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Tuesday, July 15, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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'Extraordinary Gentleman' on big screen can't compete with original comic series

Seattle Times staff reporter

We have obtained the necessary clearances to open our Top Secret case file and address the enigma of "The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen."

To wit: What's the real story behind the leviathan "LXG" movie that opened Friday? It's a disappointment on its own terms, with only 18 percent of its reviews positive on opening day (quoth the Rotten Tomatoes site, as Poe might say). But fans of the wondrous comic book that inspired it will be more uptight than Mr. Hyde at an anger-management session.

In fact, the dumbed-down film has little to do with writer Alan Moore and artist Kevin O'Neill's source material, except for the premise. But what a premise: taking a handful of characters from Victorian-era fantastic literature and uniting them in an uneasy turn-of-the-century precursor to today's well-known Justice League. Allan Quatermain from H. Rider Haggard's "King Solomon's Mines." Mina Murray (aka Harker) from Bram Stoker's "Dracula." Captain Nemo as described in Jules Verne's "Mysterious Island." Robert Louis Stevenson's Dr. Jekyll and a monstrously Hulked-out Mr. Hyde. A lecherous version of H.G. Wells' Invisible Man. And the whole enterprise is packed to the rafters with savant Moore's literary/pop culture references.

Last August, we raved about the comic's first series, still available in a trade paperback (DC Comics, $14.95). And to this day, Erin Butler at Zanadu Comics in downtown Seattle says, "It's probably the most popular collection we have in the store."

Why? "It's amazing," Butler says. "Nothing like it's ever really been done before. Just the idea of bringing in all these Victorian literature characters into a comic book format and making them move completely outside the realms where they're known, but staying within their characters — who can do that?"

Fans have been apprehensive about the $110 million movie adaptation because of the way Moore's fascinating Jack the Ripper book, "From Hell," got hacked up onscreen, she says. They share the same producer, Don Murphy. To be sure, "LXG's" departures are too massive to detail — and would prompt questions about why the filmmakers even bought the rights. But here's an intel briefing on key points:

Book: The painstakingly recruited League is sent on a mission for Her Majesty's government to find an anti-gravity substance in the possession of a certain diabolical Chinese doctor, which could be used to make dangerous flying ships! Film: Well ... it's got tanks, machine guns, lots of explosions, a cheesy villain called The Fantom, the threat of a world war, and somehow involves the selling of the League members' traits for cloning.

Book: The greatly flawed heroes are all very English. (Even Nemo, a Sikh, is a misanthropic product of British colonialism.) Film: Oscar Wilde's nearly indestructible Dorian Gray (Stuart Townsend) and young American secret agent Tom Sawyer (Shane West) were added.

In an interview with UnderGround Online, screenwriter James Robinson said of the latter, "... because of commerce, I think Twentieth Century Fox felt more comfortable making a movie that was very expensive knowing that there was a young American character."

Book: Mina, a prim but assertive suffragette whose neck scars remain mysterious and threatening, is the team leader (lending some irony to the title). Film: Goth sexpot Mina (Peta Wilson) is a snarling vampire with superpowers, accompanied by huge swarms of bats.

Book: Mina recruits a frail, elderly Quatermain as he is smoking himself to death in a Cairo opium den. Film: Robust septuagenarian Sean Connery plays Quatermain as an opium-free two-fisted team leader who whups a roomful of bad guys at the outset. Oddly, Moore and O'Neill have said they modeled their Quatermain on Connery.

Book: Captain Nemo is the glowering Indian prince described by Verne, an engineering genius who constructs fantastic devices. Film: Meet Nemo, the ass-kicking martial artist who does air-spinning moves!

Book: Having idolized the famous adventurer as a child, Mina slowly develops a relationship with the aged and self-doubting Quatermain, as his fallen spirit gradually rekindles. Film: She's Dorian Gray's ex. Sawyer, who flirts with her, becomes Quatermain's surrogate son. (Well, it was creepy seeing Connery hook up with Catherine Zeta-Jones in "Entrapment.")

The intelligence points to a classic Hollywood moviemaking farce, although Connery's rug is a success. Without relying on any tips from CIA director George Tenet, we've delved deeper into the curious affair:

• Because of torrential flooding last year on the movie location in Prague, its original epilogue was abandoned, producer Don Murphy told Web site www.comics2film.com.

It was to have featured a conversation in which spy chief Campion Bond (likely ancestor to you-know-who) hinted at the League's next big threat: a Martian invasion! That's the plot of the second and current comic series, kitchen-sinking "War of the Worlds" with "The Island of Doctor Moreau" and more. Its sixth and final issue is due Aug. 13.

• Between walk-ons from such characters as Sherlock Holmes, Poe's detective Auguste Dupin and numerous passing references, Moore and O'Neill's "League" is dense with literary nods both instantly recognizable and obscure.

There are some 350 in the first series, from Dickens to Balzac, from 19th-century pornography to children's novels, says Jess Nevins, author of the exhaustive "Heroes & Monsters: The Unofficial Companion to the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen" (Monkeybrain Books, $18.95).

Nevins, 37, is a Huntsville, Texas, reference librarian who first began annotating the series on the Internet in 1999. He's like the online guy who explained Dennis Miller's "Monday Night Football" references — multiplied by 100.

According to Nevins, "League" is read in 30 countries and has become the fourth best-selling DC Comics title.

• Dossier: Moore is the writer most responsible (apart from "Dark Knight" scribe Frank Miller) for the maturing of the once-stagnant comics industry in the mid-'80s, beginning with his weird run on "Swamp Thing" and including the revered "Watchmen" miniseries about flawed heroes at their twilight.

He has said he's retiring from mainstream comics but will continue to write "League."

DC says Moore, somewhat of a recluse who neither travels outside his native England nor attends conventions, has stopped doing interviews.

However, in a taped interview posted on National Public Radio's site (www.npr.org), Moore said that he envisions a "League" series set in 1950s America, with Mina dressed in fashion of the period and possibly joined by such characters as Dean Moriarty from Jack Kerouac's "On the Road." He could be a descendant of Sherlock Holmes' nemesis, in what Nevins says would be a "Beat League." Of what, Extraordinary Cats and Chicks?

• Even "Charlie's Angels" has some rotation in the ranks. A painting of an earlier League shown in the first series depicts Jonathan Swift's Gulliver, the Scarlet Pimpernel and his wife, Dr. Syn aka The Scarecrow, Fanny Hill and James Fennimore Cooper's Natty Bumppo, aka Hawkeye.

• Dossier: British artist Kevin O'Neill has also drawn the sci-fi comic "2000 A.D." and enjoys a singular status: The Comics Code Authority found his style so objectionable that it will not approve any title he draws. (Hardly a blackball. Marvel recently abandoned the industry's self-censoring body in favor of its own ratings system.)

O'Neill wrote the following to the Ain't It Cool News site, where fans had followed the project for months and execrated the filmmakers' liberties: "I have seen LEAGUE and it is SPECTACULAR!!!! ... Sure, I'd like to have seen our Nautilus on screen and Mina leading the group, but Sean Connery (our original model for Quatermain, by the way) is an icon playing an icon. Given the odds of anything coming close to the source in movies, our title has been treated with rare good taste. Fans of the comic with open minds will really enjoy the film!"

Moore has repeatedly said he's not interested in the films of his work. He reportedly still hasn't seen "From Hell" (in which his stout, middle-age Inspector Abberline was incarnated as young Johnny Depp — and changed into an opium addict). But he summed up his philosophy on the matter in an October 2001 interview with The Onion:

"I suppose that the way I keep all that straight in my head is by keeping this kind of detachment, and by realizing that the film and the book are very different entities.

"Apparently, someone asked Raymond Chandler once what he thought of Hollywood ruining all of his books. And he took them into his study and pointed up to the shelf where they all were, and he said, 'Look, they're there. They're fine. They're okay.' That's the attitude I have to take."

A crime, then, without victims. Case closed.

Mark Rahner: 206-464-8259 or mrahner@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2003 The Seattle Times Company

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