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'The Island of Doctor Moreau' by HG Wells

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The Island of Doctor Moreau
'Island of Lost Souls' | The 1977 Film | The 1996 Film

The film adaptations and original novel of The Island of Doctor Moreau

The Island of Doctor Moreau is one of the most famous books by HG Wells. First published in 1896, it is the second of his 'scientific romance' novels, which have led to his frequently being called 'the father of science-fiction'. His later novels, many of which contained predictions about the future, were increasingly written to contain social and political messages, although these aims were also present in his earlier works.

Plot

Edward Prendick is the sole survivor of the loss of the ship Lady Vain following a storm. After spending several days alone in a lifeboat, he is rescued and nursed back to health by Montgomery, who has chartered the ship Ipecacuanha to deliver a cargo of several living animals, including a puma, to a small island. The presence of the animals and strangeness of Montgomery's servant, M'Ling, causes tension with the ship's captain, Davis.

When the ship arrives at the island Montgomery disembarks, along with the animals, and Captain Davis orders Prendick off. The island belongs to a Doctor Moreau, a name Prendick remembers from ten years earlier when Moreau had left London after he was found guilty of vivisection and subsequently hounded by the newspapers. Prendick notices that the natives of the island all have an animal-like appearance. Spotting Moreau in the middle of an operation, Prendick assumes that Moreau has been vivisecting people to turn them into animals and he flees through the jungle, not mindful that he is being scratched by the island's thorny plants as he runs.

Eventually Prendick encounters the island's inhabitants and learns that Doctor Moreau has in fact been experimenting on animals in order to turn them into humans, creating a race of 67 Beastmen. These are kept in control by Moreau's 'Litany of the Law', part of which prohibits them from tasting blood, and which holds Moreau and Montgomery as god-like. Prendick's scratched and bleeding skin has shown that he is as weak and vulnerable as any of the beasts, revealing that Moreau and Montgomery too are men, not gods.

Influences

Wells had studied under Thomas Huxley1, one of the earliest proponents of the Theory of Evolution and thus nicknamed 'Darwin's Bulldog'. As Huxley had argued that humans evolved from animals, Wells asked what if mankind resorted to animal barbarity in order to force animals to evolve into men?

Wells stayed close to the Huxley family throughout his life. In 1935 he co-wrote The Science of Life with his son George Phillip Wells and Sir Julian Huxley, older brother of Aldous Huxley2. This was a book about biology, showing that Wells retained a fascination for the science at the heart of The Island of Doctor Moreau.

Of course, Doctor Moreau himself is a scientist in the same vein as Mary Shelley's modern Prometheus, Doctor Frankenstein. Just as Prometheus brought fire, a sacred gift of the gods, to man, Doctor Moreau, like Frankenstein, rivals God by attempting to create human life, and both are punished for their sacrilege.

A key influence was Swift's Gulliver's Travels. The ending of The Island of Doctor Moreau is almost identical to the earlier novel. Like Gulliver's Travels, The Island of Doctor Moreau was a satire, with the community representing the Western World as a whole.

Themes

No Man is an Island

From the dawn of literature, there has been something undeniably exciting about islands. Islands are mysterious and magical, unlike the relatively mundane mainland. In fiction, islands are always full of mystery and treasure. Jules Verne did not write Mysterious Mainland, nor did Robert Louis Stevenson write Treasure Continent. On an island, anything can happen, and frequently does. We remember the names of mythical islands with hushed reverence: Atlantis, Avalon, Utopia, Laputa, Lemuria.

If there is something exceptional about islands, then those who dwell on an island must also therefore be extraordinary. To live on an island, you must surely be more in tune with nature and its wonders than other folk, a notion which perhaps is reflected in legends and myths which have in turn become the ancestors of Wells' tale, The Island of Doctor Moreau.

An island is a piece of land, yet its defining feature is that it is surrounded by the sea. Land can be cultivated, controlled and conquered, but the ocean is untameable and wild. An island is therefore a cross between the civilised and the feral. This is reflected in Greek myths, which often featured islands of wonder inhabited by half-human half-beast creatures, like the Minotaur, mermaids or the Cyclops. Circe was a sorceress who lived on the island of Aeaea and turned men into animals. Her son Comus led a band of creatures with human bodies and the heads of animals. The sirens were semi-human female creatures who lured men to their doom.

If marooned on one of these mythological islands, the only way to escape was to similarly embrace your inner animal while remembering your humanity. Odysseus disguised himself as a sheep to escape the Cyclops while Daedalus became a bird to escape his prison, yet his son, Icarus, became seduced by his animal side, flew too close to the sun and died as a consequence.

The concept of islands being populated by half-human creatures and humans with very different attributes and morals to those of the writer's own culture continues throughout history. Shakespeare's The Tempest features the beast-like Caliban. Gulliver's Travels has ant-sized people on the island of Lilliput, giants on Brobdingnag, and sentient horses called Houyhnhnms who are noble and refined, sharing another island with deformed and savage humans known as Yahoos.

This theme has naturally continued after Wells. Edgar Rice Burroughs' 1918 novel The Land that Time Forgot features an island, Caspak, populated not only by dinosaurs, but different species of ape-men. This later led to the classic 1933 film King Kong, whose central ape character has semi-human characteristics; he falls in love with Ann Darrow, and walks on two legs like a man.

CS Lewis, who was very strongly influenced by Wells in his space trilogy beginning with Out of the Silent Planet, also published the Narnia tale The Voyage of the Dawn Treader in 1952. This features islands where men become animals (such as dragons) and islands populated by invisible one-legged dwarves called Dufflepuds as well as talking animals.

Victorian Gothic Body Horror

The Island of Doctor Moreau was written at the end of the 19th Century, a time dominated by the great works of Victorian Gothic body horror, with a similar artistic movement known as Fin de siècle originating in France. The Island of Doctor Moreau was written only ten years after Stevenson's Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886), where a doctor is transformed into a man completely free of conscience or feelings of responsibility and empathy. A similar theme is found in Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891), in which a man leads an increasingly debauched lifestyle, the physical consequences of which are absorbed by a painting which ages while his own body remains young and unaffected. The most famous novel of the period was published a year after The Island of Doctor Moreau: Bram Stoker's Dracula in 1897. This featured an authority figure who is revealed to be a vampire, able to control his victims and transform them into the same.

The Island of Doctor Moreau plays on the same theme, enormously popular at the time, of ordinary men and women transformed into monsters and beasts. It misleads the audience into believing that Prendick will share this fate, even to the extent of featuring an attempt to escape. Yet Wells is bluffing. The authority figure, Doctor Moreau, is not turning humans into animals, but instead, and in an act against God, animals are being created in man's image.

A Section on Vivisection

Vivisection is surgery performed on a living organism. The term is commonly used to mean surgery on a living animal for experimental and research purposes, such as animal testing. At the time The Island of Doctor Moreau was written, vivisection was a cause célèbre since the National Anti-Vivisection League had been founded in 1875, leading to a Royal Commission on Vivisection. Animals were routinely cut up in order for medical students to learn about anatomy. In the 1890s the matter was still a hot topic, with heated arguments over whether vivisection should be allowed, regulated or abolished. In 1896, the year The Island of Doctor Moreau was published, Battersea Hospital was founded and famously declared that no vivisection would take place within its walls. The British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection was founded in 1898 with the aim of abolishing vivisection, while the existing National Anti-Vivisection League continued calling for vivisection to be regulated. Many of Britain's leading suffragettes campaigned strongly against vivisection.

In the novel, Wells predicts the abilities and skills used in cosmetic surgery, which today is used for a variety of purposes. The character of Moreau had been forced to leave London due to a scandal involving a dog he had been operating on, again something which anticipated the Brown Dog riots of 1907, following protests after William Bayliss vivisected a brown dog without sufficient anaesthetic, proving the existence of hormones. Moreau is far more than a mere vivisectionist; if cosmetic surgery can make people look younger (or at least less wrinkled) and enable sex-change operations, why can't those skills be used to make animals look like humans?

What a piece of work is man!

The differences between humans and animals is an important theme in the novel, one that creates much of Wells' satire. Wells uses the way that Moreau treats his animal creations to reflect and comment on colonialism, imperialism and to promote his socialist perspective in much the same way that Swift did in Gulliver's Travels.

For Moreau, man can be made, and for Wells, too, mankind is made by society.

The paragon of animals?

A related theme is that man is, after all, an animal, but is restricted from acting like a barbaric beast only by moral training and education. The tooth-and-claw visceral violence of the animal kingdom always threatens to overwhelm society's flimsy veneer of responsibility.

Civilisation is seen as the Island of Doctor Moreau on a larger scale. After escaping from the island, Prendick is unable to tell the difference between the Beastmen and the people he sees every day in London. He satirically describes humans as

...perfectly reasonable creatures, full of human desires and tender solicitude, emancipated from instinct, and the slaves of no fantastic Law.

Moreau states,

I can see through it all, see into their very souls, and see there nothing but the souls of beasts, beasts that perish, anger and the lusts to live and gratify themselves. Yet they're odd; complex, like everything else alive. There is a kind of upward striving in them.

Moreau sees that his animal creations have souls that strive towards a goal of perfection, yet as the Bible tells us that all mankind has sinned against God, all the beasts have an animal nature that separates them from mankind and corrupts them, restoring them to their original form. Moreau describes this by saying,

Somehow the things drift back again, the stubborn beast flesh grows, day by day, back again... Something that I cannot touch, somewhere – I cannot determine where – in the seat of the emotions. Cravings, instincts, desires that harm humanity, a strange hidden reservoir to burst suddenly and inundate the whole being of the creature with anger, hate or fear.

Yet the humans in the novel often behave like animals. Prendick was not initially the only survivor from Lady Vain – there were two others. As things become more desperate he even considers cannibalism. When the other survivors kill each other, he laughs. Davis, the captain of the Ipecacuanha is introduced with a description befitting an animal. He is a 'heavy red-haired man' who 'gave a yawp', an animal sound rather than intelligent conversation. Davis is a brute and a bully, who attacks Prendick. He is contrasted with the Sayer of the Law and other Beastmen by saying 'I'm the law here, I tell you - the law and the prophets' and later 'Law be damned! I'm king here', showing how shallow his belief in law and order is. His repetition of 'the law' is similar to that of the rote learning of the Sayer of the Law.

Moreau and Montgomery, when first seen, are also described by their hair colour and appearance, just as someone might describe a black dog or ginger cat. Montgomery is 'a youngish man with flaxen hair, a bristly straw-coloured moustache and a dropping nether lip' while Moreau is 'a massive white-haired man... powerfully built... with a fine forehead and rather heavy features'. The port of Arica in Chile is described as a 'seafaring village of Spanish mongrels'.

Montgomery compares Prendick with an animal; 'I injected and fed you much as I might have collected a specimen'. Prendick is more than once called 'an ass' by Montgomery and has the same fight or flight reaction to his predicaments as would an animal. Moreau also informs Prendick, 'You are an animal, thinking a little less obscurely what an animal feels'. In return, Prendick feels that Montgomery is 'half akin to these Beast Folk, unfitted for human kindred.'

Religion and Law

Wells' described his novel as an exercise in youthful blasphemy. The Litany of the Law is a parody of religion, with the House of Pain, where disobedient Beastmen are sent, equivalent to Hell. Educating the beasts and getting them to respect the Law is a struggle against animal instinct. Rational life is shown as a façade, before the animals reassert themselves and their bestial brutish barbarity.

Moreau encourages his creations to think of him as a god, their creator, in order to keep order on his island. Montgomery is considered a lesser god, as is Prendick later (although briefly), until Prendick is scratched and bleeds, revealing that he and Moreau are human. This is similar to Rudyard Kipling's 1888 novella The Man Who Would be King, where two British adventurers are deified by an isolated tribe in Afghanistan until one of them is scratched, bleeds and thus reveals that they are mere mortals. Wells described The Man who Would be King as 'one of the best stories in the world' in Chapter 7 of his novel When the Sleeper Wakes3.

Moreau is disappointed in all his creations, considering them failures, and banishes them to the other side of his island. The Bible tells us that God, too, banished mankind from the Garden of Eden for eating the apple from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, thus bringing sin into the world. Just as God gave Moses the Ten Commandments, Moreau gives the creatures he created the Law, punishable by trips to the House of Pain (the vivisection room). His creations always seem to revert to beasts, just as all mankind fails to live up to the sin-free idyll dictated by the Bible. Prendick, in order to survive, encourages the belief in an omnipresent Moreau, who despite having died can judge the good and bad beasts. Prendick uses religion as a tool to create social stability and manipulate those around him.

Moreau considers himself a religious man rather than a dispassionate scientist, saying,

I am a religious man, Prendick, as every sane man must be. I fancy I have seen more of the ways of this world's Maker than you – for I have sought his laws, in my way, all my life.

Yet this does not prevent his supreme blasphemy in trying to create man in his own image or by creating a religion with himself at the centre. After his death, Moreau undergoes his own resurrection; when the Beastmen question whether or not there is still a Law if Moreau is dead, Prendick tells them that Moreau is not dead, that he has:

changed his shape - he has changed his body [and gone] where he can watch you. You cannot see him, but he can see you. Fear the Law.

Characters

Doctor Moreau

Once a noted physiologist, Moreau had been forced to leave Britain when his vivisection of animals was discovered. Wishing to create life in the human shape, he attempts to turn animals into people inside his lab, which is also known as 'The House of Pain'.

Wells has said that Doctor Moreau had been inspired by the trial of Oscar Wilde.

Montgomery

Montgomery is Doctor Moreau's alcoholic assistant who rescues Prendick, eager to speak to a fellow Englishman about his home since he saw it last. Montgomery also longs to eat meat4, yet this desire inadvertently causes carnage and corruption when the beasts eventually taste blood.

Montgomery genuinely cares about the animals under his care, but has turned to alcohol to enable him to cope with the cruelty he sees performed on the animals each day.

Edward Prendick

A wealthy biology student from the Royal College of Science who survives a shipwreck to find himself trapped on Doctor Moreau's island. Prendick has nothing but disgust for Moreau's creations, a factor in his shooting the Leopard Man, but is not afraid to manipulate the Beastmen to his own advantage. Prendick often acts before he has fully considered the consequences, such as building a raft miles away from the sea. He also antagonises Captain Davis, leaps to conclusions and accidentally destroys Moreau's home. Prendick lives on the island for ten months only to shun human society after his rescue for fear that people are really beasts in disguise.

M'Ling

Montgomery's loyal servant, a cross between a bear, dog and ox, M'Ling is the beast most devoted to Montgomery and Moreau.

The Sayer of the Law

The Sayer of the Law has little personality of his own, but merely repeats what he has learned by rote: the creed and code of Moreau's law. He is described as being white-haired. Does this symbolise a judge's wig? Or perhaps old age, a characteristic often associated with religious elders such as bishops and archbishops?

The Law

The Law is such a vital part of the novel, and all film adaptations of it, that Moreau's Commandments are worth listing:

  • Not to go on all-fours; that is the Law. Are we not Men?
  • Not to suck up Drink; that is the Law. Are we not Men?
  • Not to eat Flesh or Fish; that is the Law. Are we not Men?
  • Not to claw the Bark of Trees; that is the Law. Are we not Men?
  • Not to chase other Men; that is the Law. Are we not Men?
  • His is the House of Pain.
  • His is the Hand that makes.
  • His is the Hand that wounds.
  • His is the Hand that heals.

Wells and the Cinema

From the dawn of moving pictures, the scientific romance novels of HG Wells have inspired works of cinema. These novels are:

  • The Time Machine (1895)
  • The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896)
  • The Invisible Man (1897)
  • The War of the Worlds (1898)
  • First Men in the Moon (1901)
  • The Sleeper Awakes (1910)

The year following Wells' publication of First Men in the Moon, a story about two men who actually land on the moon, a cinematic adaptation was in cinemas. Georges Méliès' film Le Voyage dans la Lune, also known as A Trip to the Moon, combined Wells' novel with Jules Verne's Voyage to the Moon'5. First Men in the Moon was adapted by Ray Harryhausen6 in 1964 in a faithful retelling of Wells' novel, only adding a female character as well as bookending the tale with a sequence set in modern Britain.

Wells' stories have proved time and time again able to capture the imagination in any conceivable medium. A visionary writer ahead of his time, his ideas have proven to be remarkably easy to adapt to the modern day, especially his most famous work, The War of the Worlds. Orson Welles' famous 1938 radio adaptation caused a real invasion panic in America when first broadcast. Numerous film adaptations have been made by some of the most respected directors of the day, including George Pal in 1953 and Steven Spielberg in 2005, although both adapted the story to set it in present day America. To date the most faithful adaptation to the novel's setting has been Jeff Wayne's classic musical version released as an album in 1978.

Even more frequently translated onto the screen, both cinema and television, has been The Time Machine, with Wells' phrase now used to describe any fictitious device capable of travelling through time. This too has been filmed, with an Oscar-winning version by George Pal in 1960. A notable version starring Isle of Wight-born actor Jeremy Irons was directed in 2002 by HG Wells' great-grandson Simon Wells. Both these films were set in Victorian times, although the 2002 version was set in New York. The Invisible Man has been the most frequently updated and adapted for television and film.

Film Adaptations

To date there have been three film adaptations of The Island of Doctor Moreau. The first, in 1932, was filmed as Island of Lost Souls, with the 1977 and 1996 versions filmed using Wells' original title.

Characters1932 Film1977 Film1996 Film
Men:Edward PrendickEdward Parker
Richard Arlen
Andrew Braddock
Michael York
Edward Douglas
David Thewlis
Doctor MoreauCharles LaughtonBurt LancasterMarlon Brando
MontgomeryArthur HohlNigel DavenportVal Kilmer
Beastmen
or
'Manimals':
Puma-WomanLota
Kathleen Burke
Maria
Barbara Carrera
Aissa
Fairuza Balk
Sayer of the LawBela LugosiNick CravatRon Perlman
M'LingTetsu Komai
-
Marco Hofschneider
Leopard-Man
-
Richard BasehartMark Dacascos
Hyæna-Swine
-
Fumio DemuraDaniel Rigney
Vixen-Bear Witch
-
-
Clare Grant
Dog-Man
-
-
Temuera Morrison
Ape-ManHans Steinke
-
Peter Elliott

Legacy

HG Wells would himself revisit many of the themes of The Island of Doctor Moreau in his later 1928 satirical novel, Mr Blettsworthy on Rampole Island in which the hero is shipwrecked, awakes on an island populated by giant sloths, and is adopted by the strange natives with incomprehensible laws and customs such as the Sacred Lunatic. Another of Wells' later works is The Croquet Player, in which the animal instincts of mankind's ancestor, Neanderthal Man, are seen to still exist in man's nature today.

Brave New World

In 1932 Wells' family friend Aldous Huxley published Brave New World which includes a character – Dr Wells – named after him. Many of the themes of Huxley's work reflect Wells' novels. In Brave New World humans are manufactured in bottles, rather than created from animals, and in both societies are conditioned to obey the law through hypnosis. Islands also have the traditional role of being populated by outcasts, who the World Controller in Brave New World describes as all the people who, for one reason or another, have got too self-consciously individual to fit into community-life. All the people who aren't satisfied with orthodoxy, who've got independent ideas of their own. Everyone, in a word, who's anyone. The character of Marx in Brave New World has echoes of Montgomery; both leave civilisation for a life on a remote island as a consequence of misdemeanours against society.

Una: The Perfect Creature

'Una', also published as 'The Perfect Creature', is a John Wyndham short story that was published in his anthology Jizzle in 1954 and had previously appeared in Argosy magazine7 in 1937. 'Una' is a tale about strange animals which Wyndham implies have been created by vivisection. Wyndham's story mentions 'brutes in human form', turtle-like humans, a doctor performing strange experiments and the word 'vivisection' appears several times. One character even says:

I've read The Island of Doctor Moreau, too. You expect to go up to the Grange and be greeted by a horse walking on its hind legs and discussing the weather; or perhaps a super-dog will open the door to you and inquire your name?

That character also later says, 'do try to remember that our host's name is Dixon, and not Moreau'. This proves that over 50 years after first publication, Wells' novel was still popular enough to be referred to, and used to subvert readers' expectations to distract them from the nature behind Wyndham's story.

The Island of Doctor Moreau
'Island of Lost Souls' | The 1977 Film | The 1996 Film
1Thomas Huxley was particularly fascinated by dinosaurs, often hunting for their bones on the Isle of Wight. He was the first to propose that dinosaurs evolved into birds.2Author of Brave New World, published in 1932.3Republished in 1911 as The Sleeper Awakes.4Moreau imposes a strict vegetarian diet on Montgomery in order to prevent the beasts from tasting blood, as Moreau believed that eating meat or tasting blood will bring out dangerous carnivorous instincts.5It is an oversimplification, but Jules Verne inspired the journey to and from the moon, while Wells inspired what actually happened on the Moon.6In his book An Animated Life, Ray Harryhausen states that he had considered making a version of The Island of Doctor Moreau, but this project never developed as far as a screenplay.7A magazine that published pulp fiction from 1882-1978.

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