Versions of Verne
A CultureMap®
by Mike Perschon
Published on 7/10/13

Jules Verne’s most celebrated novel, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea chronicles the voyage of Professor Aronnax, a naturalist, with his unflappable servant Conseil and the macho harpooner Ned Land, aboard the Nautilus, a radically advanced submarine. The vessel’s commander is the mysterious Captain Nemo, whose love for scientific discovery is complicated by his thirst for revenge. This map uses the novel to explore Verne’s pop-culture legacy and some versions of Verne himself.

Jules Verne  (1828–1905 | French author)
to  20,000 Leagues Under the Sea  (Jules Verne | novel | 1869–1870)

Jules Verne was publishing two novels a year by the end of the 19th century, and today he is one of the most translated writers in the world. Scholars have suggested there are two Jules Vernes: The first (pronounced “jools”) is based on the North American perception of this prolific author as merely a scribe of boys’ adventure stories who wrote about science but not very well. The second (pronounced with a soft French J, as “shools”) is based on the more international perception of a brilliant novelist who artfully combined didactic passages about science and math with gripping moments of high adventure while appealing to a broad scope of nationalities and ages. The first Verne resulted from poor English translations of the second Verne’s work, by people who cut, revised or simply misconstrued passages. For example, some translations of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea made the French for “the Nebraska badlands” into “the disagreeable lands of Nebraska.” Only in the past 30 years have English-speaking Verne enthusiasts championed his rehabilitation, producing superior translations of his 20,000 Leagues, Journey to the Center of the Earth and From the Earth to the Moon.

Jules Verne  (1828–1905 | French author)
to  Journey to the Center of the Earth  (Jules Verne | novel | 1864)

Jules Verne wrote more than 50 adventure tales—fiction and nonfiction—published as the Extraordinary Voyages series (Les Voyages Extraordinaires, 1863–1905). Seeking to write a new type of fiction that could teach science without sacrificing a gripping narrative, Verne began serializing his stories in a French magazine designed to instruct children about science in response to the conservative French school system, which did not do so. In Verne’s imaginary journeys, we cruise beneath the seas in submarines, fly in heavier-than-air vessels at remarkable speeds and voyage to the moon and back.

The author even pushes his characters to the depths of the planet itself: In Journey to the Center of the Earth, an expedition delves far beneath the surface, yet the fantastic goal in Journey remains unattained. Although, for narrative purposes, Verne deliberately rejects the idea of a molten core inside the earth, Verne scholar Michael Drout argues that Verne’s general adherence to 19th-century geological knowledge makes Journey a work of science fiction, not fantasy. Although science long ago proved it impossible, the idea of accessing the earth’s core still fascinates and has been explored in such B movies as The Core (2003).

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea  (Jules Verne | novel | 1869–1870)
to  20,000 Leagues Under the Sea  (Richard Fleischer (dir.) | film | 1954)

The Walt Disney adaptation of 20,000 Leagues was a blockbuster before the age of blockbusters. Performances by James Mason (as Captain Nemo) and Kirk Douglas (as harpooner Ned Land) have become iconic, as has the production design—Harper Goff’s baroque Nautilus submarine helped inspire today’s techno-Victorian steampunk aesthetic. The film also employed groundbreaking underwater cinematography and state-of-the-art mechanical effects for the climactic battle with a giant squid. Its technical excellence earned two Academy Awards, for special effects and color art direction, and it was the second-highest grossing film of 1954.

Although the first half remains true to the novel, the rest deviates substantially. Jules Verne’s Nautilus is an unspectacular cylinder, and the giant-squid battle is quickly described. Verne leaves Nemo’s fate uncertain, but the film destroys Nemo and the Nautilus in a tremendous explosion. Attempting to appeal to viewers of all ages, the movie vacillates between serious drama in Mason’s scenes and slapstick and songs in Douglas’s, while Verne’s complex antihero Nemo is reduced to a straightforward movie villain. As the plot shifts to a struggle between Nemo as man of intellect and Land as man of action, the film nearly becomes a high-seas prison-break picture.

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea  (Richard Fleischer (dir.) | film | 1954)
to  Journey to the Center of the Earth  (Jules Verne | novel | 1864)

The immense success of film versions of 20,000 Leagues and Around the World in 80 Days (1956) led mid-century moviemakers to adapt more Jules Verne works or ride the trend with projects made in his spirit. Nominated for three Oscars, Journey to the Center of the Earth’s first adaptation (1959) was the fifth major Hollywood Verne production of the 1950s. Its budget and special effects rivaled those of 20,000 Leagues but without matching its box office returns.

Journey altered the novel’s original story: The German characters were anglicized, the plot became more complex, and a romantic interest appeared. James Mason (Nemo in 20,000 Leagues) revisited Verne to play an adventurous professor, and both Kirk Douglas and Peter Lorre (Ned Land and Conseil, Aronnax’s servant, respectively, in 20,000 Leagues) also starred in other Verne films: Lorre in Five Weeks in a Balloon (1962) and Douglas in The Light at the Edge of the World (1971). Neither film was nearly as successful as those starring Mason, who was asked to reprise the role of Nemo for The Mysterious Island (1961) but was unavailable. Instead it went to Herbert Lom, who later played the frustrated Inspector Dreyfus in the Pink Panther comedies.

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea  (Richard Fleischer (dir.) | film | 1954)
to  Finding Nemo  (Andrew Stanton and Lee Unkrich (dirs.) | film | 2003)

Disney-Pixar’s animated hit Finding Nemo concerns a young clown fish named Nemo who defies his overprotective father and is consequently captured by a reef diver. Nemo’s father journeys many leagues under the sea to rescue his son. One of Disney’s most successful films to date, Nemo appears on the American Film Institute’s list of the top 10 animated movies.

The Latin word nemo means “no one,” but as a name, Nemo is synonymous with underwater adventure, through Jules Verne’s misanthropic antihero Captain Nemo. Finding Nemo references Disney’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea adaptation when a school of fish is heard singing “A Whale of a Tale,” the musical number that womanizing sailor character Ned Land (Kirk Douglas) performs in the earlier film. The lyrics add stereotypically salty (if silly) elements to Verne’s scientific adventure story:

Got a whale of a tale to tell ya, lads,
A whale of a tale or two
’Bout the flappin’ fish and the girls I’ve loved
On nights like this with the moon above,
A whale of a tale and it’s all true,
I swear by my tattoo.

Jules Verne  (1828–1905 | French author)
to  The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou  (Wes Anderson (dir.) | film | 2004)

The theme of obsessive revenge unites Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues, Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick (1851) and Wes Anderson’s quirky 2004 film The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou. Verne admired Melville’s novel about mad Captain Ahab, who seeks revenge on the white sperm whale that bit off his leg; in 20,000 Leagues Captain Nemo is obsessed with revenge against England for the killing of his wife and children. As with Ahab, Nemo’s thirst for revenge is his undoing. Life Aquatic recalls Moby-Dick in the titular oceanographer’s myopic revenge mission against the elusive “jaguar shark” that killed his friend.

Anderson’s film honors Verne by showing Zissou traveling in the author’s favorite vehicles—from hot-air balloon to submarine—and visiting his favorite frontiers, such as the Arctic, shown in clips from Zissou’s television show. Anderson includes ad campaigns for the show that recall the posters for cinematic 1950s Verne adaptations. Promotions for one Zissou documentary, for example, show a diver wielding a harpoon against a giant cephalopod, clearly a nod to Disney’s 20,000 Leagues, whose print advertisements often spotlighted the movie’s famous battle with a giant squid. Like Disney’s film, Life Aquatic also makes exemplary use of colorful animated fish.

Jules Verne  (1828–1905 | French author)
to  Steampunk

A subgenre of science fiction and fantasy, and an ornate style of fashion and art, steampunk blends impossible technologies, 19th-century design and modern sensibilities on social issues. Jules Verne and H.G. Wells (1866–1946), considered steampunk’s grandfathers for articulating its range of concerns, exemplify two science fiction strains: “hard” science fiction, which attempts rigorous scientific explanations for things like space travel and alien life, and “soft,” which focuses on characters and social commentary. Verne developed the hard side, demonstrated by his lengthy passages describing marine-life classifications (20,000 Leagues) and alarmingly accurate calculations for where to best launch a projectile into space (From the Earth to the Moon). Wells’s fantasies induce speculation on culture and politics. His Time Machine is really about London’s economic structure, and The War of the Worlds is less about alien invasion than colonialism’s atrocities.

Steampunk inhabits a middle ground. In Kate Beaton’s steampunk comic Hark! A Vagrant, Verne and Wells are recurring characters. One installment has Verne demonstrating a model airship and offering to show Wells the blueprints. Wells suddenly launches his own craft, claiming he “just made it up.” When it destroys Verne’s, Wells apologizes that his was “trying to make social metaphors.”