From Hell

One of the most infuriating lines in the moviegoer's repertoire: "The movie was good, but of course the book was better." Preferring the book to the movie in any particular case is fine; it's the "of course" that grates, because it precludes any particular case in which you might actually prefer the movie to the book. In fact, many take issue with the comparison itself; all things being equal (which, of course, they never are), we'd be better off not knowing what a movie reviewer thought of a source text.

Comics people are the worst about this because, for whatever reason, they have a bizarre sense of entitlement. Perhaps it's because they've spent so much time dissecting the minutiae of the applicable universe; learning its bylaws and secret handshakes, if you will. Regardless — major whiners.

So understand that I understand that you don't want to hear me say that From Hell is most disappointing in the ways in which it strays from its graphic-novel source. But that's really the only way to demonstrate why so much of the movie seems so encouraging but leaves you flat when all is said and done.

"From Hell" by Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell, turns the story of Jack the Ripper into a conspiracy theory that transforms the vicious murder of prostitutes in 19th century London into political assassinations serving both the crown and the Freemasons. The genius of the book is letting us into Jack's head, into his entangled infatuation with the tenets of Freemasonry and how it cultivates in him a misogynistic, architecture-obsessed psychosis. Certainly, the book is steeped in detail and marked by a decidedly unromantic view of the London streets, the women who work them and the men who police them, but take away Jack's ever-more-fascinating delusions and you've got a B-grade police procedural/courtroom drama predicated on the miserable lives of London commoners. It's the savvy interpretation of Jack that has made "From Hell" as respected as any narrative which purports to be a possible interpretation of the facts of the Jack the Ripper case. Which is not a lot, respect-wise, since any theory of the Ripper's identity is no more comprehensive, conclusive or provable than any JFK theory (still-classified documents aside). But when you can't be right, what matters is how well-argued and well-supported you are, and "From Hell" gets high marks for that.

From Hell, directed by Allen and Albert Hughes and written by Terry Hayes and Rafael Yglesias, does not, and the reason why is remarkably simple: By giving into the irresistible temptation to make a whodunit whose purpose is to conceal Jack's identity for as long as possible, you lose any real understanding of why Jack felt that he was a holy warrior. The movie swipes some of the character's best speeches from the book, but the context is missing, and because you spend so little time with the character, you just think he's like any serial-killer movie psycho. That's not to say that he isn't, but the book keeps you immobilized in the magnetic field of his beliefs, and when he starts to have visions of skyscrapers and becubicled offices, there's credence to Jack's line about giving birth the the 20th century.

The movie instead becomes a story about a junkie widower cop (Johnny Depp) and a hooker with a heart of gold (Heather Graham), bound together by the most horrible circumstance, blah blah blah.

Again, the reduction of a complex work into something that functions as a two-hour narrative intended to get as many bodies into as many seats as possible is an accepted, necessary evil of adapting a work to film. But the reality of such limitations should, foremost, make filmmakers ask themselves about the wisdom of the adaptation. Particularly when dealing with historical subject matter, if you're going to miss the point of the work entirely, why even use another's interpretation as your touchstone?

The filmmakers don't miss the point entirely, but it's far off enough to seem that way. What they do capture is the bleakness of the streets. The brother directors are drawing a parallel between London's Whitechapel ghetto, with its crime, poverty, violence, short shrift from law enforcement and condescension from the upper classes, with the modern American ghetto they chronicled in Menace II Society. "From Hell" even allows them two credentialed villains: institutionalized classism and racism as well as that ultimate embodiment of The Man, the Freemasons. So what they have is a standard, well-acted potboiler in a masterfully realized milieu; that's not so bad. Except that there are scenes, like the murder Jack commits after his identity has been revealed (hint: He's the famous actor who doesn't appear in any of the publicity material), that show the directors' keen ability with dream and hallucination imagery for the sake of both character development and the images themselves, and you sense that they could have really made a fantastic version of the story, and one that actually explored evil instead of just flirting with it Silence of the Lambs-style. Instead, the movie takes the conventional way out, and it should surprise no one that the result is a totally conventional thriller.

Flak Magazine, October 26, 2001