In 1896, P. Chalmers Mitchell wrote a review of H.G. Wells’s The Island of Dr. Moreau (1896), disparaging the body horror of the novel: “It is the blood that Mr. Wells insists upon forcing on us [...] physically disgusting details inevitable in the most conservative surgery; but still more unworthy of restrained art” (369). Yet Mitchell’s distaste misses the point of these details, because The Island of Dr. Moreau is a novel explicitly about biology, about physicality, and about the limits of minds and bodies. As a man deeply fascinated with science, H.G. Wells developed a character who reflected concerns about the ethics of scientific experimentation that ripple into the present day.
Mitchell’s complaints are exactly what makes The Island of Dr. Moreau a work important for ecocriticism. Yet there is a gap in the study of The Island of Dr. Moreau, and that is in its adaptations. Adaptation studies asks us to consider the ways in which experimentation upon texts can yield evolutions in our understandings of culture. I will explain how film and YA adaptations pivot the horror of Moreau’s island away from bodies, pain, and the ethical ramifications of torture in the name of science. Each of these narratives is unified by their insertion of female hybrid-animals, despite the fact that the original text included no female hybrids of note. By emphasizing the hybrid-women, and particularly emphasizing their desirability, the film adaptations smooth over some of the more problematic aspects of Moreau’s animal torture from the Wells novel, while the YA adaptations attempt to recover the agency lost with female hybrid-women in the films. To understand these adaptations, in both contexts, I will draw on a discourse relatively unexplored in adaptation studies: ecofeminism.
Both feminist criticism and environmental literary criticism have been driven by the consideration of othered bodies. The joining of these two fields into ecofeminism, or “discourse that analyzes conceptual connections between the manipulation of women and the nonhuman” (Buell, Heise, and Thornber 425), allows for critical discussion of the manipulation of animal and animalized bodies within Wells’s text. As adaptations of The Island of Dr. Moreau insist on asking us to feminize those animal bodies, our ecocritical appreciation for those connections between women and the nonhuman deepens. Film adaptations of Moreau, helmed by men, insert and sexualize a female hybrid, but a recent spate of YA adaptations, all written by women, deepen and complicate those insertions. YA authors particularly seem to ask their audience to consider women’s manipulated and violated bodies as the full realization of Moreau’s experimentation in the Wells text: as powerful and violent tools for women to utilize with full autonomy.
“This is the law”: H.G. Wells’s Text in Context with Nineteenth-Century Science
Bodies are implicitly tied into the question of humanity and who deserves humane treatment within the ethical boundaries of science. The experiments performed on the animals in The Island of Dr. Moreau are particularly shocking given that they involved vivisection, defined at that time as the dissection and operation upon live (often conscious) animals. Although the Cruelty to Animals Act of 1876 was passed to abolish vivisection except in cases of absolute necessity, continuing publications about the debate, in addition to Wells’s novel, suggest that the subject was controversial well after its supposed abolishment. For example, in an anti-vivisectionist book from 1880, Albert Leffingwell recounts an experiment performed in a medical school: “An incision in the abdomen of a dog was made; its stomach was cut out; a pig’s bladder containing a colored water was inserted into its place, an emetic was injected into the veins,-- and vomiting ensued. Long before the conclusion of the experiment the animal became conscious, and its cries of suffering were exceeding painful to hear” (24). These experiments, Leffingwell asserts, might be instructive to medical students, but were often conducted for the sake of demonstrating already-accepted biological fact, thereby not meeting the exemptive criteria to continue vivisections expressed in the Cruelty to Animals Act of 1876.
Wells’s novel responded directly to these practices as well. The plot follows shipwrecked castaway Edward Prendrick, who washes aboard the island of Dr. Moreau, where he bears witness to the extreme and ongoing torture of animals, in what he eventually realizes are experiments to convert the animals into human-animal hybrids. The novel is an important and still-relevant commentary on the ethical limits of science and the dangers of transgressing those ethical boundaries. It was also, by Wells’s account, a plausible inevitability given the experimentation made in the field of science at the time. Wells was a prodigy of science who studied with Thomas Huxley, himself a devout student of Charles Darwin (Gomel 409). In his essay, “The Limits of Individual Plasticity,” Wells said:
Now the suggestion this little article would advance is this: that there is in science, and perhaps even more so in history, some sanction for the belief that a living thing might be taken in hand and so moulded and modified that at best it would retain scarcely anything of its inherent form and disposition” (89).
Here, Wells states that what happens to the animals on Moreau’s island, their transformation from animal to hybrid, was within what he believed to be the plausible bounds of science.
Much of the cautionary dimension to Wells’s novel is filtered through Dr. Moreau himself. The unsavory lingering on the potentially sadistic underpinnings of Science for Science’s Sake is what makes Moreau uniquely unsympathetic, far more so than Dr. Jekyll or Victor Frankenstein. As Edward says:
Now [the beasts] stumbled in the shackles of humanity, lived in a fear that never died, fretted by a law they could not understand; their mock-human existence began in an agony, was one long internal struggle, one long dread of Moreau-- and for what? It was the wantonness that stirred me. Had Moreau had any intelligible object I could have sympathized at least a little with him. (149-150)
What Edward refers to here is not just the vivisection that leads to the physical reality of the hybrid-animals, but also the social-behavioral conditioning used to train the hybrids to act human after their physical transformations. In some ways, this social indoctrination, which mimics the religious and political structures of imperialist British society, is just as harmful and cruel to the hybrids as their physical creations; at the least, it is a lasting and final indignity to their lives.
And yet, what has always complicated a more robust exploration of these subjects in two of the novel’s film adaptations (those of both Erle Kenton (1932) and John Frankenheimer (1996)) is the point of departure for exploring these subjects: the puma character. In the Wells text, the puma is a symbol of pain and torture characterized mostly by its constant cries of agony throughout the novel. At one point, Edward describes these cries “as if all the pain in the world had found a voice” (Wells 59). In Moreau’s brief description of the puma, he says “I have some hope of that puma; I have worked hard at her head and brain…” (122), indicating that he hoped soon to defeat a consistent problem in his experimentation: as he works to create his hybrid-humans they always, eventually, begin to degrade, becoming more and more animalistic. For Moreau, the puma becomes the twin symbol of success and defeat. Even as he envisions that this creature will be the realization of his goal to create a truly lasting and convincing hybrid, the puma defeats him, not only by surviving and escaping her torture, but by putting a definitive end to Moreau’s experiments by killing him. In Wells’s text, the puma is thus symbolic of nature’s retribution against Moreau; she is the wild animal that resists domestication and both her pain and triumph are focal points for all of the Beast Folk as they shift from the pain of Moreau’s dominion to a return to a more natural state. While the ethical implications of vivisection and social conditioning have always complicated robust discussions of these subjects, both Erle Kenton (1932) and John Frankenheimer (1996) have, in their film adaptations, used the same hybrid-animal as a point of departure: the puma character.
“She's a Pussycat”: The Puma Character, Ecofeminism, and Film Adaptations
In Erle Kenton’s The Island of Lost Souls (1932), Lota, the puma/panther character, soon enraptures Edward. Moreau throws the two together in an attempt to find out if his hybrid can become more human by falling in love with and mating with a human man. In their first meeting, Dr. Moreau suggestively introduces Lota as the “only woman on the island” and quickly absconds from the room to listen at the door as Lota and Edward become acquainted. After an eventful night, Moreau again observes his subjects carefully from the shadows, remarking to his assistant “Did you see that Montgomery? She was tender, like a woman. How that little scene spurs the scientific imagination onward” (Kenton). While Wells’s Moreau was interested in perfecting that evasive “something I cannot touch, somewhere--” (Wells 120), Kenton’s Moreau has crafted such perfection in Lota’s physical appearance that only her interiority can be perfected upon. Lota is a representation of one of Moreau’s greatest achievements in this film, but unlike in the Wells text, she is already fully transformed and notably far more docile. Lota, as triumph, is represented not in the pain and torture that contributed to her current state, but in the off-screen buffing away of these signs of her previous animal existence, both physical and emotional. Nothing is left of the puma, and her convincing mask of humanity becomes a tool to be used by Moreau as he uses Edward to further his experiment. Without her previous agency, Lota’s exploitation by Moreau represents a human/animal power dynamic, certainly, but it also represents the related binary of male/female that these adaptations exploit so well.
Kenton’s adaptation plays upon this male/human to female/animal dynamic particularly within his cinematography, highlighting the stark differences in agency that the male characters are able to express in comparison with the female characters. When Lota expresses her interest in Edward, he infantilizes her, calling her a “strange child” moments before kissing her violently, bending her head back to a painful angle while wrapping his arm around her neck (see Figure 1). When Lota tries to hold the abruptly ashamed Edward closer, he notices her claws and looms over her in the frame before heading off to confront Dr. Moreau (Kenton).
This is a common visual juxtaposition in the film: Lota, catlike, hunches through her scenes, constantly shrinking into corners as the male characters tower over her. As Lota weeps about her regression, Moreau, seated next to her, grabs her by the hair and twists her face upward towards his, so that he looks down upon her face in his lap from a position of domination (see Figure 2). He triumphantly proclaims that since she is “the first of them to shed tears. She is human!”, although not human enough to invoke sympathy or courtesy in Kenton’s Moreau.
The only means of agency that Lota has is her sexuality, which Edward quickly rejects, and Moreau attempts to rob from her as part of his experiment. Lota’s only moment of real choice is when she sacrifices herself to save Edward and a small group of survivors from an attack by Ouran, part of a hybrid-mob who revolts against the humans at the end of the film. In one last, violent struggle between male/animal and female/animal, Lota triumphs over Ouran as she is unable to do in her conflicts with any of the male/humans on the island, but even still she does so at the cost of her own life.
There is some real precedence for exploring these adaptive dynamics through the lens of ecofeminism, which asserts itself as “a movement that sees a connection between the exploitation and degradation of the natural world and the subordination and oppression of women” (Mellor 1). In these adaptations, we see this connection so clearly: Lota, as puma and success story, represents all the animals, but as a tame, docile woman (the only woman of note on the island) she is also the most oppressed and most subordinated of all the hybrids on the island because her body is so closely controlled by Moreau. This reality becomes represented in her female/hybrid body and the way it becomes a site of horror, not in its existence, but in the effect it has on the male/human protagonist. The true terror of Lota’s being is that women/animals are acceptable only so long as they remain fully, totally, and immaculately tame. This tameness is very evident in her contrast with Ruth, Edward’s fiance, who is the physical opposite of Lota: blonde, modest, and tidy in comparison to Lota’s exoticism1, Ruth seems to highlight the fact that Lota, even as she may pass for human, will never pass socially for human by gendered standards.
This hypersexualized dynamic is evident also in John Frankenheimer’s The Island of Dr. Moreau (1996). While this adaptation attracted huge stars of the day, like Marlon Brando (Dr. Moreau), Val Kilmer (Montgomery), and Fairuza Balk (Aissa), it was a box office bomb and still discussed by some critics in terms of its poor reception (Stetz). This failure of the film has been blamed alternatively on conflicts between the actors, the failure of director John Frankenheimer to lead the film with a clear vision, and the writing of the script. Yet the script itself is notable in that it is a clear and faithful homage to Erle Kenton’s The Island of Lost Souls. All of the most notable changes from Wells’s text that first appeared in Kenton’s adaptation are present, from Dr. Moreau’s costuming in head-to-toe white to the riot of the animals at the end of the film which destroys Moreau and his legacy.2 Yet the most notable insertion by Kenton into the Wells text is that of Lota, the puma creature, and this is carried over into the Frankenheimer film, as well.
In fact, the original director and writer, Richard Stanley, while acknowledging that Wells felt that the 1932 adaptation was a failure, also believed that Kenton’s adaptation was “probably the most effective” (Lost Soul). As Stanley goes on to acknowledge, the Kenton adaptation’s plot was copied faithfully by a number of subsequent adaptors, including in Don Taylor’s The Island of Dr. Moreau in 1977, which Stanley was extremely influenced by when writing his script: “Among many other things, I was confused that there was a woman turning into a panther on the poster of the movie which never happened in the film. And I guess from that moment onwards, the germ of the idea began to gestate in my mind, and I was determined to try and do it justice, to try and adapt the story in a way that could actually work for the screen” (Lost Soul). The female puma character was incredibly influential on early drafts of the script, and Stanley’s original intention was to craft a character whose animal influences were more apparent in her body.
As part of his plan for doing justice to both Wells and the subsequent adaptations that had influenced perception of his text so much, Stanley originally planned to create a horror film that would more fully highlight Aissa’s female/animal body. This “phantom adaptation” (Murray 6)3 would have dramatically subverted the male/human, female/hybrid dynamic at work between Edward and Lota in the 1932 film:
[The producers] tried to get me to humanize the cat-lady. When Prendrick initially seduces her, she’s got six nipples and her pubes kind of grow all over her thighs and up her chest and stuff and there’s this celebrated moment where he’s working his way down one nipple to the next and realizes along the way that she’s not human, which really upset [the producers…] [Ruth Vitale, one of the producers,] said it would upset menopausal women all over America. (Lost Soul)
Within the context of the Frankenheimer adaptation, many of these early elements were abandoned before filming began; still other elements of the script were rewritten after direction of the film shifted from Richard Stanley’s control to John Frankenheimer’s and as Marlon Brando improvised most of his work on the film. However, the changes made to the character Aissa reflect a clear desire to, as Stanley says, “draw the line” and present a puma character far more in line with social/visual expectations of a desirable female lead, even if that meant sacrificing the thematic horror that would have been expressed in this much more animalian version of Aissa’s body.
In Frankenheimer’s film, Moreau’s hybrid/daughter Aissa, his most perfect creation, immediately attracts Edward. In fact, his first encounter with her is an accidental, erotically-charged intrusion upon what seems to be her regular outdoor belly-dancing practice (see Figure 3). Edward mentions his admiration for Aissa’s beauty and Montgomery sardonically replies “Yeah. She’s a pussycat.” In their one-on-one interactions, Edward’s attraction to Aissa does little to develop her character, but it does drive the plot forward. The latter third of the film becomes a quest to halt Aissa’s regression to animal, because-- as Edward mentions to her while fondling her face (see Figure 4)-- “If it were not for you, I would think that your father had failed terribly. You are not like them. Nor are you like me. You are something far, far finer.” This version of Edward does not mind that Aissa is an animal given human form. This version of Edward retains his attraction to her even after learning the truth and even after seeing her fangs as she begins her regression.
Just as in Kenton’s adaptation, the full realization of Aissa’s physical potential at the outset of the film erases the pain and horror of how Aissa came into existence. Because Edward has never been forced to confront Aissa’s origins, he is able to retain his uncomplicated feelings toward her. In fact, Edward never has to confront any of the Beast Folk’s origins: they are not brought into being by vivisection in this adaptation; instead of witnessing the puma’s cries of horror and brutal, bloody mutilation, Edward witnesses a fairly normal (albeit unusually graphic) vaginal birth scene. The cruelty done to these bodies is naturalized, and because of that normalization, the horror shifts to the social aspect of what has been done to them. The horror for Edward specifically shifts to preventing Aissa’s regression, as her full regression removes her as a romantic possibility (her only value to him in this adaptation).
Part of the effect of inserting Aissa into the narrative is that she identifies herself particularly as Moreau’s daughter, which serves to humanize Moreau. Brando’s portrayal of Moreau, although wildly eccentric (he is a mad scientist in a very stereotypical sense of the term; in one scene, he asks Aissa to dump ice into a bucket on his head) seems to, at least on the surface, genuinely care for his creatures (see Figure 5)4.
In fact, Moreau asserts that the purpose of his experimentation is in service of erasing the darker psychological aspects of humanity: “The devil is that element in human nature that impels us to destroy and debase [...] I have seen the devil in my microscope, and I have chained him.” Moreau goes on to refer to Aissa specifically: “I have almost achieved perfection, you see, of a divine creature that is pure, harmonious, absolutely incapable of malice. And if I have occasionally fallen short by the odd claw, snout, or hoof, then it really is of no great import.” In this way, Aissa is a triumph not only because of her physical/biological appearance, but also because of her gentleness and kindness. By his own account, Moreau is a humanitarian, attempting (more like Victor Frankenstein) to do something arguably productive with his experimentation. So, if Aissa’s existence isn’t a nightmare, but even a pseudo-utopia, where does the horror assert itself? As in Kenton’s adaptation, the horror shifts from the bodily torture of the creatures to the social taboo of their bodies.
As both Lota and Aissa begin to revert to their animal states, the horror most fully asserts itself in these adaptations. The expression of their animal side in moments of violence (for Aissa) or sexuality (for Lota) corresponds with a physical expression of their animal biology in the form of claws or fangs. So, the post-Enlightenment’s valuation of the suppression of emotion finds outlet in a different horror, not in Moreau, but in his pumas, whose emotional expression represents their devolution. The ideal for these women, then, is the repression of common emotions like violence and sexuality, which sounds very much like what society has traditionally said is the ideal for women: “The way in which women and nature have been conceptualized historically in the Western intellectual tradition has resulted in devaluing whatever is associated with women, emotion, animals, nature, and the body, while simultaneously elevating in value those things associated with men, reason, humans, culture, and the mind” (Gaard 5). Not only are women’s bodies controlled in these narratives, but when their interiority cannot be regulated to a constant equilibrium, they lose what little value their bodies afforded them by reverting to their animal states, making them incompatible sexual partners for Edward and failures of science for Moreau.
These film adaptations, helmed by male directors, lay important groundwork for some of the most recent adaptations of The Island of Dr. Moreau. It is difficult not to notice that nearly all acknowledged film adaptations are controlled by men and introduce female characters into their adaptations; many of those female characters are hybrids. Moreau has made appearances in many literary adaptations in the twenty-first century, but a recent spate of YA adaptations written by female authors and featuring female protagonists suggest an interest in complicating the visions put forth by male directors in the late twentieth century. As the adaptations shift from male auteurs to female authors and from the visual medium to a textual one, these women gain a great deal of agency in their texts.
YA novel adaptations, which ubiquitously focus on the hybrid-daughter character and her nascent sexuality, complicate the character of Moreau even further by suggesting that the dualism between body/animal and mind/human and male/female are not such clear distinctions; they refocus the narrative upon the body as a site of Moreau’s influence and terror. They also reinstate the agency and power of these daughters. If ecofeminism argues that the oppression and domination of women and nature are, in many ways, twins (Kings 71), then these new adaptations tell us that nature and women can do more than embody man’s success or failure. They can challenge man to stand or fail on his own merits and they can reflect back at him his own savagery.
The Madman's Daughters: Young Adult (YA) Adaptations and Ecofeminism
The Madman’s Daughter (2013) by Megan Shepherd diverts the focus away from Moreau and the question of his humanity toward what it means to be female in a male-dominated society. By associating her protagonist Juliet Moreau with the “Beast Folk,” the other human-animal hybrids of the plot, Shepherd relates the question of what it means to be female in the nineteenth century with what it means to be “other,” which has ecofeminist implications that “challenge such dualistic constructions and, in so doing, attempt to establish a different system of values in which the normative category of ‘other’ (animals, people of color, ‘Third World’ people, the lower classes, etc.) is reevaluated” (Gruen 80). Shepherd achieves this goal of challenging these dualistic constructions in multiple ways.
First, while most film adaptations of Moreau have tried to place the doctor’s experiments in a modern context, Shepherd resituates her heroine within the nineteenth century, a century notorious for the restrictive social expectations placed upon women. In doing so, Shepherd highlights the social reality of Dr. Moreau’s actions within the situatedness of the nineteenth century. For example, the novel begins with Juliet Moreau struggling to make her way in the world following her father’s disgrace from society. In Wells’s text, Dr. Moreau “had to leave England. A journalist obtained access to his laboratory in the capacity of laboratory assistant, with the deliberate intention of making sensational exposures” (Wells 52), but he is also “unmarried and had indeed nothing but his own interests to consider” (53). Shepherd’s text, then, begins with the simple question: What if Dr. Moreau did have other interests to consider, but simply chose not to consider them? Juliet answers this question within her position in the opening pages of The Madman’s Daughter: shunned from polite society, she works as a maid at King’s College of Medical Research, where she puts up with all manner of abuse. Juliet’s preoccupation with her fallen station asserts itself in the realities of her body: “When a girl fell from privilege, men were less interested in her ratty skirts than in what lay underneath, and Dr. Hastings was no different” (Shepherd 3). In fact, much of Juliet’s narrative arc is about exploring the way men react to her body and the way her body reacts (or doesn’t react) to those men in turn, often underscored by concerns about social class. By setting the novel in the nineteenth century, the relationships between bodies and propriety, bodies and savagery, are highlighted even before Juliet reaches the island.
Juliet’s body is a huge source of concern for her also as she begins to deconstruct her burgeoning and socially-unacceptable feelings for Montgomery (in this version of the story, Montgomery is a former servant of the Moreau family) and the castaway Edward Prince. For Juliet, like her father, emotions are a great mystery, and one tied up in her biology: “My corset felt even more constricting than normal. I wanted to rip the stays apart and fill my burning lungs with air [...] Emotions were a puzzle, something to be studied and fitted together carefully. But the edges of this puzzle didn’t fit within the lines I knew” (75). Like Moreau, Juliet struggles with emotions and their place within what society tells her should be a socially transactional world of logic and science. She struggles with lustful feelings that are “totally improper” yet cause her to “forg[et] about decorum” (274). For Juliet, true engagement with her body and the bodies of others is implicitly tied up in turbulent emotions. Yet, unlike Moreau, her connection to her physicality forces her to confront her emotional reality.
Juliet is more in tune with her body partly because of what has been done to it. Throughout the novel, Juliet feels as though her body is out of her control. A birth defect forces her to take injections, developed by her father, every day. That same defect also highlights her indebtedness to him, something she’s particularly concerned about: “I hesitated. Speaking of my illness made me feel exposed. It was just one more thing linking me to my mad father” (45). Yet as the novel progresses, the reality of her birth defect is exposed as part of Dr. Moreau’s experiments, giving her an unusual relationship to the Beast Folk. The moment she realizes her role in his experiments, Juliet feels another disconnect between her mind and her body: “My hand pulled out the file, but it was like someone else’s hand laying the file on the cold ground [...] And then time seemed to fracture again and I was back in my own body” (337). This out-of-body experience further emphasizes the unstable and confrontational relationship Juliet has with her own body. At once, her body is a social construct for use by men of higher social caste, a hormone and emotion-generating puzzle, a deteriorating mechanism, and the product of her father’s experiments. And it’s no wonder that Juliet feels this way: just as with Lota and Aissa in the film adaptations that came before, her body is not her own:
Feeling melted out of my fingers and I let the pages flutter to the ground. I touched my face, my hair, but sensation was gone-- it was like touching flesh that wasn’t mine. And maybe it wasn’t. Maybe it belonged to some animal, a deer. This body-- my eyelashes, my toes, the curve of my waist-- was a lie. Such a convincing lie that I’d even fooled myself. (338).
Eventually, Juliet learns that the experimentation performed upon her was relatively tame compared to the experiments performed on most of the Beast Folk; Moreau removed several of her organs during a life-saving surgery and replaced them with deer organs. Her human existence remains mostly intact, yet for a moment Juliet truly and completely understands the horror of the Beast Folk’s existence. For Juliet, because the narrative perspective of The Madman’s Daughter situates the narrative on her experiences and her body, she does have more agency than her film counterparts did.
Juliet is Dr. Moreau’s animal daughter who confronts him and who literally escapes from society to the island, where she can navigate her body on her own terms; she challenges her father and forces him to speak to the pervasive chauvinism at the heart of Kenton and Frankenheimer’s adaptations. At the beginning of the novel, a medical student tells Juliet that “Girls don’t study science” (10), which she acknowledges echoes her father’s feelings on the subject: “When I was a child, Father would give physiology lessons to our servant boy, Montgomery, to spite those who claimed the lower classes were incapable of learning. He considered women naturally deficient, however, so I would hide in the laboratory closet during lessons, and Montgomery would slip me books to study” (10). Juliet, in this moment, exposes the mirror that Dr. Moreau holds to society. He is not a mustache-twirling villain, as in the Kenton adaptation, nor an outlandish oddity, as in Frankenheimer’s adaptation, but exactly as eager to lay claim to women’s minds and bodies as the rest of society. Because Juliet, unlike Lota or Aissa, is able to confront and expose her creator, she gains a great deal of closure and agency.
This exposure of Dr. Moreau’s true nature is essential for Juliet to be able to take power back from him. In the Kenton and Frankenheimer adaptations, the female characters were unable to gain true agency, because their bodies were always only points of expansion for Moreau’s experiments. Part of this is likely to do with the visual nature of the medium; the puma characters in the films were designed for the male gaze, but Juliet’s textual reality allows her to gaze back upon her creator. Juliet is a creature that begins to transcend the duality imposed upon her by society; in this way, she, and the Beast Folk generally, recall the cyborgs of Donna Haraway’s famous manifesto: “Liberation rests on the construction of the consciousness, the imaginative apprehension, of oppression, and so of possibility. The cyborg is a matter of fiction and lived experience that changes what counts as women's experience in the late twentieth century” (150). The development of Juliet’s consciousness, which happens in coordination with her understanding of her cyborg/hybrid body, allows for her construction of consciousness and allows for her to turn her gaze upon Moreau, exposing and confronting him for what he is.
Dr. Moreau, in both of the film adaptations, was able to hide the horror of his manipulation of animal bodies by pivoting the question to his puma-daughters’ interior humanity. By exposing Dr. Moreau’s prejudices, Juliet gives him no place to escape. At one such point of confrontation, Juliet explains that Montgomery has gone missing and her father erupts: “You bewitched him! Everything was fine before you came. I never wanted a girl. Montgomery was lowborn, but at least he was male; at least he could reason, not like some hysterical female. I’d just as soon you’d died with your consumptive mother and left me in peace!” (364). This tirade is noticeably lacking in perhaps any other version of Dr. Moreau’s character; normally, he is able to get away with seeming more sympathetic or more clinically remorseless. He rarely engages with his feelings (positive or negative) on the Beast Folk. Yet in this moment, Juliet is given purpose. Realizing that her father allowed her mother to die (“I had work to do. Typical flawed reasoning of a woman, to place mortal needs above timeless research” (365)) and that her father believes her to be inherently inferior and less deserving of compassion or love gives her the strength to destroy her father’s experiments. Juliet is the first of the Beast Folk to revolt against her father; in many ways, it is she who leads the revolution.
Theodora Goss’s The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter adapts the character of Moreau’s daughter in many of the same ways as Shepherd. Her narrative is much more condensed (as she is one of five daughters of nineteenth century madmen who share space within the novel), but still very telling. Like Juliet, Catherine Moreau struggles with her place in nineteenth century society and the way her body is allowed to navigate that place: “‘Am I human?’ she said. ‘I don’t know. I have a name, Catherine, given to me by Montgomery. As a joke: Catherine, Cat in here. There is a cat in here.’ She pulled up the sleeves of her dress: on her arms, too, they could see a regular pattern of scars, faint but visible in the lamplight” (Goss 210). As the events of Goss’s story take place after the events of The Island of Dr. Moreau, allowing her the narrative loophole of survival from her encounter with Moreau, Catherine must deal not with the control Moreau currently exerts over her body, but the control he exerts over her understanding of herself through her body.
In many ways, Catherine seems remarkably well-adjusted. She is able to dissociate emotionally while narrating her transformation: “Catherine took a sip of her tea. ‘I was the puma, yes. After we disembarked, Moreau began the process that would turn me into a woman. Surgery, but also after a certain point, after my mind was receptive to it, hypnosis and education. Indoctrination’” (210). In fact, as she tells her story, only one element forces her to lose her composure and that is mention of the continued survival of Edward Prendrick, whom she had assumed dead. She later tells her friends that she had “relations” (217) with Prendrick and that “Once Moreau was dead, Edward and James [Montgomery] fought over me. I was the only woman on the island, the only one who didn’t look like a beast, and James thought I should be his as Moreau’s successor” (219). Catherine’s casual discussion of the way she was relegated to an object and the fact that Edward and Montgomery fought over the opportunity for one, if not both, men to take literal and sexual control over her body belies her conflicted feelings towards the men5.
Catherine reveals that this exception to her composure is because she made a choice to share her body with Edward out of emotion, and that his emotions remain a mystery to her: “I still don’t know… whether he ever loved me. Or whether I was simply convenient” (218). Yet of all the puma girls, of all of Moreau’s daughters, Catherine has come to peace with her body and what it represents. She admits to killing Moreau, she admits to her animal instincts, and she is unashamed that she does not fit into society. By her father’s accounts, she is a failure, but her total acceptance of herself gives lie to the error in this assumption.
“Lost Souls”-- Transhumanism as the Next Point of Departure for Moreau
All of the adaptations I have discussed so far have inserted female characters into Wells’s texts, pivoting the horror away from animal torture and enslavement toward the dichotomies that exist between female/animal/body and male/human/mind; however there are Moreau adaptations that harmonize these two perspectives. In particular, Ann Halam’s Dr. Franklin’s Island (2002)is an important work that uses the Moreau narrative to highlight the autonomy of female bodies in relation to the concept of animal torture and experimentation. Halam’s text speaks most plainly to the ethical concerns of science by placing her female human character, Semi, into a survival/adventure narrative that ignores the subtleties of society’s control over female bodies and instead directly confronts the question of human-animal rights within the terms of experimentation.
Instead of trying to create humans out of animals, Dr. Franklin is attempting to use gene therapy to create animals out of humans. Transgenics, as he defends it, is necessary for future interplanetary travel to environments potentially inhospitable to humans. However, another character, Arnie, later discovers the truth: “I reckon if they iron out the problems, they’ll be selling their formula to an exotic holiday company… They talk in front of me, you see… Imagine it. You take a pill, or a couple of injections… You wake up in a five-star underwater hotel, on your ocean safari” (Halam 116). Yet for Semi, who does become a fish in the novel6, the transformation between human and animal is not entirely unpleasant. Though her rights are discarded in the experimentation, she manages to situate that the rights and experiences of her animal-self are equal to the rights and experiences of her human self.
In fact, Semi represents the more utopian aspirations of Moreau’s experiments; she experiences true transhumanism and because of her experiences understands that the horror situated in animal experimentation lies within the animal’s right to freedom. Throughout her experiences as a fish, Semi feels not just acceptance for her fate, like Catherine, but happiness: “The honest truth is, the fish-Semi part of me would be completely happy swimming, and measuring things, and thinking long, deep, dreamy sunlit thoughts… if it wasn’t that I was stuck in this rotten little tiny pool” (93). Semi’s preoccupation with her pool resituates her earlier experiences with Dr. Franklin, where she tried to convince him to free her, within animal rights advocacy7. Even as a fish, Semi’s new mind asserts its autonomy and its desire to escape its confines, suggesting that human intelligence is not a necessary determining factor for the desiring of basic rights, like freedom.
Semi grows to accept and even appreciate her experiences as a fish which, while radically different from her human experiences, she sees as equal to her human life. Yet, like Lota and Aissa, when Semi regresses, even though the process is voluntary, she finds herself fearful of the enterprise:
My thoughts weren’t dreamy and slow. They were tangled up and frightened and confused. I tried to remember how happy I had been, cruising around in the water, full of strength and grace, eating plankton as easily as breathing. It was gone…. Semi-the-fish was heading off into the distance, and this other Semi was racing back, faster and faster-- the girl who had been put through too many horrors and couldn’t take much more. (133)
By taking Moreau’s animal experimentation to the level of human experimentation, Halam further affirms the horror of losing one’s fundamental rights. By framing Semi’s experiences through the lens of animal experimentation, she suggests that those who experiment on animals become responsible for the animals’ experiences as transhumans.
Both film adaptations and YA adaptations of The Island of Dr. Moreau demonstrate a marked focus on female bodies and who deserves control over them, echoing Wells’s concerns about animal bodies within the scientific discipline. All of these concerns, by my accounts, are related to the concept of domesticity. In the animal sciences, domestication “refers to the initial stage of human mastery of wild animals and plants” (“Domestication”), while our more common use of domesticity is entirely a matter of the traditionally female role of homemaking. In other words, domesticity is a twinned problem: it requires the systematic taming of women and animals. Yet the adaptations I have discussed seem to attempt to complicate our understanding of the animal-called-female and her place within the social wilderness of the nineteenth century.
In The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter, Goss adapts Catherine Moreau alongside an ensemble cast of imagined nineteenth century characters: Mary Jekyll, Diana Hyde, Beatrice Rappaccini, and Justine Frankenstein round out the rest of the YA group. Some characters, like the daughters of Jekyll and Hyde, are invented whole cloth, filling likely gaps in the text. Justine, a reimagining of the doomed Justine Moritz, takes Frankenstein’s last name when she is resurrected as the bride of Frankenstein’s monster. All of the young women are given careful, critical voices in the text, inserting dialogic commentary into their own narrative. Catherine, for example, wonders “which of them would win, in a contest for the worst father? Frankenstein, Rappaccini, Jekyll, or Moreau?” (340). Not only are they given stories, but also these characters are given the opportunity to criticize the patriarchal implications of their source material.
Goss describes her decision to highlight these female characters as an attempt to answer the question “Why did so many of the mad scientists in nineteenth-century narratives create, or start creating but then destroy, female monsters?” (401). In an interview with Washington Independent Review of Books, Goss elaborates:
I mean, in late-19th-century fiction, monsters in general die, but there's a sense that female monsters are even more deadly than their male counterparts. And some of them, like Frankenstein's female monster and the Puma Woman, get no speaking lines. Unlike Frankenstein's monster, whose narrative takes up a significant portion of the novel, they never get to tell their own stories. I wanted to hear those stories, but no one had written them…so I figured I would. (Gidney)
Megan Shepherd, in a note to her readers at the end of The Madman’s Daughter, remarks upon a similar desire to highlight the absence of women in Wells’s text through Juliet: “Since there are no female characters in The Island of Dr. Moreau (not human ones, at least), I became curious to know how a young woman in that era would fit—well, or not fit—within the story world, and that is how Juliet’s story was born” (“Extras” 2). Like Goss, Shepherd underscores the importance of seeing through or beyond Wells’s text to the female bodies and minds that did not make it onto the pages of Wells’s adventure novel but were an integral part of nineteenth-century society.
Both Goss’s and Shepherd’s approaches represent what Jeremy Rosen calls “minor-character elaboration,” a practice that he explains is often viewed for its potentially progressive dimensions: “Authors and critics who describe minor-character elaborations as ‘giving voice to the silenced’ understand the redistribution of narrative attention as a kind of justice” (88). Yet Rosen himself remains skeptical of the political remediation of minor character elaboration, arguing that there is a tendency to assume that such practices increase the “mistakes of replacing the silence of the subaltern with speaking on her behalf and the overly sanguine notion that ‘giving her a voice’ remedies either historical or present-day wrongs” (114). Indeed, it would be difficult to argue that any of these projects (with the exception of, arguably, Goss’s) are overtly feminist in nature. However, it’s not an accident, nor does it lack remediative power, that women were inserted into Wells’s text. Despite the differences between the films’ puma characters and the protagonists of the YA texts discussed here, Lota, Aissa, Juliet, Catherine, and Semi are all representative of women who have been exploited in the name of science. Closer examination of such characters would go far in drawing attention to the ways women’s bodies have been domesticated and the ways in which they might resist such domestication.
In one scene of Frankenheimer’s The Island of Dr. Moreau, Moreau stops Aissa as she attempts to give him a neck massage, trying only to ease his discomfort. At this moment, Moreau speaks a few lines that resonate deeply with the crisis that nature and women find themselves in: “Oh no. Oh, my god. Not so strong. You have no idea how strong you can be.” As these Moreau adaptations show, women can and must find ways to assert that they know and appreciate and utilize exactly how strong they can be and will allow no men to tame them.
1 This exoticism is worth exploring by future research; in both of the film adaptations I discuss here, these hybrids are highly exoticized for a Western audience, both in the script and through visual motif.
2 As I have said, in the Wells text, Moreau dies in an off-page fight with the puma. Although the Beast Folk do revert to a mob mentality after Moreau’s death in the original text, they never attempt to kill Moreau en masse.
3 Murray describes phantom adaptations as films that have “progressed as close to production as is possible without any actual footage having been shot and archived” (6).
4 This is somewhat complicated by the fact that Moreau implants devices on all of his creatures to deliver electrical shocks; this system of punishment is ultimately Moreau’s undoing in the film.
5 It’s possible that Catherine’s relationship with Edward will be further explored in sequels, but she is tight-lipped when discussing her feelings for Edward and Montgomery, only subtly indicating that she might have had feelings for Edward. It is clear that the fight over her was unwanted.
6 Semi’s transformation as a manta ray is totally and biologically complete; however, despite her total physical transformation, Semi (like her other female YA and film counterparts) retains a double consciousness: while she experiences life fully as a manta ray, she also retains a consciousness of her original species that is not eradicated by her biological transformation. Halam describes this as a “special kind of self-aware, conscious animal that is a human being” (164).
7 In this scene, Semi’s requests for freedom are denied, because Franklin tells her that she is presumed dead. As with many justifications for animal experimentation, her rights are predicated upon her legal and intellectual capabilities, not her capacity for pain or fear.
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