If you want to make a film out of a nearly 600 page comic then the Hughes brothers 2001 film adaptation of Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell’s From Hell isn’t how to do it. Taking a complex work of art and turning it into a star vehicle for Johnny Depp really isn’t the most appropriate way to go about it at all.
From Hell is Moore and Campbell’s story of Jack the Ripper, or their version of what is now a myth, something they touch upon in the comic as the Ripper story has over the years become myth. It’s a serious work that took years to complete and reading it is an arduous task; this is no reflection of the quality of the book, but it is painfully accurate in its depiction of the lives of the women who were murdered, and of the themselves are the opposite of pleasant. It’s a fantastic work. The film isn’t. It takes all the strands of the comic and focuses primarily on the murders to turn the film into a murder thriller with a far too glamorous Depp playing Inspector Abberline, who in the comic and real life looked nothing like Depp. In fact Depp’s co-star Robbie Coltrane would have been a better bit of casting, but he doesn’t open multi-million dollar films…
The Hughes’ glamorise the Victorian era, not just the murders. Women working as prostitutes are a tad too clean (Heather Graham’s Mary Kelly looks like she’s never set foot out the door without a stylist), streets have carefully placed filth, as if an art director had placed it there, and everyone’s teeth is Hollywood perfect. There’s a constant air of unreality on display here in stark contrast to Campbell’s scratchy realism in all his carefully drawn pages. This is historical murder redrawn as an elongated music video, with Depp at the centre of it all as a ludicrous opium addicted psychic detective, which Abberline most certainly wasn’t.
Moore himself wasn’t a fan of of Depp’s portrayal either. In an interview with MTV, he stated: “Johnny Depp saw fit to play this character as an absinthe-swilling, opium-den-frequenting dandy with a haircut that, in the Metropolitan Police force in 1888, would have gotten him beaten up by the other officers.”
Yet there’s the odd moment where the film works to an extent. It isn’t surprising these are the moments where they stick to Moore’s dialogue verbatim which makes From Hell seem smarter than it actually is. It’s far from being an unwatchable film, but it just isn’t a very good one, as it fails to capture the aesthetics that made the book such an harrowing and powerful triumph. It doesn’t possess even a fraction of Moore and Campbell’s ambition, choosing instead to go through the motions until it culminates with an ending you won’t be shocked to hear isn’t in the book.
Yet for Moore, this isn’t the worst film adaptation of his work; that was still to come, yet it does reinforce his reasoning for taking his name off films where he doesn’t own the rights. In the same interview with MTV, he said: “If the film is a masterpiece, that has nothing to do with my book. If the film is a disaster, that has nothing to do with my book. They’re two separate entities, and people will understand that. This was very naive because most people are not bothered with whether it’s adapted from a book or not. And if they do know, they assume it was a faithful adaptation. There’s no need to read the book if you’ve seen the film, right?” I wouldn’t want to be connected to this either.
Overall, From Hell works as a stylish Victorian murder mystery caper, but as an adaptation which embodies everything that made it’s source material such essential reading, it falls by the wayside. To paraphrase Moore himself, it’s a separate entity from the work that inspired it and should be considered as such.