Another Verne Movie: 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea

Disney's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954) is a strange movie. Generally speaking, I am an advocate of movies NOT being like their books. And I would seriously cut/par down/alter Verne's book to make a movie. But Disney's changes bewilder me (I am writing this as someone who quite enjoyed Journey to the Center of the Earth, 3D, starring Brendan Fraser; it is surprisingly close in vision, if not detail, to the original text):

Regarding 20,000 Leagues, here are two odd script choices:

1. M. Aronnax, who should be the protagonist, isn't. 

Aronnax is much younger in the book (forty) than Paul Lukas's respectable if unimpressive rendering, and there was no good narrative reason to make him older (other than Disney's discomfort with bromances).

Aronnax is the quintessential nineteenth century explorer-scientist, the mirror version of Phineas Fogg: a geek who is willing to risk life and limb for a hypothesis though Aronnax demonstrates far greater investment in noticing his surroundings. He focuses on expanding his knowledge not out of some tired inability to run away from natives but from choice.

The book provides multiple opportunities for Aronnax to satisfy his curiosity as the Nautilus sinks beneath the South Pole, hides inside a volcano, parks next to sunken Atlantis, and takes a roller-coaster ride through an underwater passage connecting the Red Sea to the Mediterranean (quite literally a "ride"--it would make a great special effect!). It is Aronnax who witnesses Nemo knifing the shark and communicating with a possible confidant (the diver) near the Greek islands. Yet all the impressive scenery and mysteries of Verne's novel are lost to the fighter (Ned Land) at the expense of the explorer. Aronnax is portrayed as a bookish gentleman whose age presumably explains his refusal to beat up people with his bare hands.

The result is that the 1954 Disney movie lacks an emotional arc since the hero, Ned Land, never changes. In the book, not only does Aronnax have to choose between Nemo and his friends, he is the only character to suffer true internal change--from respect to disillusionment (Nemo's possible internal change is only hinted at). His behavior, however lightly conveyed, is far more interesting than Ned Land's antics and his story should have been the primary arc, not the, uh, tertiary one.

Woody's dilemma mirrors Aronnax's.
2. Kirk Douglas's Ned Land is utterly annoying.

The Ned Land of the book is far more rational. Consequently, his arguments against Nemo to Aronnax towards the end of the book carry weight. Aronnax has to chose between continual exploration (satisfying his passion) and escape for himself and others. In sum, he is Woody from Toy Story 2: Do I chose the life of the museum where my value/accomplishments will be admired by future generations? or Do I escape to a life in the real world?

Kirk Douglas's Ned Land, in contrast, is emotional, histrionic, preachy, and unreliable. He is so annoying, in fact, one begins to wish that Captain Nemo would (finally) fulfill his threat and throw Ned off the boat.

Speaking of Nemo . . . 

The saving grace of the 1954 movie is James Mason. 
 
The most interesting outcome of the book and the movie is that the underwater world and the man responsible for showing it to us become too fascinating to throw away. The story is, in sum, Beauty and the Beast; by the end, the audience has come to care more about the Beast than either the problem or the solution. Okay, so Beauty is a prisoner, and the Beast might be tired of having to file down his teeth, but come on, make us happy and stay the way you are!
Mason to the left. Then Lorre and Douglas.

So it is easy to see why Captain Nemo became the remembered part of the movie (as he is of the book) rather than the Scooby Gang. Like the eponymous villain of Dracula, the supposed villain of 20,000 Leagues, once visualized, outstrips the lesser characters. It helps that James Mason's Nemo is far less creepy and more charismatic than book Nemo. It also helps that he captures both book Nemo's aloofness and passion. And, well, you know, that voice! 

It additionally helps that Mason spends about half the movie running around in a white turtleneck and getting wet. Which makes him look even sexier than usual--if that's possible.

Nemo is so enthralling that the movie's end (which I won't give away here) leaves one dissatisfied in a way that the 1959 Journey to the Center of the Earth--equally radically changed in many ways--does not. James Mason shows up again and doesn't disappoint. He still has that wonderful voice. He demonstrates excellent comedic timing. And he continues to look good disheveled. Plus the writers have no wariness of bromance--perhaps because they supplied the story with a female protagonist.

(Back to 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea: Okay, I confess, I like the seal.)

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