Why We Need Another Take on “The Island of Doctor Moreau”

Normally I’m very against the idea of remakes. To me, a remake or a “reimagining” is basically the admission the studio doesn’t have any original ideas and have so faith in the quality of their work that they feel they have to piggyback on an established name in order to generate any interest. But sometimes there are remakes that are worth it, such as the 80’s version of The Fly. With that in mind, I would love to see a new film version of H.G. Wells’ The Island of Doctor Moreau due to the lack of a faithful adaptation.

Don’t get me wrong here, Island of Lost Souls is a classic. But it, and most of the other adaptations of this story, seem to miss some important details from the original novel. For example most movies tackling the subject depict Dr. Moreau’s creations as having animal heads on human bodies, people with fur glued on their face, or some minor latex prosthetics and contact lenses. This couldn’t be further from what Wells was trying to portray! Here are some quotes from chapter 15 of the novel:

Most striking, perhaps, in their general appearance was the disproportion between the legs of these creatures and the length of their bodies; and yet—so relative is our idea of grace—my eye became habituated to their forms, and at last I even fell in with their persuasion that my own long thighs were ungainly. Another point was the forward carriage of the head and the clumsy and inhuman curvature of the spine…Most had their shoulders hunched clumsily, and their short forearms hung weakly at their sides. Few of them were conspicuously hairy, at least until the end of my time upon the island.

The next most obvious deformity was in their faces, almost all of which were prognathous, malformed about the ears, with large and protuberant noses, very furry or very bristly hair, and often strangely-coloured or strangely-placed eyes.

See? Try watching any adaptation of the story and you’ll be hard pressed to find creatures fitting that description. Something like the guy on left in this image is a best case scenario for what one of the beast people would look like. A worst case scenario would probably be like the second to last image found here. It’s amazing how the obvious opportunity to run wild with the “uncanny valley” has gone untouched in all adaptations of the tale to date.

Beyond these general characters their heads had little in common; each preserved the quality of its particular species: the human mark distorted but did not hide the leopard, the ox, or the sow, or other animal or animals, from which the creature had been moulded. The hands were always malformed; and though some surprised me by their unexpected human appearance, almost all were deficient in the number of the digits, clumsy about the finger-nails, and lacking any tactile sensibility.

The only adaptation that dealt with this is the Filipino movie Terror is a Man. It’s a shame this subject is limited to a single relatively obscure film, as it deals with an aspect of animal anatomy that’s not very well known by the general public. For example, bears have rear paws that can seem like human feet, minus the claws and fur. Declawed and skinned front paws can even be mistaken for human hands, even to the point where the authorities have to investigate! A skinned bear can even look disturbingly human-looking! In the interest of good taste, here’s a picture of a professional bear taxidermy mount that illustrates the point without showing any gruesomeness. When you factor in how sometimes bears can have other features that don’t seem bear-like and their ability to walk on their hind legs, one can see why a mad scientist might want to try surgically altering one into a humanlike being. Judging from some of the other taxidermy forms I’ve found, one could see why someone like Dr. Moreau could consider their shaven forms as the rough foundation for surgically creating a humanoid. After all an odd-looking chimp was once partially shaved in order to be exhibited as a “half human” creature and shaved bears were once passed off as being pig-faced women! Considering how bizarre a sloth looks like without any fur, imagine how disturbing Dr. Moreau’s sloth creature would look! In chapter 12 of the book, the protagonist actually compares it to looking like (and I quote) a “flayed child!”

Another detail that’s often left out of Moreau adaptations are the patchwork nature of many of his creations! Chapter 15 notes a”creature made of hyena and swine,” a “satyr-like creature of ape and goat,” and many more. Keep in mind that these beings are still altered to look as human as possible. There’s so much raw potential for amazing special effects here. My dream adaptation might hint at these being the results of early experiments in tissue grafting of some kind. It’s not hard to imagine the “good” doctor deciding to give his creations the ability to speak by examining (if not transplanting) vocal cords from animals known for their ability to mimic speech. This would create an additional reason for forcing his creations to repeat his laws over and over again. The only adaptation that comes close to depicting patchwork creations is Dr. Moreau’s House of Pain, but that’s only limited to the briefly touched on grafting of animal tissue onto humans. Given its being released a year after an issue of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Volume II that also touched on the “hybrid” issue and added horny beast men to the plot, I can’t help but wonder if there’s a connection. In both cases, Dr. Moreau’s hybrid creatures miss the point the novel was trying to make and wholly make up the voracious sexual appetites of his creations. This might be due to the inclusion of a romance between a human male and a cat woman from Island of Lost Souls that’s turned up in most adaptations of the story. the idea of Dr. Moreau hoping that their union will produce offspring is ridiculous. No amount of surgery will make a feline capable of bearing a human child and this plot point desperately needs to be abandoned.

It’s worth pointing out that H.G. Wells wrote this particular novel because he felt surgery could be used to give animals roughly human form! A year before the novel was published, Wells wrote an essay called “The Limits of Individual Plasticity” devoted to precisely that subject! Given that the book was first published in 1896 and Wells lived until 1946, it’s not hard to imagine him reading about early cases of sex reassignment surgery in the 1920’s and feeling even more confident of his beliefs. With this in mind, makers of a new adaptation should resist the temptation to work genetic engineering into the plot. Besides, the use of surgery offers so much potential for both the visual effects and story, especially if the original period setting is kept. Knowing that tje goal is to make animals look as human as possible, it’s not unreasonable to imagine several of the “beast folk” have had their skin burned by chemicals to prevent fur growth. That, coupled with study of real life surgical techniques involving strategically broken bones and remolded facial features are sure to excite the imagination of the special effects department. Perhaps, due to being forced out of the professional medical field due to his early experiments, Dr. Moreau is unable to obtain anesthetics and thus explains why his laboratory is referred to as the “House of Pain.” After all, nobody with an instinct for self preservation would operate on dangerous animals and knowingly cause them pain unless they absolutely had to. What about the beast folk’s ability to think and speak like a human? I’m sure the explanation of a chemically enlarged brain given in Terror is a Man would be plausible enough for general audiences (which also ties into comments made in “The Limits of Individual Plasticity”). All this, coupled with the horror of being trapped on an island with beings that are slowly losing their rational thought and could attack at any time, have the makings of a modern horror classic. So get on it, Hollywood!

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