A 1932 sci-fi movie, the 1896 novel that inspired it, and how Victorian society discovered that we are just ape’s descendants

I love movies, and among movies sci-fi is one of my favourite genres, as one might tell from some other posts I have written. A few months ago, while I was creating a video essay on genetic editing in sci-fi cinema, I chanced upon a very old sci-fi movie from 1932 called “Island of Lost Souls”.

 “Island of Lost Souls” is a reinterpreted adaptation of H. G. Wells’ novel “The Island of Dr. Moreau”, published in 1896. It belongs to the sci-fi/horror/tropical movie sub-genre and talks about the evolution of animals into humans. On a remote island in the Pacific Ocean, Dr. Moreau, the archetype of the mad scientist brilliantly performed by Charles Laughton, is somehow able to dramatically speed up evolution. According to the scientist’s words, “all animals are tending towards the human form” and his achievements seem to confirm this theory. Throughout the movie we are presented with many stunning monsters (among which is the actor Bela Lugosi, the count Dracula from 1931 Browning’s film), half human and half animals called “manimals”. Moreau’s plan turns out to be a disaster. Daring to play God, he transformed animals into horrible creatures that have nothing to do with humans, and that eventually take revenge on him.

Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species. From Wikimedia Commons.

The simplest message we can take from Wells’ story and its adaptation by Paramount Pictures could be that human nature cannot be reduced to its “genetic essence”, being it the genetic code or the “germplasm” as Moreau calls it in the movie. Germplasm? Well, we must remember that genetics, as we know it today, basically did not exist yet. The DNA structure was only published by Watson and Crick in 1953. Gregor Mendel was the pioneer of genetic inheritance studies, which he performed in the late 19th century. However, his studies were rediscovered only at the beginning of the 20th century. Even the word “genetics” was coined at the beginning of the 1900s by William Bateson.

At this point, I was puzzled by a question. If genetics did not exist at the time Wells published “The Island of Dr. Moreau” in 1896, how on earth did he develop the idea for this novel? I found some answers in the DVD’s bonus material.

In a short documentary, the British film historian Jonathan Rigby explains how the second phase of gothic literature, to which Wells’ novel belongs to, was extremely influenced by the publication of Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species in 1859. It is probably difficult for us to grasp to what extent Darwin’s masterpiece shocked Victorian society. For the first time man was no longer the perfect and superior being meant to rule the earth; it was just an evolved ape. We had lost our spot at the centre of nature just as with Copernicus we had lost our position at the centre of the universe. Gothic authors played with this theme and in Wells’ case the question triggering the story is now clearer: if men evolved from apes, why couldn’t they evolve from other animals as well?

However, there’s one element that, in my view, brilliantly stirs the 1932 movie’s plot. On Moreau’s island, all the windows and several walls of the buildings are made of metal bars, just like cages for animals in zoos. We see these bars so many times throughout the movie. But which one is the inside of the cage and which the outside? Do these bars protect the humans from the beasts while allowing the scientist to observe his creatures? Or is it the other way around? Couldn’t it be that the zoo has become larger than the “civilised world” and men are no longer the rulers of the lands around them? What if they have become the creatures that the animals they have transformed observe, full of curiosity?

In my personal interpretation, this movie might be a depiction of the broken Victorian man, whose place on earth was undermined by the scientist’s discoveries. This man was no longer the superior creation of God. However, at the same time, the scientist failed to rule over nature and created monstrosity. We eventually see the main characters flying from the island, back to the old, civilised world where Darwin’s theory could still be denied, while one of them says just one line: “don’t look back”.

Oh, I found this very nice video by Nature video on youtube just yesterday.

Header image: Charles Laughton as dr Moreau