Book: The Island of Dr Moreau, H.G.Wells (Signet Classics ePub-edition)

Film: The Island of Dr Moreau, (dir)Don Taylor, Orion Pictures, 1977.

H.G.Wells published his novel in 1896 and over the hundred or so years since there have been half a dozen film adaptations. Of these Wells or his executors approved some, and disapproved others. The Island of Lost Souls (1933) was the first of three authorised adaptations, according to Dr John Flynn, writing a postscript to the Signet ePub edition. He points out that this was banned in Britain and the Comonwealth until the late 1950s, and it might be worth knowing that the BFI is due to re-release it on dvd later this year. In common with the 1977 adaptation, which Flynn cites as the best, it features a female character not present in Wells’ original. This is the element of the adaptation that I would like to explore. In Don Taylor’s film Barbara Carrera plays Maria, love interest for second lead Michael York’s Braddock (the film’s equivalent of Wells’ Prendick), and possibly too for Moreau himself, played by Burt Lancaster. It would be easy to dismiss the presence of Maria as mere Hollywood; the need to provide the film with some female eye-candy. Indeed Maria wears some pretty frocks, flashes her undoubtedly attractive eyes, and gives us a show of embonpoint that is second to none! She gives us too, in dramatic terms, a cause of friction between Braddock and Moreau, and a conventional ‘lovers escape’ storyline to round off the plot. It is implied by her behaviour and words, as well as Moreau’s, though never explicitly stated, that she is one of the Doctor’s beast-folk, a creation of his medicine. This ambiguity allows the film makers to slide rather slyly off one of the tenets of the story in both film and book, which is that the beast nature will always re-assert itself over time, an outcome that, in this film, would mar the happy ending! Here already we are in to differences in what the story is about, but before going deeper into them, let’s linger on the very presence of this woman in that story. Other adaptations have her too, in various guises. In the 1933 version she is Lota, the Panther-Woman. In the 1959 version, Frances, wife of Moreau’s sidekick. I have even seen a stage version, in which the Panther-Woman morphs from the nurse who tends a recovering Prendick as he recalls his adventures from his hospital bed.

There is simply no such woman in Wells’ story. Yet she is not, I would suggest, merely the addition of some sex appeal to liven up an otherwise dull and sexless tale, for the fact is that although Wells has no single equivalent female character he does have the implication of one. Indeed her presence lies in the subconscious of the novel from start to finish, growing more insistent as the story develops, and becoming explicit in its final pages. In fact those final pages, as we have found with other adaptations, are quite different in the two versions, and so are the opening ones. Wells, as he does in other stories, gives us a portal through which we must pass on our journey as readers. He places his story within a story: the finding of Prendick’s written testimony by the nephew who then presents it to us. The film begins with Braddock in the open boat. This in itself changes the way we engage with the story. We begin and end with Braddock’s arrival at, and departure from the island. It is his adventure we observe. In the novel we have Prendick’s account presented to us, and are told of his arrival. We are given a plausible historical setting for it. This both detaches us to a certain extent, but also, and I believe more importantly – for a novel (or any written fiction) does something different to a film (or any acted out fiction) – it invites us to judge the story in a way that the film does not. This is why the film ends, quite abruptly, with Moreau freshly killed and his compound still burning, whereas the novel continues, after his death and that destruction. It goes on to deal not only with Prendick’s subsequent experiences amongst the reverting beast-people, but also with his life after the rescue, and the effects on his perceptions of that life which he attributes to his experiences on the island. It is these perceptions that the novel ends upon, not his escape from the island. Strong in those perceptions is the one that stands out in relation to women, and not to the female beast people, but to those of his ‘normal’ society: ‘prowling women would mew after me’. This single remark carries a deal of weight, and its words are carefully chosen. In particular, ‘prowling’ and ‘mew’. These feline images over the course of the novel have acquired a potency out of all proportion to what they would have if standing alone. Montgomery, a debauched drunk in the novel, a cynical mercenary in the film, refers to the ‘cats of Gower Street’. These are not four-footed cats. He is referring to that London underworld of prostitution and vice in which he has lost, beyond all hope of recovery, his self-respect and reputation. He puts the issue of sexual vice into our heads, subtly, implicitly, in his talking about his past, and in his reported relations with the beast-folk. It is the puma though that gives the real potency to ‘prowling’ and ‘mewing’.

The puma is mentioned at the very beginning, even before Prendick’s narrative has begun. It is singled out in the nephew’s historical setting for the events we are about to witness. Then we are repeatedly reminded of it. Subtly but insistently Wells plants the awareness of it in our minds. It is ‘the puma’ mostly, sexless to begin with. It has a chapter of its own: The Crying of the Puma. Moreau himself talks of it, and of what his intentions for it are, and he is the one who reveals to us, eventually, that it is a she. The crying of the puma is what drives Prendick out into the island, and the sight of it, strapped to the vivisectionists table is what sparks his first confrontation with Moreau. Later, it is the puma, and suddenly described as ‘she’, that escapes, and kills Moreau, projecting Prendick into his nightmare world of life among the beast-folk. Vivisection, in Wells’ time was ugly and brutal. Acid and the blade are Moreau’s tools. Pain is its consequence, and when the ‘House of Pain’ is mentioned in the book, we have a sense of how awful that threat is. By contrast the film posits a more psychological pain. When Moreau tries to turn Braddock into an animal it is done with a hypodermic, and a good deal of pseudo-scientific flapdoodle! I thought at first that this was a misogynistic tale, but on reflection I am not so sure. The way Moreau moulds the puma to his wishes is not something that Prendick (nor Wells?) admires. Perhaps misanthropic is nearer the mark. There are females in the book. Females among the beast-folk are often mentioned, and again towards the end, when Prendick dwells among them, a specifically sexual issue is raised: ‘some (…..) all females (…….) began to disregard the injunction of decency’, and later, ‘attempted public outrages upon the institution of monogamy’. Are we here getting to the core of what this horrific story is about? I recall Stephen Fry causing outrage sometime ago with his tweet about the heterosexual distaste for sex. This surely is what Wells is poking his snout into here? The heterosexual male’s fear of women, and his disgust at what he finds within himself in relation to them. Moreau, remember, tries to re-create the puma as a female human, but one that he will not lust after. Moreau’s vision of humankind is that it will no longer be driven by ‘pain and pleasure’. That is the sort of human female he is trying to make. There are a couple of female servants in the film, but they are never fore-grounded, and, like Maria, it is impossible to tell if they are human, or beast-kind. All the beast folk who are seen in close up, who speak and act, are male. Maria alone represents woman in the film, and apart from her odd speech, and her, by the stereotypes of the time in which the story is set, unconventional behaviour in seducing Braddock, she is and remains apparently entirely human. This juxtaposition of the human and inhuman features of course in films such as Blade Runner, and again comparison with the book reveals a different level of interest between the two.

The 1977 film of The Island of Dr.Moreau, and perhaps those that preceded it, by making the female explicit and individual, rather than implicit and general, waters down the sexuality inherent in the original. Its story remains safely about ‘them’ – about Braddock, and Maria, and Moreau, and the beast folk, all of whom are killed during the closing scenes, whereas Welss’ original becomes, as Prendick returns to normality, progressively, dangerously and uncomfortably, about us.