Tuesday, September 18, 2012


PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*

Like many of the "baby boomer" generation I watched and enjoyed Walt Disney's 1954 production of Jules Verne's 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA.  I didn't read the book for many years, and even when I did, I didn't make extensive cross-comparisons at the time.  Since the few other attempts to film LEAGUES were uniformly awful, I've tended to remember the Disney version as essentially accurate to Verne's vision.

However, having recently reread the unexpurgated Verne novel with more attention, I'd say that while the 1954 film is still the best of the adaptations, it departs from the original in too many ways to be called a faithful translation.

Of course, no one could have expected a commercial film, then or now, to include the dozens of rapturous but static scenes in which Captain Nemo uses his magnificent submarine to show his guests-- Professor Arronax, his manservant Conseil, and harpooner Ned Land-- the serried wonders of the ocean depths.  It was inevitable that when director Richard Fleischer and scripter Earl Felton approached the novel, they would seek to tighten the loose plot. Unfortunately, their tightening changed the essence of the novel's focal character, Captain Nemo, without coming up with a valid vision of their own for him.

One of the most salient changes is the way the modern world first encounters Nemo's fantastic invention.  In both book and movie, the Nautilus is initially mistaken for some new species of sea monster, as no such submersible exited at the time.  In Verne's book, Nemo doesn't go out of his way to encounter the ships of mankind; rather, they usually suffer damage from accidentally colliding with the Nautilus or from attacking it, though later in the novel it's suggested that the Nautilus does attack ships which practice the slave-trade. 

In order to tighten Verne's plot, however, Fleishcer and Felton open with scenes of the Nautilus attacking ships at will, and his reasons for doing so are never fully explained.  Later he will attack ships that are expressly involved in the slave trade, but Ned Land's frequent references to Nemo as a "madman" suggest that he's lost any power to discriminate between good and evil.

Verne's Nemo is in essence the anti-social man of Jean-Jacquest Rousseau, eternally desirous of getting away from the evil entanglements of human society-- and even though Nemo has a crew with him, none of them are characters in their own right: they might as well be golem-servants created by a medieval sorcerer.  In addition, Verne depicts Nemo as possessing a monomaniacal but nevertheless admirable love of all things relating to the seven seas.

Fleischer's Nemo, given stately bearing by actor James Mason, seems far less motivated by love of the sea than by hatred of mankind's evil ways.  In addition, whereas in the novel he rescues the three castaways intentionally-- though with the caveat that they must remain members of his crew forevermore-- in the film the castaways find their way aboard the Nautilus when everyone happens to be off the ship.  This Nemo, taking some measure of pleasure in his godlike power, threatens to let all three men drown.  He reverses himself, but it doesn't seem to be for any beneficent motive. 

As in the novel, marine biological expert Professor Arronax (Paul Lukas) becomes bonded to Nemo by virtue of their common love for the sea, but the film tends to show Arronax's fascination in a negative light in that this love threatens to become a true monomania.

In the book Conseil is the perfect manservant to Arronax: not only does he unthinkingly risk his life to save Arronax, he accedes to Arronax in every way, even when Ned Land wants the servant to vote on whether the three seek to escape their floating prison.  The film, perhaps sensing that Verne's "perfect manservant" trope would seem slavish to modern audiences, changes Peter Lorre's Conseil to Arronax's apprentice.  This Conseil is quite capable of taking initiative to defy the Professor's over-identification with Nemo.

Ned Land receives quite a bit more buildup in the film than in the novel, doubtless because the film version is portrayed by heavy-hitter film-star Kirk Douglas (though admittedly Douglas, Lorre, Lukas and Mason share joint above-the-title crediting).  In the book Ned Land is an intelligent but plain-spoken sailor, a diamond in the rough but not without his own system of morals.  He's uncomfortable with being confined aboard the Nautilus but doesn't act rashly to secure escape.

Douglas' Ned Land is a greedier, more selfish character, who has no appreciation at all for Nemo's accomplishments but only wants his own personal freedom.  Nemo's anomie against the inhumanity of man means nothing to Land, but he very much wants to use the resources of the Nautilus to harvest sunken treasure, and even stoops to attempt robbing Nemo's treasure-trove. 

The novel shows Nemo and Land as equals in terms of their puissance-- Land saves Nemo from a shark, and Nemo returns the favor by saving Land from a gigantic squid.  But in the film, Land does all the saving, rescuing Nemo from being eaten by a squid-- which, at that point in the film, is the only thing that keeps Nemo from executing him for a previous disobedience.  However, Land ends up costing Nemo his life later, by sending forth a note-in-a-bottle that reaches Nemo's enemies the slavers.  This note makes it possible for the slavers to invade Nemo's island sanctuary, and though Nemo destroys the island and presumably the (mostly unseen) slave-takers, a slaver-bullet takes Nemo's life-- a less poetic demise than he meets (or seems to meet) in the Verne novel.  It may be merely coincidence that the film's Land, who's willing to do almost anything for a buck, indirectly finds himself on the side of the slavers who follow much the same ethos.  But coincidence or not, it doesn't make me like Land all that much.

In terms of the state-of-the-art effects of the Disney film, no other adaptation can touch it.  The battle with the giant squid is still one of the great scenes of metaphenomenal cinema.  But the definitive adaptation of Verne's novel has yet to be made.

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