Hollywood Presents Jules Verne by Brian Taves (book review).

Looking back from our present day, it should come as no surprise that Jules Verne’s stories were seen as a good choice when film-making first started at the turn of the last century, although plays of some of them were already in theatres. Oddly, it wasn’t any of his SF books but his novels, ‘Michael Strogoff’ (1976), that was the first to be made into a film and then ‘After Five’ (1915).


Something Taves clears up is ‘Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea’ has nothing to do with depth but distance. When you look at the original French title, ‘Vingt mille sous les mers’, the translation of ‘mers’ means ‘seas’ but the French tend to use ‘s’ regardless of singular or plural and we ended up with what we’re accustomed to today. Indeed, there have been various translations with many errors over the years and you need to check out www.najvs.org/publications.shtml if you want to make sure you get the right version.

‘Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea’ was the first SF film in 1916 and the first ever to use extensive underwater photography and was very successful. As was its successor, ‘The Mysterious Island’ (1929) and the switch from Captain Nemo being an Indian prince to a white man in the shape of actor Lionel Barrymore. In fact, that particular detail was forgotten for nearly a century more, largely because of a certain James Mason’s performance in the next version.

There is a lot of information that will become useful for SF quizzes. I mean, did you know that the second ‘Mysterious Island’ (1951) was the first Verne-based film serial lasting 15 episodes and two serials of ‘Around The World In Eighty Days’, from Germany and the USA in 1914. ‘Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea’ (1952) was done as a two-parter on TV and one of the stars was a certain Leslie Nielson no less.

If you ever wondered why the ‘Lost In Space’ spaceship was called the ‘Jupiter II’, it wasn’t because this was the second spaceship of that name but because Irwin Allen had earlier produced a film called ‘Five Weeks In A Balloon’ (1962) has the balloon needing a name change because of ‘Flight Of The Lost Balloon’ (1961) also called ‘Victoria’ and needed a new name, so he chose ‘Jupiter’. So, when it came to ‘Lost In Space’, well…I love little connections like that.

After a spate of films or animation based loosely on Verne’s main tales, I tend to agree with Taves that the likes of ‘Star Wars’ put the nail in the coffin for filming his Moon-based material. I would also add the NASA space programme as well as people became more familiar with technological achievements and what was possible and shooting men to the Moon in a bullet with no way to explain how they would get back had its own problems. Although the likes of HG Wells could be updated, Verne’s stories were only a little ahead of what was possible in his time. Added to that, the films of the 1950s-early 1960s stood the passage of time with no one wanting to update them for a long time plus all their repeat viewings on TV has kept them firmly in people’s eyes.

It’s rather interesting seeing films noted from more recent years, with only one animated film that looks conceivably interesting. Taves, to his credit, isn’t afraid to give comment on any of them, especially when it comes to comparing them to Verne’s original books. Considering that Verne wrote some 78 books, it’s amazing that the film studios at most only look to the most well known seven for adaptation and none of them have sought to use steampunk as a means to visualise them.

The assessment at the end that Jules Verne’s books in part were travelogues doesn’t stop the fact that he extrapolated the use of technology and its only with space rockets that he really got it wrong. Then again, no one in that time period had a true inkling of space let alone the lack of life on the nearby planets.

For Hollywood, Jules Verne was pretty much a start-off point for many of their films than pure adaptations. It would have been interesting had Taves compared how well Verne came off compared to HG Wells. Certainly the Verne-based films from the 1950s-early 1960s fared reasonably well and without them, SF would have been worse than what we have and yielded four classics. This book deserves a place on your bookshelves and a wonder for how long before Hollywood dabbles with Jules Verne again.

GF Willmetts

March 2016

(pub: University Press Of Kentucky. 360 page illustrated hardback. Price: £38.95 (UK), $40.00 (US). ISBN: 978-0-8131-6112-9)

check out website: www.kentuckypress.com and www.eurospanbookstore.com


Geoff Willmetts has been editor at SFCrowsnest for some 21 plus years now, showing a versatility and knowledge in not only Science Fiction, but also the sciences and arts, all of which has been displayed here through editorials, reviews, articles and stories. With the latter, he has been running a short story series under the title of ‘Psi-Kicks’ If you want to contribute to SFCrowsnest, read the guidelines and show him what you can do. If it isn’t usable, he spends as much time telling you what the problems is as he would with material he accepts. This is largely how he got called an Uncle, as in Dutch Uncle. He’s not actually Dutch but hails from the west country in the UK.

4 thoughts on “Hollywood Presents Jules Verne by Brian Taves (book review).

  • I’ve been reading a newish (1998) translation of ‘Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Seas’ (note the plural ‘Seas’ – one of several early mistranslations that are discussed in the introduction by the translator, William Butcher; my favourite is ‘the disagreeable territories of Nebraska’ for ‘the Badlands of Nebraska’). Only yesterday I was reminded of the Nemo in the original ‘League of Extraordinary Gentlemen’ and it occurred to me that 75% into the book there has been no mention of Nemo’s race, beyond his determination to cut himself off from the land. I’m encouraged to read that he was indeed originally an Indian prince and I’ll be interested to see if that comes out later – currently we are our way by water to the South Pole.

    You mention Leslie Nielsen – who was also the pilot hero in ‘Forbidden Planet’. He also turns up in an episode of ‘Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea’ but his career spans over 60 years so it’s not surprising that he turns up in almost anything -his IMdB listing is an eye-opener!

  • Hello Julian
    Thinking back to the James Mason version, I do wonder had Nemo been shown as an Indian prince, would the film have been accepted in that time period, especially demonstrating him with a slightly villainous undertone.

    As to Leslie Nielsen. Call it surprise on my part.


    • Without wishing to labour the point overmuch – now I’ve finished reading ‘20,000 leagues Under the Seas’ and realising that I’ve never actually read the book before (the ending was a bit of a surprise and I obviously don’t recall too much of the film version) it’s clear that there is no actual suggestion of Nemo’s race. Even right at the end when Aronnax glimpses a picture of (presumably) Nemo’s dead wife and children there is no comment on race or nationality. In fact the edition I was reading has an illustration of Nemo which is strongly Caucasian (it’s in the Folio Society edition but I can’t copy it here though it’s one of the illustrations for that volume on their website). I’ve not read ‘The Mysterious Island’ – again, I saw the Herbert Lom version some decades ago and not since – and will have to track down a decent translation soon.

      It was serendipitous that I was reading the visit to the South Pole on the correct day in March…

      • Hello Julian
        I read a version of the book back in my teens and according to this book there are many versions out there, most ignoring Nemo’s nationality, which I suspect was done to make it more universal than make him a ‘villain’ from any one particular caste.


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