Saturday, November 1, 2014

Review of The Island of Dr. Moreau by H.G. Wells

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is considered by Brian Aldiss to have been the first science fiction novel.  The story of a doctor who assembles a man from human parts and incites in him the spark of life, the resulting story examines the relationship of the the creator and created in fully human terms.  Inherent to the examination is the usage of biology to unnatural ends: human creating human in a laboratory.   Motivated by the uses of natural science in his time, H.G. Wells took this one premise of Shelley’s novel and expanded it into a novel of his own: 1896’s The Island of Dr. Moreau.  Extending into an examination of mankind’s primordial instincts, the resulting story is as intellectually stimulating as it is grippingly macabre, and is a worthy descendant of Frankenstein.

The Island of Dr. Moreau is the story of the doubly unlucky Edward Prendick.  Shipwrecked, the boat which rescues him proves equally, if not more dangerous.  Its decks a filthy squalor and loaded with cages of screeching animals, the drunk captain lumbers about, insulting the crew.  When Prendick dares to talk back, he is stranded again, cast off with the rest of the passengers and animals at a lone tropical island.  Things on the island somehow even stranger than the boat, humans of odd proportions come and go, and the mysterious man who oversees the island, Dr. Moreau, seems even more bizarre.  A major scare during an afternoon’s walk in the jungle sending Prendick running as fast as he can back to the main buildings, his whole world is about to be turned upside down by revelations of the grotesque menagerie of Dr. Moreau.

At its most immediate level, The Island of Dr. Moreau is a cautionary which utilizes the elements of horror to send its message.  Mankind’s unnatural play with biology producing an unnatural result, Moreau’s research eventually backfires on him in spectacular fashion, the sentiment seeming to be: play with fire and you’ll get burned.  At a more substantial level, however, Wells looks into the primeval instincts of man, most particularly, man as animal.  With Prendick serving as the lens, the reader is able to see the more civilized and atavistic sides of Moreau’s beasts.  Without spoiling the story, I can say that this split perspective, in combination with the direction their instinct takes them on the isolated island, proves a most interesting mirror for not only Moreau’s actions, but Prendick’s as well.  While varying according to character, the traits revealed nevertheless speak to something more universal in all human beings (an idea William Golding would later exploit in Lord of the Flies.)  Thus, while understanding the general scientific aims of Moreau—an analog that has only strengthened with the development of science—the reader likewise sympathizes (perhaps the skin crawling a little) with the predicament Prendick comes to at the conclusion of the novel back in the civilized world.

In the end, The Island of Dr. Moreau is a powerful bit of storytelling that explores the animal side of humanity, as well as warns against the dangers of playing with nature in the human biological context.  Given the manner in which humanity has further developed the techniques and technology that alter and modify flesh and bone since Wells published the novel, it has become more relevant—exactly as Frankenstein.  A tale at turns mysterious and horrific, getting to the bottom of Dr. Moreau’s intents is a creepy, spine-tingling experience.

(A side note: I have watched both major film adaptations of Wells’ novel: the 1977 Arkoff and the 1996 Frankenheimer version.  Of the two, Arkoff sticks most closely to the novel’s plot (that is, until the sensationalized end), but it is Frankenheimer’s which clings most tightly to its spirit.  Both add a female to the storyline (Wells had none in his) and both capitalize on the horror elements, but its Frankenheimer’s, though modernizing the science, vastly improving the special effects, and focusing on the ideologies at stake, which presents the grittier, less comic book story.  It reveals something “unmistakeably human yet undeniably animal” in the characters, man or beast, a point which Arkoff’s more pulpish rendering barely achieves.  I therefore assume that it is the superficial liberties with setting and plot that Frankenheimer took which warrant the overall negative opinion of the adaptation compared to Arkoff's, as in fact it represents Wells’ agenda well, not to mention holds up aesthetically significantly better than Arkoff’s Planet of the Apes-esque version.)

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