SCIENCE-FICTION STUDIES, XXVI:3 #79 (Nov. 1999): 493-95.

Books in Review

Arthur B. Evans

An Exercise in Creative Genealogy

review of:

Thomas C. Renzi. Jules Verne on Film: A Filmography of the Cinematic Adaptations of His Works, 1902 through 1997. McFarland (fax: 910-246-5018), 1998. xiv + 230 pp. $55 cloth.

The title of this book is somewhat misleading. It perhaps should have been called: Jules Verne on Film: A Selected Filmography of the Cinematic Adaptations—Including Movies Arguably Derived From, Influenced By, Associated With, Parallel To, or Somehow Conveying the Aura Of—His Works, 1902 through 1997. What Thomas Renzi has done, in essence, is to lump together many (but far from all) of the straightforward cinematic adaptations of Verne’s works with an unusual variety of other films that—in some way—appear to “echo” Verne’s original novels. The results are often surprising and, at times, not a little incongruous. Movies like Thunderball (1965) and Barbarella (1967), for example, find their “origin” in Verne’s Face au drapeau (For the Flag, 1896) because they feature mad scientists who threaten the world with doomsday devices. Films like The Warlords of Atlantis (1978) and The Abyss (1989) are said to have borrowed from Verne’s L’Ile mystérieuse (The Mysterious Island, 1875) because they contain undersea cities—“submerged islands”—which, according to the author, “suggest an aftermath to Twenty Thousand Leagues, since they have a kind of ‘after-the-Nautilus-what’ premise where events seem an outgrowth of Nemo’s advanced science” (134). And a host of thrillers like Meteor (1979), Asteroid (1997), and—incredibly—Stephen King’s Maximum Overdrive (1986) are seen as somehow deriving from Verne’s Hector Servadac (Off on a Comet, 1877) because their plots describe the ramifications of an impending collision or near-miss between Earth and a wayward heavenly body.

This enthusiastic, free-wheeling, but very naive exercise in what might be called “creative genealogy”—where virtually any film might be labelled as “influenced by” Jules Verne because it contains a particular theme, stock character, or plot idea once used in Verne’s works—is hardly convincing, and it is definitely not serious film scholarship. But it is fun. And, to the author’s credit, he does not appear truly to believe that these supposed cause-effect “borrowings” are, in fact, anywhere else but in the eye of the beholder. Almost every page of the book is filled with entre nous caveats—e.g., for the texts cited as descendants of Verne’s Face au drapeau, Renzi acknowledges: “In most such films, the similarities to Verne are more coincidental than intentional” (55). Ultimately, it is delightful to see gathered in one place the descriptions of so many films “affiliated” in one fashion or another (either thematically, symbolically, or structurally) with the many novels of Jules Verne’s Voyages Extraordinaires. Beyond the more obvious adaptations—by Méliès, Disney, et al.—it is relatively easy to see how certain movies like Fantastic Voyage (1966) might be construed as a “clever variation” (200) of Verne’s Vingt mille lieues sous les mers (Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea, 1870). But who would have ever thought of associating the television movie Charlie and the Great Balloon Chase (1982) with Verne’s Cinq semaines en ballon (Five Weeks in a Balloon, 1863), or the Orson Welles film The Lady from Shanghai (1948) with his Les Tribulations d’un Chinois en Chine (The Tribulations of a Chinese Gentleman, 1879), or Blade Runner (1982) and Black Moon Rising (1985) with his Robur-le-conquérant (The Clipper of the Clouds, 1886) and Maître du monde (Master of the World, 1904)? Renzi makes clever, if at times rather strained, efforts to cement these connections, although his inclination to rope in filmic adaptations of other writers’ works—e.g., The People That Time Forgot (1977) is “blatantly derivative” (15) of Les Aventures du capitaine Hatteras (The Adventures of Captain Hatteras, 1866) despite being based on an Edgar Rice Burroughs novel (itself, Renzi asserts, essentially a Vernian text)—tends at times towards the critically reductive, if not the monomaniacal.

Despite its wide-ranging coverage, let there be no mistake about this book’s much-less-than-comprehensive treatment of both Verne and “Vernian” films. Although many of the “straight” cinematic adaptations of Verne’s novels are represented, many are not. In particular, certain movies made for television—like the French ORTF broadcasts of the 1960s and 1970s—and animated Verne films in general are treated very sporadically if at all. Experts estimate that there have been over 300 cinema and tv adaptations of Verne’s works produced in the twentieth century, making him one of the most “translated” fictional authors (on celluloid, as on paper) in the world. In contrast, the total number of movies featured in Jules Verne on Film—including both adaptations and “derivational” titles—is a mere 167. There have been, for instance, no fewer than eight film adaptations of Verne’s Les Enfants du capitaine Grant alone—this book lists three, plus one “related” film. Verne’s short story Maître Zacharius (“Master Zacharius,” 1854) has been filmed at least five times, in both Europe and the US—this book does not list it at all. A few other overlooked novels and short stories by Verne to have appeared on the large or small screen over the past few decades include Un Drame en Livonie (A Drama in Livonia) by Semione Aranovitch in 1972 in the USSR, La Chasse au météore (The Chase of the Meteor, 1908) by Roger Iglésis in 1966 in France, his countryman Jacques de Berne’s 1982 adaptation of the short story Frritt-Flacc (“Frritt-Flacc,” 1885), the 1974 cinematic version of Le Pilote du Danube (The Danube Pilot, 1908) by Hungarian Miklos Markos, and a German animated version of L’Ile à hélice (Propeller Island, 1895) by Armin Lang in 1978, among others. And I found it especially strange that Renzi’s book virtually ignores those short films directed and produced by Jules Verne’s son Michel: e.g., his 1918 cinematic productions of La Destinée de Jean Morénas (The Destiny of Jean Morénas, 1910) and Les Indes noires (The Black Indies, 1877), and those of L’Etoile du sud (The Southern Star, 1884) and Les Cinq cents millions de la Bégum (The Begum’s Fortune, 1879) of 1918 and 1919 respectively.

As for the overall structure of Jules Verne on Film, after the author’s Introduction and a brief—and unfortunately error-marred—biography of Verne, the book contains 23 chapters arranged alphabetically by title (in English), from The Adventures of Captain Hatteras to Voyage Across the Impossible (an unpublished play by Verne and Adophe d’Ennery, 1882). Each chapter begins with a thumbnail synopsis and some analysis of the original story’s plot, and then offers detailed descriptions of those various films associated with/related to/derived from it. The plot resumés for the texts listed seem generally quite reliable, despite occasional small errors like naming the main character of L’Ile mystérieuse “Cyrus Harding” (from the English translation) instead of “Cyrus Smith” (from the original French), or describing the beginning of Les Enfants du capitaine Grant (The Children of Captain Grant, 1868) as “The story begins with a message found floating in bottle....” (34) when, in fact, the bottle was found in the belly of a shark. Moreover, the book is handsomely illustrated throughout, and it concludes very usefully with two appendices—a chronological listing of Verne’s novels and short stories and a bibliography of critical sources (albeit very thin)—along with three indexes (by film director, by film title, and by general subject).

As a general reference tool, the value of this easily readable and sometimes insightful, yet often flawed and wholly idiosyncratic, book might be aptly described as greater than the sum of its parts—principally because it is the only publication currently available that sheds a global light on Jules Verne and the film industry. Brian Taves’s excellent treatment of the cinematic adaptations of Verne’s works in his long chapter titled “Hollywood’s Jules Verne” (in The Jules Verne Encyclopedia [Scarecrow, 1996]: 205-48) is more rigorous and scholarly. But its coverage is restricted to “only Verne films either made or co-produced in the English language” (205). So until such time as either Taves or another Vernian researcher publishes the “definitive” study of Jules Verne in the cinema, Renzi’s Jules Verne on Film will continue to stand as the best book on the subject.

Copyright © Zvi Har’El
$Date: 2007/11/08 22:22:51 $