In one of the great moments of literature, a Limbless Thing, with quasi-human facial features and malignant intelligence, slithers unfinished from its Maker and manages to kill a guy before getting tracked down and dispatched. Just one of many scenes from The Island of Dr. Moreau never captured on film.
The H.G. Wells classic concerning genetic modification has thrice graced the big screen. In keeping with Moreau’s efforts, each of the three bears the semblance of the book, yet all stand marked by distinct variations like cinematic caricatures of the original creation.
The best one, Island of Lost Souls (1932), stars Charles Laughton as the doctor and features Bela Lugosi as The Sayer of the Law. Laughton’s charm girds the movie—highly atmospheric in glorious black and white—but he’s not rugged enough or curious enough to accurately reflect the title character.
It can be no coincidence that the artist Gustave Moreau, who preceded Wells, was a recluse who painted half-human, half-animal figures.
As the shipwrecked survivor stranded on a remote Pacific island, Michael York casts the most indelible impression in 1977. Here the filmmakers change the name of this character to Braddock, apparently because they didn’t want to have to say Prendick.
So far, Burt Lancaster, opposite York, makes the best Moreau, but his not being British departs significantly from the story.
Similarly, Marlon Brando, maybe the best actor ever, is simply miscast in the 1996 version. He looks and behaves nothing like the Dr. Moreau in the book. (With the right script, Anthony Hopkins would be perfect for the part.) Playing Montgomery, Moreau’s assistant, Val Kilmer amuses—with, among other things, a great Brando impression—but he also distracts.
The bulk of the story concerns the uninvited guest’s gradual realization that the strange animal-like men he sees are the products of Dr. Moreau’s unseemly experiments. At no point in Wells’ story does Moreau attempt to turn a man into a beast. One main sin in the 1977 version is in forgetting that. Another is the introduction of Barbara Carerra as Maria in order to give York a love-interest.
All three versions are worth watching, but they decrease in quality in direct proportion to the focus on special effects. Moreau’s creatures number well over a hundred in the book, yet this has proved too daunting a task for film. And in every case, filmmakers ignore description from Wells that “few of them were conspicuously hairy.”
At heart, The Island of Dr. Moreau is a product of the Industrial Age. The last few paragraphs of the book make clear the dehumanization of the working poor. Commenting on the literal with the figurative—this is what art does—Wells’ story reflects class issues. Beast Folk reverting to animals suggests Wells’ own social rise and his shame when on the rare occasion in conversation his language slipped, revealing origins he regarded as unbearably humble.
Stewart Kirby writes for