October 5, 2010


by H.G. Wells

Review by Hereward L.M. Proops

When looking at a writer with the stature of Herbert George Wells, one is hard-pushed to choose his greatest work. Many would opt for “The War of the Worlds”, his groundbreaking, apocalyptic tale of alien invasion. Others would choose “The Invisible Man” with its genuinely insane and terrifying villain, or the stark warning of things to come in “The Time Machine”. His short story “The Stolen Bacillus” still remains timely with its prediction of a deadly virus falling into the hands of a terrorist group. “The History of Mr Polly” takes a satirical swipe at the rigidity of early twentieth century life and as such remains popular in academic circles as an example of his skill as a writer of greater depth than his science fiction stories would lead many to believe.

For me, Wells was at his best when balancing his flights of scientific fancy with his interest in the weaknesses of human nature. “The Island of Doctor Moreau” is my personal favourite novel by Wells. Though not as epic in scope as “The Time Machine” nor as shocking as the mass-destruction seen in “The War of the Worlds”, “The Island of Doctor Moreau” manages to be relentlessly gripping and very disturbing indeed.

Published in 1896, the novel drew some criticism for being too horrific. In these days of torture porn and splatter movies, it is hard to understand what kind of a stir the more grisly aspects of the story caused. Of course, such criticisms only served to boost the book's popularity and throw Wells and his writing further into the mainstream.

The titular Doctor Moreau was Wells' attack on scientists of the day (vivisectionists in particular) who he felt were meddling with things outside of nature. This is familiar territory for modern audiences who have been scared stupid by tales of GM foodstuffs, cloned animals and designer test-tube babies. “The Island of Doctor Moreau” can be seen as a stark warning to the scientific community but also as a damning condemnation of society itself.

The plot is wonderfully straightforward. English gentleman Edward Prendick finds himself shipwrecked and stranded on a private island belonging to a reclusive scientist who left Britain under less than auspicious circumstances. Along with Montgomery, his sullen, alcoholic assistant, Doctor Moreau conducts hideous experiments on animals. Operating on their bodies and training their minds, Moreau creates his own twisted society of Beast Men who worship him as a go-like figure. Though Moreau tries to enforce discipline through repetition of the sacred laws and threats of physical punishment in the dreaded House of Pain, the Beast Men are unable to suppress their animal instincts forever. As the artificial society begins to crumble, Prendick discovers some unpleasant truths about his own supposedly civilised nature.

Wells puts forward a very pessimistic view of society. Though a member of the socialist Fabian society, Wells was no political idealist. It was the inherently wicked nature of man that scared him and the book ends on a misanthropic note as Prendick distances himself from civilised life, having become aware of the beasts that lurk within the hearts of all men.

“The Island of Doctor Moreau ” has been adapted for the cinema on three occasions. The first, 1933's “The Island of Lost Souls” contained scenes of vivisection that were considered too shocking and the film was subsequently banned for twenty five years in the UK. The second adaptation came in 1977 and starred Burt Lancaster as Moreau whilst Michael York played the straight-laced Andrew Braddock who becomes Moreau's “honoured guest” on the strange island. The final adaptation of “The Island of Doctor Moreau”came in the form of the 1996 cinematic abortion. Not even the presence of Marlon Brando and David Thewlis could save the film from universally bad reviews. None of the films have managed to capture the strange terror that permeates every page of the original novel. Though the idea of flayed, re-assembled animals walking and talking may seem a bit goofy, there is nothing remotely amusing about the pitiful creatures that Wells confronts us with. Perhaps these terrors don't translate so well to the big screen and are best left to the imagination...

If you have any interest in science fiction or horror stories, “The Island of Doctor Moreau” is required reading. Although it is not the best-known of Wells' novels, it is probably the bleakest and most harrowing and as such, it will remain with you for a very long time.

Hereward L.M. Proops

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