From Hell

Many years ago I had a huge morbid fascination with Jack the Ripper. I’ve always really liked the explanation from Stephen Knight’s Jack the Ripper: The Final Solution. This proposed that it was all a Masonic plot to cover up an unwise assignation by Queen Victoria’s grandson, the Duke of Clarence. This was used as the basis of the 1979 film Murder by Decree where Sherlock Holmes solved the mystery.

The last time I remember having much interest in the story was about the time of the 100th anniversary in 1988. There were a few TV documentaries shown that year, but since then my interest has waned.

So somehow I missed out on Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell’s From Hell when it was published two years ago. Recently it was brought to my attention through my interest in Nicholas Hawksmoor so I read it.

From Hell retells Knight’s version of the story in great detail. There is a small amount of authorial invention, but that is all clearly marked in the copious notes. It’s a fantastic (in both meanings of the word) version of the story. Moore’s genius is in taking the ritualistic parts of the Ripper murders and and tying them in with a wider vision of “mystical London” in a way that Peter Ackroyd would be proud of.

Although I missed the book’s publication, it seems that Hollywood didn’t. In 2001 a film of From Hell was made. And last night I watched it. As a retelling of Knight’s theory it works well enough (though there are a couple of liberties that had me shouting at the screen – we’ll come to those soon), but as an adaptation of From Hell it fails dismally. The film has none of Moore and Campbell’s interest in the mysticism of London. It is turned into a pedestrian whodunnit, by the simple change of concealing the Ripper’s identity until the end of the film. The book is happy to tell us who the Ripper is in chapter 2, preferring to concentrate on his motivation and methods. The works of Hawksmoor, which run as a constant thread through the book are reduced to a few shots of Christchurch.

And as for the huge liberties taken with the story. Inspector Abberline (the main police character) falls in love with Mary Kelly (the prostitute and the last of the Ripper’s victims). This is bad enough, but the worst is saved to almost the very end where after we’ve have seen Kelly mutilated by the Ripper, it’s heavily implied that Kelly escaped and another (obviously less important) prostitute was killed instead.

Those last two travesties aside, it’s a reasonable enough film and tells a good story. However, it has nothing in common with the original book. Everyone should read the book.

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