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Photograph by Jurgen Vollmer

Paper Chase: Captain Nemo (Naseeruddin Shah, right) takes on yet another assailant in literary actioner in 'The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.'

Lit Wit

Mystery-writing English teacher Judy Greber on old books, no-nonsense nannies and 'The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen'


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Writer David Templeton takes interesting people to interesting movies in his ongoing quest for the ultimate postfilm conversation. This is not a review; rather, it's a freewheeling, tangential discussion of life, alternative ideas, and popular culture.

"HMMMM," says author Judy Greber, thoughtfully considering a just-posed question while she gracefully sips an iced tea. Her bright blue eyes grow even brighter as her writer's imagination kicks into gear. "Hmmmm," she says. What I have asked Greber--best known by her pseudonym Gillian Roberts--the bestselling author of the increasingly clever Amanda Pepper mystery series (Caught Dead in Philadelphia, How I Spent My Summer Vacation and the brand-new Claire and Present Danger, to name a few)--is whether or not she was able to guess the identity of the bad guy in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, which we have just seen. A charming B-grade, action-film oddity, The League is based on a cult-favorite comic book in which an assortment of infamous literary characters team up to fight other infamous literary characters.

Borrowing--or is it stealing?--from the works of Mark Twain, Robert Louis Stevenson, H.G. Wells, Jules Verne, Oscar Wilde, Bram Stoker and H. Rider Haggard, The League features such English-lit icons as Tom Sawyer, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, the Invisible Man, Captain Nemo, Dorian Gray, Mina Harker (Dracula's intended) and African adventurer Allan Quatermain. And yes, while they are all of questionable morality, one of them turns out to be very, very bad indeed. So, as a writer of mystery novels--books featuring a crime-solving English teacher, no less--did Judy Greber detect the identity of the bad guy?

"No, I didn't," she admits, smiling sweetly. "You mean [name withheld to protect moviegoers]? No, No, I didn't guess, because I was under the impression that [reason withheld]. I did know that it wasn't [other name withheld], but I didn't anticipate that [apparent good guy] would turn out to be [famous bad guy]. So, no, I didn't figure out who did it, which probably makes me sound [specific put-down withheld]."

"Usually," Greber adds, "I'm pretty good at picking out the culprit. I am in normal movies, anyway."

While Greber could have done without the movie's endless assault of explosions and special effects, she was delighted--as a former high school English teacher herself--at the use of literary characters. After spending a few moments discussing the phenomenon of Internet fan fiction and the cult popularity of the Jane Austen mystery books by Stephanie Barron and films like Lee Demarbre's Jesus Christ Vampire Hunter, "What a marvelous idea!" she says when I ask which famous literary character she'd most like to get her writerly hands on. "I think Huck Finn would be fun to play with," she says. "Though it would really feel heretical, but Huck always had such a clear sense of the hypocrisy all around him. I'd like to take him out and see what else he can do."

"Huck Finn Vampire Hunter?" Shocked at the thought, though still laughing, Greber says, "I think I'd rather put him in politics somehow. Huck Finn Goes to Washington.'" Actually, I wish we could have Huck Finn in politics right now. This country could use him." After a moment or two, she poses the notion of recruiting characters from famous children's books, then says, "Name someone." "Um, Mary Poppins,' I reply. "Mary Poppins!" Greber exclaims. "Mary Poppins Vampire Hunter! No, that's not right. Though she can already fly, and that would be a big help in battling vampires."

"She's the right time period to be recruited for the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen," I point out. "Oooh, yes! As is Doctor Dolittle. The league could use a guy who talks to animals. He could be sent to Africa to work with Allan Quatermain."

"Or," I suggest, "there could be a special children's-lit division of the League, with Dr. Dolittle, Mary Poppins and Mr. Toad."

"He'd be the driver of course." Greber nods. "What about Dorothy from the Oz books? No, she's actually a bit too dull for this group. But here's a thought: their archnemesis would be Farmer MacGregor from the Peter Rabbit stories. I always though he was quite a major villain. Killing anyone who stepped into his gardens? A very bad man."

"If Farmer MacGregor is the villain, wouldn't we need Peter Rabbit to be one of the league members? Peter Rabbit might get hold of Dr. Jekyll's formula, unleashing his bad side. That could be scary. Or back to Dorothy, imagine what would happen if she swallowed the doctor's formula." Yikes, I think, it could unleash her inner right-wing Republican, or worse, turn her into Martha Stewart.

"Oh, I know who exactly Dorothy would turn into," says Greber with a wicked smile, "but I can't say it on the record. I think she'd become [name withheld]--and she'd be just terrifying!"

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (PG-13; 112 min.) plays at selected theaters valleywide.

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From the July 17-23, 2003 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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