been the student of the great biologist and evolutionist Thomas Huxley, Darwin’s disciple, friend, and champion’ (Glendening, 2007: 572). However, Wells became increasingly worried about the potential of degeneration and human’s interference with nature. John Glendening talks about the confusion that Wells experiences over science versus ethics as ‘the unstable interpenetration of the cultural and the natural, the human and the animal, the moral and the amoral comprises a major area of incertitude in Wells’s novel’ (2002: 576). The fact that Well’s intentions and feelings of confusion are not echoed in the film damages its ability to be a reliable representation of the novel.
An area where the film does reflect the intentions of the novel are with the portrayal of Dr Moreau.. His shadowy presence throughout due to the camera work capturing him in conflicting lights gives him this lofty presence that accompanies his claims to be God and his evil intentions.
Charles Laughton, the actor who plays Dr Moreau, does an excellent job in portraying this maniacal/genius character that feels no remorse and believes in the human cause being the only cause as he demonstrates a god like hold upon his beast people. Moreau represents the ecologist’s enemy as he thinks that the human form is the only being that is important. He expresses this when he says in the novel ‘the human form that appeals to the artistic form that appeals to the turn artistic turn of the mind more powerfully than any animal shape can’ (Wells, 2015:1018). His obsession to make the perfect human is seen in the film as well as he desperately tries to prove that Lota is fully human by trying to encourage her and Edward to share human emotions of attraction. When her animalistic claws begin to show themselves again, he is filled with despair and anger at his own failings. One of the more famous lines from the film is ‘do you know what it means to feel like God?’ (Moreau, director: 1932) The God complex that is established in both novel and film is a social critique of the human thinking it is above all other living forms but his eventual demise is proof that all living things in the natural world are equal. Moreau’s flippant attitude towards pain is highlighted in the film as well. After Edward professes his disdain towards the animals being vivisected ‘poor, tortured creatures’ (director, 1932) he is met with ‘what does that matter?’ (Moreau, director: 1932) which emphasises Moreau’s willingness to ignore ethics or morality in order for science to progress. This is reiterated in the novel when Moreau asserts that ‘Pain is simply our intrinsic medical adviser to warn us and stimulate us’ (Wells, 2015: 1034). Moreau’s character is given more attention in the film as he is set up as the ultimate villain. He transforms from a crazy scientist to a deluded dictator with a God complex that sees his compliant followers turn on him in his most intimidating tool-the house of pain.
The attention paid to Moreau means that one of the key characters in the novel is given a lot less attention in the cinematic version. In the novel he is portrayed as a complex character that feels an allegiance to Moreau but at the same time feels sympathy for the beast people. In the film adaptation we see Montgomery but rarely hear him. He seems to be the one that is worried about Edward’s involvement but apart from that finds him an irrelevant character that just happens to be an acquaintance of Moreau. The film instead chooses to set up a direct hero versus villain in Edward versus Moreau. However, with this we miss the friendship between Montgomery and Edward, where the former always looks out for the latter. We miss Montgomery’s conflict in morality as Edward perceives that ‘he had a sneaking kindness for some of the metamorphosed brutes, a vicious sympathy with some of their ways’ (Wells, 2015: 1177). Montgomery is perhaps most representative of the average human; ethically aware but not with enough care to make a change instead following someone else’s example. His mixed emotion towards the Island is in conjunction with the acceptance of torture but the thought that evolutionary experiment is pointless. Montgomery does become more prominent at the end of the film when he takes sides and chooses the morally enlightened side that choose to leave the island. He could not get away with this in the novel because his involvement in vivisecting and creating the beast people is much more pronounced leaving him ultimately on the side of the villain despite his reservations. He, like Moreau, ends up dead.
The biggest and most obvious change in the film adaptation is the inclusion of Lotar. The inclusion of Lota changes the whole dynamics of the story by creating a romantic twist that consumes the film and takes away from the societal importance in critiquing man’s approach to nature. The first time we encounter Lota it becomes blatantly clear that she is not like the other beast people.
From the pictures above, it can clearly be seen how ridiculous the black panther woman is. She might be Moreau’s best piece of work but she does not resemble an animal in any capacity apart from the poor looking claws that essentially just look like overgrown nails. I understand the motives to create a film that had a direct contrast between hero and villain with the attractive woman’s best interests at stake but I think it severely diminishes the purpose of the story. This Hollywood tainted plot inclusion means that our attention becomes focused on what the outcome of the love triangle between Edward, Ruth and Lota will be instead of the moral implications that The Island of Dr Moreau intended on producing. We go from having no love interest in the novel to two in the film which feels like an injustice to the Wells’ intentions.
Although The Island of Lost Souls is an entertaining cinematic watch that has horror, ego-maniacs, romance and a generally contorted and twisted feeling it does not delve deep enough into the social critique that Wells’ novel offers. A hard feat to achieve in just fifty seven minutes, the film largely skips over ecological themes that are imperative to the development of the story. We do not see enough character development with only Moreau being someone we can invest time in and who we come to truly fear because of his obsession with power. Richard Arlen misinterprets Edward Parker who becomes a stereotypical Hollywood hero who solves problems with a fist fight and who has apparently not felt any repercussions to being lost at sea without any supplies. Montgomery is not given enough screen time and his friendship with Edward is totally dismissed as they barely interact throughout. The beast people come across as humorous rather than distorted freaks and again do not receive enough attention. There is no cave scene where Edward briefly lives with the beasts and learns their laws and there is only one notable encounter between human and beast which comes as a surprise because unlike the novel there is no build-up of tension between the two. The addition of Lota, Ruth and Captain Donahue does nothing but diminish the plot as they do not aid any ecological or societal critique or discussion. Overall, the film adaptation does not do the novel justice because of its choice to focus on Edward, Moreau and Lota instead of the conflict and interaction between humans and nature.
E C Kenton (1932). The Island of Lost Souls retrieved from http://www.bfi.org.uk/
Gerry Canavan, & Kim Stanley Robinson. (2014). Green planets: Ecology and science fiction Wesleyan University Press. Retrieved from http://hud.summon.serialssolutions.com/2.0.0/link/0/eLvHCXMwzV3NT4MwFK-6kzc_tzk1Pe1ggqEfrGDiwZgtHnbSqckuBOgjepAtwhL_fF-hY8DFq8dSQuHXlvfZ3yNE8FvX6fwT_EmqAVKtUoH6g8aVDVooLwrSNNWJitvETHvb1NXdtX8-8R2NuG5a-n6TQlNWIYKiTHSbJjuCpe0enn0m9VRYY5_JjrH_DsaTjRu_Tsiv7EAj1z00cqsKNR0C6WfXQzMAxfLYsIl_aRznHjLn9QUFF2MTU-_iYbncbkIuPCaU1XlKRxVqZEypkjvTjuI2GiqwNEb1K7TbJoGzE9Gvz3S1_U2GrDVZrTd5Q8AvjkjPHPo4JvuQnZD-3Dpxczqm85p3Oj8lNyXG1GJ8Ry3CFBGmFmFqET4jb7Pp4vHJsdUmnEgIlBeOJ5X0Y605156KJybe7PMEPx-Apb6rQDJwk0nMU4gEaB2h7ilASpR2cRQIJs5JL1tlMCCUB8ABklgGqALJJI4F3sw0YxHHtQ9qSK7bkISRCTOF9VQNSb-CKFxXpCOGyBVNYdMz6vQUP0WjlzYQDcuAex42psPnQzKoYK4fgDassZJlcPHXa43I4W5VXpJe8b2BK3LwsdG_Mx8t9g
Glendening, J. (2002). “Green confusion”: Evolution and entanglement in h. g. wells’s the island of doctor moreau. Victorian Literature and Culture, 30(2), 571-597. doi:10.1017/S1060150302302109h
Wells, H.G. (2015). The Island of Doctor Moreau. [kindle edition]. Retrieved from www.amazon.co.uk