|Illustration of Captain Nemo based on Jules Verne,|
by Alphonse de Neuville,
Disney took the Zeitgeist of atomic anxiety and the recent copyright expiration of Verne's books to bring 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea to theatres. A new soundstage with a water tank was built on the Disney lot to accommodate the full-size deck of the ship, designed in retro-Victorian fashion by Harper Goff. Unlike George Pal's feature film War of the Worlds the preceding year, the conscious decision was made to retain the mid-Nineteenth Century setting of the novel. Though Verne's literary Nautilus was a sleek, hydrodynamic vessel, Goff's was cast-iron and rivets to put the exclamation point on this being a Victorian submarine. This choice to set it 100 years in the past helped to provide a safe ideological distance from which to discuss the pressing concern of atomic power, which forms the philosophical underpinning of the film.
|The literary Nautilus, by Alphonse de Neuville.|
Disney trusted his instincts as a filmmaker, altering the novel substantially. It's worth keeping in mind that Verne has suffered from notoriously poor English translations, and the translation that Disney was working off of would have itself been missing about 20% of the original material. The film slimmed it down even more, though it did retain that key sense of wonder that is ultimately what the novel is about. Many scenes were excised that would have made for a phenomenal film in their own right, such as a trip to Atlantis that was, ironically, used for both the Walt Disney World and Tokyo Disneysea 20,000 Leagues attractions. Robust characters portrayed by charismatic actors James Mason, Kirk Douglas, Peter Lorre and Paul Lukas carried a fairly standard "jail break" plot against any high-minded philosophical meditations on warfare. It also had a song and a funny animal. And it was a major hit. Disney has gotten mileage out of 20,000 Leagues for decades, from cinematic re-releases to comic books to children's records to theme park attractions in Disneyland and Walt Disney World and Disneyland Paris and Tokyo Disneysea. It has surfaced again most recently as a drink at the new Trader Sam's Grog Grotto bar in Walt Disney World's Polynesian Village Resort. Though not as well-known today as it should be, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea is integral to understanding how Disney developed as a company and it is a plain old good film in its own right.
|The fiery fate of Atlantis, by Alphonse de Neuville.|
Due in no small part to the Disney film adaptation, Verne's Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea has emerged as the pre-eminent classic of Victorian Science Fiction, or what were called "Scientific Romances" at the time. Verne alone published 54 Scientific Romances during his lifetime, bearing the brand label "Voyages Extraordinaires." The term was invented by Verne's publisher, Jules Hetzel, to describe a brand new genre of literature designed "to outline all the geographical, geological, physical, and astronomical knowledge amassed by modern science and to recount, in an entertaining and picturesque format...the history of the universe." As some critics have observed, based primarily on shoddy English translations, Twenty Thousand Leagues is for the most part a novel about fish. Though an inventive extrapolation on existing submersible technology, the Nautilus is for the most part a plot device by which Verne takes his readers on an unparalleled oceanographic expedition through each of the seven seas. Over its 200-some pages, Captain Nemo is a tourguide through oceans, beneath icecaps, past famous shipwrecks, and beyond Atlantis. But Verne was also an insightful critic of society as well as a literary inventor of technological contraptions. There is more to Twenty Thousand Leagues than fish, or submarines.
|Peering out of the salon window,|
by Alphonse de Neuville.