This column will go into spoilers, so if you haven’t seen The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, then you might be better off reading the graphic novel.
What Went Wrong:
The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen
By Shalimar Sahota
January 5, 2011
“In the end, retirement is too damn much fun.” Thus came Sean Connery’s reply on whether or not he would be appearing in Indiana Jones & the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. He had mentioned that it would have to be something “monumental” to get him out of retirement, and many thought Indiana Jones would have been it. His response stems from the film that drove him to quit acting; The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. “It was a nightmare,” said Connery in an interview with British newspaper The Times. “The experience had a great influence on me, it made me think about showbiz. I get fed up dealing with idiots.” Notorious for being a troubled shoot, Connery didn’t get on with his director, Stephen Norrington. “On the first day I realized he was insane,” said Connery.
Producer Don Murphy had brought the rights to Alan Moore’s graphic novels, From Hell and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, both for 20th Century Fox. However, it was with the latter, LXG (as it was referred to in the trailers and on the posters), which Murphy was most excited about, developing the film before the graphic novel was even published, which would explain some of the differences between the two. “The more British I could keep this, the better,” said Murphy; so in an interesting move, he hired British comic book writer James Dale Robinson (known for DC’s Starman) to script the film. The beginnings of why the film didn’t work would probably start with Robinson and the pressure he was under, revealing that the script was going through “serious plot changes,” having written 20 drafts (early drafts had the film set in America).
The film begins with a masked villain, The Fantom, attacking Britain and Germany. With both countries now blaming each other, they are close to all out world war. Allan Quatermain (Sean Connery) is recruited by the mysterious figure M (Richard Roxburgh), to join a league of extraordinary individuals to stop The Fantom from carrying out his next attack in Venice. He is introduced to Captain Nemo (Naseeruddin Shah), a pirate with marital arts skills and a huge submarine, the Nautilus; Rodney Skinner (Tony Curran), an invisible man; and Mina Harker (Peta Wilson), a vampire bitten by Dracula himself. Together they round up Dorian Gray (Stuart Townsend), an immortal who never ages; Tom Sawyer (Shane West), an American Secret Service Agent; and Henry Jekyll (Jason Flemyng), a doctor who can transform into his giant alter-ego, Mr Hyde.
Robinson had added the character of Tom Sawyer at the request of the studio, so that the film could appeal more to American audiences. Highlighting the addition, Robinson said, “I think 20th Century Fox felt more comfortable making a movie that was very expensive knowing that there was a young American character.” In keeping it British, Murphy also picked Stephen Norrington to direct the film; famed for his adaptation of Blade.
Alan Moore and the graphic novel’s illustrator, Kevin O’Neill, claimed to have based the character of Allan Quatermain on Sean Connery, so Norrington met with the man himself, who agreed to do the film. His reason was that he had previously turned down roles in The Matrix and the Lord of the Rings trilogy, citing how he didn’t understand them, yet they became huge successes. He felt compelled not to make the same mistake again. Connery was paid $17 million, and being credited as an executive producer meant he also had his way when it came to character changes, like refusing to play Quatermain as an opium addict, as in the graphic novel. I’m also willing to bet that he possibly reworked the script to have his character die because he didn’t want to come back and work on any potential sequel.
Troubles began in August 2002, when the shoot in Prague (doubling for Venice in the film) came to a standstill after the city was hit by the worst floods in over a century, destroying sets worth $7 million. As if this message from God wasn’t enough, causing filming to be delayed by around two weeks, Fox showed no compassion whatsoever towards Norrington, refusing to offer more time, yet still expecting to open the film on their set date: July 11, 2003. As the shooting schedule shifted to Malta so sets could be rebuilt, it’s likely that a frustrated Norrington was now finding it difficult to achieve what he wanted, and completing the film turned into a rush job.
It was in November 2002 when the cast and crew came back to Prague to finish an action sequence on newly rebuilt sets, and whatever was brewing between Connery and Norrington finally came to the attention of the world. They apparently almost came to blows, after a prop elephant gun that didn’t look quite right caused Norrington to shut the set down for the day. An infuriated Connery threatened to have Norrington fired. One unnamed source recalls Norrington reacting by telling Connery, “Come on, I want you to punch me in the face,” whereas Connery recalls him saying, “Do you want to hit me?” to which he responded, “Don’t tempt me.” Connery simply walked off the set.
There’s even a bizarre rumor that Connery kicked Norrington out of the edit suite, though producer Don Murphy explains that Connery never even set foot in there, and that Norrington simply worked with his editor Paul Rubell, delivering his cut of the film on March 2003. One unnamed source says Norrington only supervised the editing of three of the film’s seven reels, while another says he was still working on it just days before its release. Whether Norrington’s cut is the one that was screened theatrically is uncertain. Norrington has remained quiet about the making of the film, given that he doesn’t really do any promotion or give interviews. He does appear talking to his actors on the special edition DVD, though he is never talking to the camera. He didn’t even turn up for the premiere of the film. Connery fulfilled his duties in promoting the film, going to the premiere and doing press interviews.
The production budget on LXG ended up costing Fox $78 million. Opening on July 11, 2003, the film grossed an okay $23 million on its opening weekend, good enough to place it at #2, behind another opener; Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl. It finished its run with $66.4 million in the US. Given the horrendous reviews upon release, the fact that it managed to gross $179 million worldwide is something of an achievement. It wasn’t a flop, but it wasn’t enough to warrant a sequel either, which Shane West’s Tom Sawyer was supposed to lead.
LXG obviously isn’t a great film. The opening action sequence in Africa is a good introduction to Quatermain, and then there’s the grandiose production design. The rest of the film just comes across so dull, like it was being re-written as it was shot. Given the strain placed upon the shooting schedule, this is probably what happened. The action sequences are haphazardly edited together, as if to hide what little training the actors had.
Alan Moore’s graphic novel is a much darker story. It did make it out before the film, yet there are still many differences between the two, the main one being that Mina is the lead character. She is a strong willed survivor from her confrontation with Dracula, but she is not a vampire. Recruited by the British Intelligence to assemble a league of extraordinary individuals to protect the country, their first mission has them pit against Fu Manchu, who plans to build an airship to destroy the country. The ending is also different, with an aerial attack over London.
According to Kevin O’Neill, Moore wanted nothing to do with the film, so O’Neill was sent the script instead. In an interview with The Times, he said that upon reading it he thought, “I don't recognize any of this - the Bank of England, Venice. The character names were similar, but they added Tom Sawyer. It was a bit of an odd thing and I didn't think much more of it.” From watching it, O’Neill felt that the film had strayed too far from the original source, saying, “They made the film they set out to make…it's nothing to do with our [League].” Moore claims never to have seen the film himself.
That it differs greatly from the graphic novel is, to me, the other reason why this film didn’t work. What is the point of getting a hold of decent source material only to screw with it? Sometimes changes can be beneficial, but with LXG there are so many that it’s altered beyond recognition. Kinda like everyone having their way with the cute girl, but only after the baby is born, no one can tell who the father is. The potential was there for this to become a franchise-starter in the vein of X-Men, with iconic characters at the turn of the 20th century. Instead, it ended up becoming The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.