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Heroic effort?

Audiences are the last hurdle for a beleaguered 'League.'

July 14, 2003|John Horn | Times Staff Writer

Movie premieres usually are cause for celebration. But Stephen Norrington, the director of "The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen," was in no mood to party at his film's Las Vegas unveiling. In fact, Norrington didn't even attend, having decided to turn his back on Hollywood. Asked on premiere night about his no-show director's whereabouts, star Sean Connery told the Las Vegas Sun: "Check the local asylum."

Norrington's agent says the British filmmaker didn't go nuts, but you couldn't fault the director for wanting to keep his distance.

An ambitious adaptation of an admired graphic novel, "The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen" suffered more bad luck, volatile chemistry and ill-fated decisions than most movies in recent memory, from scenery-destroying floods and unusable special effects to on-set battles between director and star. With $17 million of the film's budget committed to Connery, the producers didn't have the resources to hire other familiar faces to round out the cast. Then, "The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen" was thrown into the middle of the summer movie season, a battleground so competitive that underachieving works can be killed off in their first night in theaters.

Opening directly against "Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl," a movie overflowing with young talent and pricey visuals, "The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen" nevertheless managed to survive its first test with the public, generating relatively strong ticket sales of $23.2 million its first weekend, according to estimates Sunday. That left it in second place, though far behind "Pirates," which grossed $46.4 million from Friday to Sunday.

But like a wild-card team that triumphs in the first round of the playoffs, "League" faces tough competition ahead.

There is no shortage of big summer titles yet to be released, including a sequel to the police yarn "Bad Boys" opening Friday. Said Bruce Snyder, 20th Century Fox's domestic distribution chief: "Every weekend, there is another event coming."

Looking back, some connected with the movie consider it a miracle it got this far.

"The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen" cost $95 million, a relative bargain in a season where "Hulk" and sequels to "Charlie's Angels" and "The Terminator" cost an average of more than $150 million apiece. That does not mean "League" was not risky. If a movie of its level were to fail completely, it single-handedly could slash a studio's overall summer profits. The blow would be particularly painful to Fox, whose three previous summer movies -- "Down With Love," "Wrong Turn" and "From Justin to Kelly" -- were all washouts.

In its genesis, "The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen" looked like a brilliant idea. Comic book cognoscenti revere writer Alan Moore and illustrator Kevin O'Neill's graphic novels about a Victorian band of crime fighters. Executives at Fox, the studio behind the comic book smash "X-Men" and its sequel, were equally excited. In a show business world addicted to superheroes like "Spider-Man," the stories delivered an array of fascinating -- and even recognizable -- characters.

Drawing on some of the more enduring fantasy and adventure figures from literature, the "League" tales are populated by H. Rider Haggard's Allan Quatermain, Jules Verne's Captain Nemo, Bram Stoker's Mina Harker, H.G. Wells' The Invisible Man and Robert Louis Stevenson's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

"But as brilliant as the graphic novel is, it is not a movie," said the film's screenwriter, James Dale Robinson, who also is a top comic book author. "And unfortunately, the reading level of the world has declined, so [introducing the literary characters] was something that had to be dealt with head-on."

Crafting a new plot wasn't Robinson's only writing challenge. Fox couldn't get the film rights to all of Moore and O'Neill's characters, so The Invisible Man is now known as An Invisible Man, and a Fu Manchu character was dropped.

The film's original script called for the turn-of-the-century League to prevent a flesh-eating poison gas from being introduced into New York's fledgling subway system. "But after Sept. 11, [the studio] said, 'You know what? This could actually happen,' " Robinson said. The setting was moved from New York to Venice, Italy; the poisoning angle was replaced with a plot involving a mad bomber.

To help attract American audiences to a movie mostly populated with 19th century Europeans, Fox asked that an American character be added. The result is Agent Tom Sawyer (Shane West), who also gives the film some youth appeal. "Agent Sawyer came about as the result of a stupid studio note that turned out to be brilliant," says Don Murphy, one of the film's producers.

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