Director: Richard Fleischer
Writer: Earl Felton; Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne
Cinematographer: Franz Planer
by Jon Cvack
My mom texted a picture of a Jules Verne anthology that she found on clearance at some used book. I had read an H.G. Wells anthology earlier in the year, having attempted some of his work in high school, getting overwhelmed by the dense language, but loving it this time around. Being at the peak of summer I figured I’d dive right in and see if, like Wells, Verne got better with age.
It didn’t. Similar to "Moby Dick", I’d say about half the book is mired with endless taxonomic discussions about every single fish, reptile, and creature the group comes across, spouting additional lessons on both present day and historical geography, causing your eyes to glaze over or breeze across the language, no different than if you were reading some dense Encyclopedic entry. While I was hoping for a sheer adventure story, I found myself failing to follow the plot as I was unable to retain interest as Verne got into most mundane details page after page after page. Sure, I was impressed with his discussions on technology, and his freakishly accurate expectations on where the world was headed, but even these at times were far too overwrought, causing me sigh, thinking, “Okay - I get it, I get it.”
I was just explaining to a former professor how Jonathan Franzen’s early work was much too focused on showing off his erudition rather than providing a coherent story. While 20,000 Leagues isn’t nearly as difficult to follow as "The Twenty-Seventh City" he too falls victim to showing off his knowledge rather than accommodating the reader. The thing is, after just finishing John Steinbeck’s "Log from the Sea of Cortez", which also has a barrage of taxonomic prose, necessitating a glossary positioned at the end of the book to assist with the many terms, it works on account of Steinbeck’s balance between exploring these exotic people, creatures, and lands while offering his own insight and analysis into what it meant in the grander scheme of things. His book wasn’t sold as a wild adventure story (though it was), but rather as an insight into a journey out to sea. I can appreciate what Verne was attempting to do in taking on a hyper realistic style. I just rather he focused on the characters and their dynamics than on the many color schemes of sea plankton.
And so - in a rare moment that I’ve only experienced one another time (with Conrad’s "Heart of Darkness") - the movie version greatly exceeds the source material, with the film essentially taking out all of that god awful boring shit and focusing entirely on the adventure aspects. With near complete reliance on practical effects (though given the year, even the practical effects are impressive, relatively speaking), this film is yet another example of a movie they just don’t make anymore. Once upon a time, many of these set pieces were at Disneyland, allowing kids to immerse themselves within Nemo’s universe, leaving you wishing they were still there. It’s is the perfect summer film, comparable to the pure escapist adventurism of Back to the Future. Few movies reach this level of quality, where you’d give near anything to have the same type of adventure, having a fairly powerful emotional reaction when understand that you never will, which then makes the film all the better or having achieved this.
Coincidentally the film stars James Mason as Captain Nemo, who I watched in A Star is Born only a few weeks ago, fascinated over Cukor’s decision to cast the man after the recommendation from Marlon Brando on account of Mason’s fall from grace. Strange enough, 20,000 Leagues came out the same year as A Star is Born, and still Mason failed to properly recover. Mason is perfect for Nemo, capturing the man’s instability, passion for the seas, and willingness to stay below the water at any cost.
I was most surprised by the departure from the novel’s focus on Professor Pierre M. Aronnax (Paul Lukas). While he narrated the entire book, the movie version opts to focus on his crew members Ned Land (Kirk Douglas) and Aronnax’s apprentice Conseil (Peter Lorre). This isn’t to say it wasn’t appreciated, as theoretically it was Aronnax’s constant barfing out of taxonomic functions that made so bored, with Ned Land serving as a much more interesting character, who was fortunately bumped to a leading role, making me wonder if anyone actually enjoyed Aronnax as a character. Ned Land is a temperamental drunkard who’s quick to fight and voice his opinions. When the three are brought aboard the Nautilus as prisoners with guest-like privileges all is well and good until time starts taking its toll. While remaining beneath the sea forever is fine for a man like Nemo and his team, forcing it upon the others causes them to go stir crazy, setting the fuse on Ned’s short circuited temperament.
It’s as the story progresses that I realize how much I tuned out from the book during the last hundred pages, eager to wrap it up and get onto the next Verne story in the anthology. Embarrassed to say, I didn’t even comprehend that Nemo had a secret compound, or that Ned sent letters in a bottle, or - SPOILER! - that Nemo dies, illustrating how poorly the book actually read, and yet how much good stuff it contained. When the film I ended I was left wanting more - discovering that Nemo’s return in The Mysterious Island has also been made into a film. I’m a bit nervous about the book discussing rocks for twenty five pages, but if the film is anything like 20,000 Leagues, it should be a decent follow up. *
*NOTE: I ended up reading The Mysterious Island a few months later and it's by far the best Verne story I've yet read.
BELOW: Is he bad in any movies?
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