Islands of the Imagination: Taking Another Look at Adapting H.G.Wells’ The Island of Doctor Moreau

H.G.Wells’ long short story – rather than novel, or even novella – The Island of Doctor Moreau, tells the story of Edward Prendick, shipwrecked there, an unwelcome guest of Moreau and his sidekick Montgomery. Under Moreau’s leadership the pair are experimenting on the creation of humans out of animals, by the process of vivisection, and have created an island population of beast-folk in their quest for a perfect human being.

There have been several adaptations and one of the earliest, and arguably the best, Erle Kenton’s 1933 version, was recently re-issued, digitally remastered and generally tidied up by the BFI. Dr John Flynn, in a postscript to the Signet ePub edition, cites the later, 1977 adaptation, starring Burt Lancaster, as the best, but I’m not convinced.

A curiosity, in both these adaptations, is the way names are changed. Moreau, and Montgomery remain, though in each version they are quite different, but Prendick becomes Parker, and in the later film, Braddock, though he remains in many ways the same man. The Puma, becomes Lota, The Panther Woman, and again later, Maria. M’ling, perhaps because his role, rather than only his character, is unchanging across all three versions, keeps his name too. Even the title of the story, in the 1933 version is different. It was released as The Island of Lost Souls, yet carryies Wells’ name as the source in the opening credits. An authorised adaptation, Wells, who was still alive at the time, nevertheless hated the piece, saying that it ‘vulgarised’ his story. I wonder if he had other reasons for the dislike; at least one has been suggested – that one of its writers had, Wells believed, plagiarised him in the past.

Wells was familiar with adaptation. Many of his stories have, and had by then, been turned into films. Wells himself wrote the screenplay for his short story The Man Who Could Work Miracles, extending and broadening the scope of the original in the process. Could his distaste for this adaptation have been partly due to the fact that he would have, and could have, adapted it differently himself?

The charge of vulgarisation doesn’t stick for me. Perhaps I am less sensitive than Wells. In fact, Erle Kenton’s film, with Charles Laughton as Moreau, seems to capture the ambience and deal with most of the issues raised in the book.

As with the 1977 adaptation, Kenton’s has the additional figure of the created woman. In the later, and probably more well known, Burt Lancaster version, Barbara Carrera – as Maria – takes the part, and sails away with hero Michael York – here called Braddock -at the end. In Kenton’s version it is an unknown Kathleen Burke who plays ‘The Panther Woman’, with feline grace. This additional character is often dismissed as being Hollywood playing the sex card, but there is more to it than that, especially in the earlier film. There is a Puma in Wells’ original, that is being worked on as the action unfolds. This is the creature that escapes, in the novel, and kills Moreau. In the second of two chapters more or less devoted to it, we learn that it is a she.

In the book, Moreau has made beast women as well as men, and their behaviour, within beast folk society, and in relation to Prendick – Edward Parker in Kenton’s film – forms an important part of Prendick’s experience of the island after Moreau’s death. In film versions the story ends with the overthrow of Moreau by the beast-folk, and so the issues raised by Prendick’s post-Moreau life on the island have to be either abandoned or fitted in before his death. The provision of a ‘completed’ female character, which can also act as a love-interest for the film hero, solves this problem.

Speaking on the BFI dvd specials, film critic Jonathan Rigby, in an interesting lecture on the history of Gothic and Horror novels and the movies they spawned, makes the statement that there is no sex in Wells’ original (hedging with ‘as far as he could see’). Well, I don’t think he saw very far. The sex is there, subtly, faintly, implicitly, but very definitely. It is a nagging background to Prendick’s story, and goes on to haunt his post-island life in London, where women ‘prowl’ and ‘mew’ around him in the society of ‘real’ people that he returns to. This ending makes me think of it as more like a long short story than a true novel, and its concentration on a single theme, with a restricted cast, puts me in mind of the classic novella. In this interpretation Moreau’s death would be the wendepunkt, or turning point, rather than the culmination: Prendick’s altered awareness of the society of his own kind being, not the tying up of a novelistic loose end, but a short story ending. In its classic, rather than in its current meaning, as merely a shorter piece of long fiction, the novella is, in essence, a long short story. There is that unity, of theme and character, and tone, which is the hallmark Poe said we should look for in the short story, and films tend to tip their stories in that direction, even when, perhaps especially when, they are taken from longer fictions. There are no subplots or parallel storylines, no converging but separate groups of characters to offer alternatives or comparisons. We can hold the story, as a whole, in our minds. To use an analogy I have favoured, it is a crossing, not a cruise.

The film, ending very shortly after Moreau’s death, cannot incorporate Wells’ reflective ending, because Parker never lives among the beast-folk. In Kenton’s film we have a ‘bolt-on’ scene of Montgomery (who doesn’t survive the book), Parker, and the second additional female character (Parker’s fiancee) escaping in a small boat as the island, and Moreau, burns behind them. Montgomery lights an incongruous pipe – considering the traumas they have just witnessed – and tells the other two not to look back, which of course, is what Wells’ Prendick, who has no fiancee, spends the rest of his life doing. The later adaptation takes a similar tack. Both adroitly avoid Wells’ concern with Prendick and beast-women, Kenton, by killing off the Panther Woman, and offering us the entirely ‘normal’ fiancee, and the later film, by fudging the origins of Maria. The issue of the ‘beast-flesh’ growing back, that haunts Moreau in both written and film tellings is not even raised in regard to Maria, let alone addressed in this later film, whereas in Kenton’s it has been made explicit, as the Panther Woman’s claws have grown back!

Wells’ story is presented as a first person narrative, framed by the commentary of the nephew to whom it has been entrusted as a written document. Film can do framing, but Kenton’s camera does not try to be a first person one. This alone changes our perspective on the story. We do not get the story through Parker’s eyes, but through that of the excellent cinematographer Eric Struss. As the narrator, Prendick dominates his own account, and is the central figure in his nephew’s foreword and epilogue, but reduced to a character among other characters, Kenton’s Parker plays accompanying fiddle, as do all the others, to Charles Laughton’s Moreau.

Again, this is a shift of focus, but if the story is about enabling us to reflect upon, and to react to what Prendick has encountered on the island, then watching Laughton as Moreau gives us ample opportunity to do the same.

Laughton’s performance is convincing, and Simon Callow in another interview for the BFI dvd gives us an actor’s analysis of it. Laughton presents a boyish and rather effete type, whose gleeful laughter at his own cleverness and sly glances at the other characters is entirely credible. Not so much a child who has never grown up, but rather one that has grown up without maturing properly, his Moreau shows cleverness without morality. Throughout the film, bars of shadow have fallen across Moreau’s face, mirroring the iron bars at the doors and windows of his fortress house, deepening our sense of both the evil within him, and of his entrapment within his own psyche. His experiments are not to solve any problem, nor even to to satisfy his an innate curiosity, but to showcase his own brilliance. When he faces the beast-folk at the end, it is not so much bravery, as that unshakeable belief in himself. It is only when they drag him to The House of Pain and smash their way into the cabinets of ‘little knives’ that his will is broken. That ‘little’, spoken by one of the beast-folk, as the idea of using the knives on Moreau strikes him, makes the scalpels seem even more horrifying to my way of thinking, and I found this scene very reminiscent of Wells’ ending to The Invisible Man, though of course, it is quite different to his ending of Moreau!

The Lancaster version has been updated. Scalpels are swapped for drugs, and a deal of pscho-babble and flapdoodle about changing the psychology of the beasts. Sliding into a more conventional action story, Lancaster’s more restrained Moreau eventually attempts to convert Braddock into a beast in the same way. Presented as being romantically interested in Maria, this Moreau is not quite so convincingly self obsessed, and is jealous of her relationship with Braddock. Laughton’s doctor sees the liaison of Lota with Parker as merely another possible experiment, to validate his own success.

As with many adaptations there are nuggests of almost exact similarity among the changes. Prenidick, Parker and Braddock all hear the screaming, and enter the House of Pain to see its victim strapped to Moreau’s vivsectionist table. The beast-folk lurk in all three undergrowths, and have their Sayer of the Law, and chant to his litany. In all cases, the doctor hosts a generous and refined table, served by the dog-like M’ling; but it is what happens at the end of short stories that matters.

Tinkering with the ending of short stories (and films) fundamentally alters their message. Moreau’s death is the turning point in the written story, but not its point. It is the impact that living among the beast-people has had upon Prendick’s psyche, and by extension, our own examination of the relationships we have in the real world that Wells is prompting– for we too have lived, are living among the beast-people. In the Lancaster film I could raise not much more than a half-hearted hope that the nominal hero got away, and, I suppose, with the girl. Kenton’s film, by its ending, reveals another purpose, one that Laughton himself, Callow seems to be suggesting, brought to the project, which is a study of the character of Moreau.

This adaptation has not merely changed the story, but has changed the focus and purpose of the story, shifting it from an examination Prendick, and the reader, to one of Moreau. We can identify with Prendick and his issues, but we see Moreau as different from us – I assume! In a sense, both adaptations, because of their endings, externalise and therefore lessen the horror of the island. We sail away from Moreau and his experiments, being purified by fire, along with Parker and Braddock. But in Wells’ original we do not, for Prendick takes his island with him and brings it into our world.