While 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea is one of the more familiar titles in literature, I have to admit my familiarity with it comes less from the literary work of Jules Verne and more from the big-screen adaptation by Walt Disney. (And to some lesser extent, the now defunct ride at both American Disney theme parks). Growing up, the film’s climatic battle with the squid was featured on numerous Wonderful World of Disney clips show.
So when I sat down this time to read the original novel, I had to push aside memories of the Disney film and really try and focus on original novel as written so many years ago by Verne.
Having waded through the novel, I have to admit that in some ways the movie is better. Or to be more exact–my memories of the film are better. (I haven’t had time to revisit the film yet, so it should be interesting to see if it can compete with the memories and impressions I have of it.) Like The Lord of the Rings saga, the story works a lot better in a visual medium. Once our intrepid heroes find their way on board the Nautilus a lot of the story becomes about exacting detail of how far we’ve traveled and the wonders under the sea. At first, it’s interesting but like the epic quest in Tolkein, it starts to wear a bit thin after a dozen or so pages and you start asking yourself–could something, anything maybe start happening, please?!? Even the battle with the undersea creature is a lot more thrilling in the movie, if only because it’s given a bit more time to breath on the big-screen. In the original novel, it’s relatively short compared to the overall exploration of underwater world and the marvelous creation of Captain Nemo.
Honestly, I found the search for Nautilus and the mystery surrounding it before its big reveal to be a far more compelling and interesting story than much of what happens once we actually get on board the vessel. The cat and mouse chase to try and find the ship makes for some compelling reading early on and there were times as I waded through the last third of the novel I wished Verne had kept that same urgency and intensity in the overall book.
Reading the novel, I had to keep reminding myself that books are a product of their era. I kept trying to put myself into the mind of a reader when the original novel was first published. And I can see how some of what Verne describes and crates could inspire awe and wonder within a reader. And perhaps given the greater emphasis put on character creation in the more modern era when it come to genre literature, I had different expectations than those readers who originally picked up the novel when it was first published.
I don’t mean to say that the novel wasn’t a good one nor a necessarily enjoyable experience. It’s just one of those cases where it’s hard to separate the novel from the many interpretations that have come along since it was first published.