From Hell (2001) – WTF Happened to This Adaptation?

WTF Happened to the Adaptation of Alan Moore’s From Hell? Let’s dig into the movie, starring Johnny Depp, and find out…

While the Marvel Universe continues to chug along and James Gunn attempts to resuscitate the DC universe into something worth watching, we will yet again go back to the world of graphic novels for our inspiration on book vs movie. It’s really a very untapped realm as there are so many good horror comics out there, many without adaptations yet. The ones that have been adapted are very fun and interesting. Today is the mostly forgotten early 2000s movie From Hell (watch it HERE), which is based on the stunning and epic graphic novel from famed wizard and all-around cranky dude Alan Moore. Like many graphic novels, the journey to page and then screen was a long and arduous one. It is based on the very real killings in Whitechapel that were later attributed to Jack the Ripper. While both have a lot of truths to them along with quite a bit of fantasy and conjecture, how close to the source material does the 2001 film get to. Line up your suspects as we find out what happened to this adaptation.

The Movie

Considering the source material From Hell was started in 1989, the movie took a bit to get going. This tracks considering the development hell some of Alan Moore’s other works went through like V for Vendetta and most famously Watchmen. Moore is also famously against the adaptation of his works as he has been personally disappointed by nearly every one of them. he even had his name removed from The Watchmen and it is credited to artist Dave Gibbons in the adapted from section. The rights to the movie passed through a few studios before finally settling in at 20th century fox and getting into production. The Hughes brothers were chosen as directors and Johnny Depp, Heather Graham, Robbie Coltrane, and Ian Holm were signed on to star with Terry Hayes and Rafael Yglesias hired as screenwriters.

The Hughes Brothers had made a name for themselves first with directing a couple music videos for 2Pac but then in the world of film made a splash with the 90s hit Menace II Society followed quickly by Dead Presidents. After this movie it would take a while, but they would come back with moderate hit The Book of Eli in 2010. They had decent stock when they signed on to direct From Hell and actually turned down the remake of Planet of the Apes to do it. They originally wanted Daniel Day Lewis to play the Abberline character but when he turned them down, they went through Sean Connery, Brad Pitt, and Jude Law before landing on Johnny Depp. Depp is no stranger to horror with his first role being in the original Nightmare on Elm Street and a few other horror movies like Tusk, Secret Window, and The Ninth Gate.

Robbie Coltrane has pretty much no horror to his name besides this but in addition to his roles in the Pierce Brosnan Bond movies and Hagrid, can I suggest you check out Mona Lisa and Krull. Graham got her start back in the late 80s and has shown up in things like Twin Peaks, Austin Powers, Boogie Nights and other horror like Scream 2 and the wonderful Suitable Flesh from 2023. Finally, we have Holm who is more famous now for his role in The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings movies but Ash in Alien and his role in The Fifth Element are my personal favorites. The screenwriters have mixed credits with Rafael having also written Death and the Maiden and the Dark Water remake while Hayes has both Road Warrior and Beyond Thunderdome as well as Mel Gibson’s Payback and underseen Dead Calm.

The movie was released on October 19th, 2001, and made 75 million on its 35-million-dollar budget. It was number one in its first week at the box office but was very middle of the pack for critics. It also had to be cut down severely to avoid an NC-17 rating. The DVD that was released was a 2 disc that was loaded with behind the scenes and other special features.

The Story

From Hell began development in the late 1980s when Alan Moore had finished watching a documentary on Jack the Ripper. He called his friend and fellow legend Neil Gaiman, as you do, and asked for his help researching by finding case files of possible suspects. This led him to the theory by Stephen Knight who proposed that the Ripper identity was created to cover up the birth of an illegitimate royal baby. It has ben poked with holes and had contrary evidence thrown it’s way but in a world of Fake News and conspiracies about events being staged to cover up other events, its not THAT crazy sounding.

The story was released in multiple parts from 1989 to 1998. While it started in the magazine Taboo, the artist and author decided they wanted to move it to its own publishing in 1992. It finished it’s run in 1998 and was released into a massive 572-page edition that you can still get today with various additions, annotations, and addendums added from the author and other contributors. Moore is almost unmatched in his output with this, V for Vendetta, Watchmen, League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, and his comic book runs with Swamp Thing and Superman. Also, The Killing Joke is required Batman reading. Artist Eddie Campbell did a lot of self-publishing and experimented in autobiographical comics with the story of Alec who stood in for the artist. From Hell was critically praised and won several awards during its run and in re-release form.

What is the same?

Both mediums follow a group of prostitutes and their friend Annie who ended up marrying a rich man and having a child. Government officials and police separate the girl from her husband and child and have her lobotomized. The rest of the prostitutes begin to be killed off by the Whitechapel murderer who would later be known as Jack the Ripper. The driver who takes the Ripper to and from his locations is forced to write a letter to the police. The letter is a real letter sent to authorities when the events took place dubbed the From Hell letter. Inspector Frederick Abberline is brought into the official investigation even though some of the police are complicit in covering up the murders. Abberline has little success in identifying the Ripper but eventually it is revealed to be physician of the crown William Gull.

Gull has murdered all of the girls and has become unhinged with his belief that he is a god among men even within his own secret society. He is put in prison for the rest of his life and we see a vision of Mary, the final prostitute who he thought he killed, alive in Ireland and the case of who Jack the Ripper is, never gets solved.

What is different?

This is definitely one of the cases of a “loose” adaptation. The overall story is the same but there are more things different between the two mediums than there are similarities. The first one is how the narrative is followed. The movie makes it all about Depp’s detective who is also a heroin addict and kind of psychic. The drug addiction doesn’t have a book alternative but him being a psychic is taken from the psychic that the book version of Depp’s character runs into and tells him that Gull is the killer. Abberline also dies of an overdose at the end of the movie after keeping Mary being alive a secret even though he wants to be with her. There is also no relationship between Mary and Abberline that takes place over a huge chunk of the movie.

Sticking with characters and motivations, the prostitutes in the book are actually trying to extort the crown and that’s when the queen actually turns Gull on them as punishment and a distraction from the royal baby being born. In fact, the entire message of the story and main character is different. While Abberline is in the movie from the very beginning, his character is an almost non-essential part of the comic. Gull is the main character, and we follow his story of going more and more mad as he kills all the women. He has an agenda that he needs to kill the prostitutes to assert the male dominance over females. He sees visions of London in the future and eventually that he is the inspiration for works of fiction in the next century. While the movie follows aberline in his journey to find Jack the Ripper, the source material tells you from the beginning who it is and what they are doing. Having that as a movie might have been hard to pull off and keep the audiences engaged.

The endings of both men are different as well with movie Gull receiving a lobotomy at the hands of his council while book Gull is put in prison for the rest of his life while he transcends into Godhood. There is a lot more political intrigue and even smaller details in the book. Spanning 562 pages while most screenplays for movies that are two hours run around 120 pages. The art style didn’t quite transfer from page to screen either unfortunately. While the directors tried their hardest, it just didn’t work out as they had hoped.

Legacy

Normally it is a difficult decision to make between what holds up; the printed page of the silver screen but this one is fairly easy. The movie From Hell I mentioned as a mostly forgotten to time flick and re-watching it, it’s mostly flat. I wanted to like it so much more when I rented it from Video Unlimited over 20 years ago and I wanted to like it more just two weeks ago when I gave it a re-watch for the review. Hell, editor Mike says it’s the first movie he fell asleep in the theater to! The book is another masterwork by Moore. It’s smart, overbearing, belligerent, and a genius take on a subject matter that deserves a crafted and catered look. The movie is an interesting piece of early 2000s horror with a fun cast and the potential to be good while the book is a must read for historians, horror fans, and salty necromancing wizard Moore fans alike. Do yourself a favor and read the comics and watch the movie as a supplementary spin on a hell of a tale.

A couple of the previous episodes of WTF Happened to This Adaptation? can be seen below. To see the other shows we have to offer, head over to the JoBlo Horror Originals YouTube channel – and subscribe while you’re there!

Source: Arrow in the Head

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