from hell: movie vs book - part 3

As I wrap up my discussion on From Hell, I’ll turn to the movie, which stars Johnny Depp as Inspector Abberline. Unlike the book, in which the good Inspector is a proletarian street-saavy copper, the film version is an intuitive savant driven by opium-fueled visions. He is the main focus of the story, as he develops a romance with Mary Kelly, one of the prostitutes targeted by Jack the Ripper. Interestingly, the romance and its denouement have an equivalent in the book, but the movie is notable for a surprising, even bold choice that. Mary Kelly survives Jack through a case of mistaken identity, but in order to protect knowledge of her survival, the movie’s Abberline chooses to commit suicide rather than leave open the possibility that the Jack/Masonic conspiracy would use him to get to her. In the book, Abberline is left little more than a sad goodbye note as Mary Kelly escapes Whitechapel.

It’s actually quite fascinating to see how the book and the movie correlate with one another, how the same essential events take on different forms. But what I’m getting at is the fundamental difference between movie and book: Abberline is the film’s central character, whereas he is co-protagonist with Jack in the novel. And as the central character – an inspector investigating a crime – the film is structured as a whodunit in which the killer’s identity is only revealed at the end. The novel isn’t concerned with suspense as it is with philosophy.

You can see where I’m going, even if I don’t dissect all the differences between the movie and the book: structure is everything. The movie loses out on fleshing out Jack the Ripper as a character because, at least until the end, our encounters with him consist of his murders. Of course, to spend too much time on the killer without knowing his identity would also rob the film of its suspense, although the movie solves this to some extent by having us get to know Jack through his reluctant accomplice, a coachman.

So we have the same story, but told in structurally different ways – fascinating stuff for writers. But of course, the next question is, which structure is better at conveying the story? While I was pleasantly surprised by how much I liked the movie, I’ll have to go with the book. However interesting it is to know how a character does something, it’s the why that offers the most rewarding drama and psychological insight. All too often, stories get caught up in the thrill of action and forget the quiet, but vital, joys of introspection.

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