from hell: movie vs book - part 2

In From Hell, the novel, a stroke results in Gull experiencing what he interprets as theophany – a vision of God – in the form of Jahbulon, a trinity consisting of Yahweh (Jah), Baal (Bul), and Osiris (On). This is the trigger that sets him on his path. As he murders each woman in turn – leaving the bodies in locations that, from an aerial perspective, correspond to the points of a pentagram – he experiences visions of 20th century London, computers and all. His last mystical experience, as he lies dying within the cell of an insane asylum, sees him traveling through time to interact with other murderers as well as notable people like William Blake, followed by a second encounter with Jahbulon and, arguably, ascension to godhood.

Of course, there’s more going on then this synopsis can capture, beginning with the question as to whether Gull is insane or not and the implications of his state of mind for his mystical visions. On the one hand, it is valid to view his theophany as a hallucination brought on by the stroke. And, by the end of the book, his mental state has clearly deteriorated just as the post-killing mutilations of the sacrificial women increased in brutality. Throw in a subtext of sexual psychopathology, illustrated by early troubles with his wife and asylum staff having sex in his cell as he undergoes his dying mystical experience, and we could make the case that his mystical experiences are delusions. Yet, the content of his visions receives validation from us, the readers, because we know that, if nothing else, his visions of 20th century London are true. This raises the very disturbing prospect that his magical rituals, and the metaphysics underlying them, have a certain reality. Gull’s insanity is insane, yes, but also ambivalently tied to an accurate, transcendental awareness of reality.

But even if we accept Gull’s view that he gave birth to the 20th century and assured its male-dominated character, there are complications seemingly glossed over by Gull. In his most vivid vision of 20th century London, elicited by the last and most gruesome murder, he is struck by how lifeless people are, despite all the toys and women’s explicit sexuality. Could it be that the 20th century isn’t what he hoped it would be? And what does it mean when, on his second encounter with Jahbulon at the end of his jaunt through time, the deity points him in the direction of an Irish village, where Mary Kelly – one of his intended victims – is not only alive and well with the child, but can see and chase him away? The fact that he killed the wrong woman doesn’t so much cast doubt on the success of his mystical mission – he gets the 20th century he created, however it may deviate from his expectations – but suggest that the feminine cannot be so easily or completely suppressed. Whether he achieves godhood as be believes with his dying breath or is condemned to hell by Mary Kelly’s curse is unresolved and, frankly, not entirely relevant. His success, if it can be called that, is not complete.

My purpose in indulging this little bit of interpretation is twofold.

First, to offer a little taste of the book’s richness. Considering that the story also deals with issues of class – rich versus poor, of course, and royalty versus everyone else – From Hell is a densely layered book. While V for Vendetta, for political reasons, still resonates most with me, I’d rank From Hell alongside it as Moore’s best work – even above the much-vaunted Watchmen, whose deterministic view of time effectively eliminates free will and, in the process, robs the conclusion of its power to render the book an empty philosophical exercise. (In other words, I’m not too bothered about Watchmen.)

Second, to offer a baseline of comparison with the movie. When looking at how other books have been adapted into films and the problems encountered in the translation (see my review of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban for an example), we can see that the differences between From Hell, the movie, and From Hell, the graphic novel, go beyond adding or omitting particular scenes.

To be continued…

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