SCIENCE-FICTION STUDIES, XXII #66 (July 1995): 209-225.

James W. Maertens

Between Jules Verne and Walt Disney: Brains, Brawn, and Masculine Desire in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea

Jules Verne’s Paris au XXe Siècle, which made news in the past year, has once again raised aloft the bearded profile of its author as an icon of scientific prophecy. It has been nearly a half-century since this last happened, during the 1950s and 60s when a spate of American film adaptations of his novels made Verne a household word, a name equated with the adventure of science and its uncanny progress over the last century. Those marvelous technicolor and Cinemascope movies of Around the World in 80 Days, Journey to the Center of the Earth, Five Weeks in a Balloon, From the Earth to the Moon, Master of the World, and others introduced a large segment of the American population to Verne’s novels and to the genre of science fiction.

Recently, while writing about Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, I returned to the Disney film version that had so enchanted me as a boy. Often praised at its release as a faithful homage to the novel, Disney’s Leagues surprised me when I began to compare it to the book. Enthralled by how much was the same, and so visually rich, I had never noticed how much was radically different. I slowly came to realize that several of these Cold War era films translated Verne’s novels into their own cultural codes by shifting their emphases and changing their characters. They all evoked a nostalgia for the Victorian world, with its class distinctions and colonial wealth. But this nostalgia seems to have served a purpose for technological propaganda, a kind of Icarian or Promethean mythos of early engineering genius that foretold the present day’s technical wonders. The age of the Industrial Revolution was taken up and used as a metaphor for the electronic and atomic revolutions that followed World War II. As Americans looked forward with excitement to the 1954 launching of Hyman Rickover’s “Atom Sub” significantly called the U.S.S. Nautilus, Disney was bringing to life the namesake of the Nautilus in Captain Nemo’s electric submarine boat and subtly altering its ideological texture to fit a new age.

1. Scientific Prophecy and Masculinity. Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea was not only a novel about technical advancement. One source of its strong appeal was in its vision of a new world ordered by technical meritocracy (Evans, Jules Verne 41-50). The social tensions that marked the transition from the old regime to this brave new world are clearly mapped in Verne’s characters: four men set in competition and cooperation with each other, vying in complex ways for each other’s love and loyalty within a new social hierarchy.

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Captain Nemo is a kind of aristocratic version of the rebel without a cause: he is both a symbol of, yet strangely alienated from, that technocratic world. As a scientist, inventor, and engineer of uncommon genius, he occupies the apex of the new social pyramid and, in one sense, might be said to represent the Saint-Simonian philosopher-king. But he also has a “dark” side that is unpredictable, autocratic, obsessed, and vengeful. Confronting Nemo and suddenly complicating the interpersonal dynamics aboard the Nautilus is the typically Vernian triad of scientist/servant/common man—Professor Aronnax, Conseil, and the harpooner Ned Land. In their dealings both with Nemo and with each other, they serve to highlight and to bring into focus a number of salient features of this new social order: in particular, its competing models of masculinity. Technical man is set into competition with more muscular heroic models—that of the warrior, the sports-hero, the rugged individualist, the superhero, and others.

Peter Filene suggests that the last century comprised a continuous development of men’s struggle to redefine masculinity within a culture where “work involved brain more than brawn [and] individualism melted into corporate bureaucracy” (341). The transformation that I wish to trace here, from novel to film, across almost a century of history, and from France to the United States, is more complex than can be thoroughly dealt with in this short space. But one of the most significant things that happens in this transformation—and one that sets the stage for most of the others—is that Hollywood converted Verne’s scientific fiction, a work that is full of didacticism, into a work of science fiction, one which “utilizes science for purely fictional purposes” (Evans “Science Fiction” 1). Verne’s long didactic passages explaining scientific concepts are almost entirely removed. In Disney’s film, the sequence of scenes in which Nemo gives Aronnax a tour of the submarine is dubbed over with the professor’s narration; the captain’s technical details and figures are silenced. The effect of this is to turn viewers away from a meaningful engagement with scientific concepts and facts, and instead to immerse them in the imaginal and mythic dimensions of Verne’s text. And, to my mind, one important mythos that lies behind the “fictional purposes” of the film is that of gender construction. Its deepest structures are concerned with variant models of masculine power and the male scientist’s problematic relationships to Nature and to other men.

Novels such as Verne’s, published in Pierre-Jules Hetzel’s Magasin d’Education et de Récréation, aimed at scientific pedagogy. But they also sought to shape the imaginations of young men, teaching them that knowledge is power and modelling for them certain social roles. This celebration of knowledge as power was part of the foundation of a social order that asserted Western technology over the rest of the world. As one critic expressed it, in much of the literature published in Hetzel’s Magasin, one finds “a fusion of duty and adventure...[where the author assumed] the role of ethnologist and [pointed] out the presence on every continent of the white man, of the civilized Occidental manifesting everywhere the supremacy of his intelligence, of his knowledge, of his energy and drive” (Jan 68-69). And in many of Verne’s novels, and

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especially those first published in serial form in Hetzel’s Magasin, the texts’ scientific didacticism is closely interwoven with a romantic myth of masculinity, dreams of manly power.

Such messages were also present in the science-fiction and adventure films of the 1950s, where “mastery over nature and creation” (Kuhn 8) was the driving desire of the heroes. The images in these films are often of men who are affiliated with a military or scientific institution, whose power is directed by the hierarchy of social authority. But the Vernian heroes portrayed in these films such as Captain Nemo, Robur the Conqueror, or Impey Barbicane represent an egotistical machismo of scientific conquest taken to extremes. They personalize the power of science, representing it less as a collective and institutional form of power than as a Promethean assertion of individual sovereignty and brain-power. Marc Angenot calls both Nemo and Robur “Icarian” because, as he says, “Icarus is a Prometheus without a beneficiary for his gift” (22). Nemo and Robur are notable for their seclusion and secrecy. They personify a male ego walled-in by its desire for sovereignty and control, walled-in by fear of the loss of self in giant institutional or state communalities. Beneath the Cold War fear of communism lies a basic configuration of masculinity defined in terms of this desire for isolation and individualism, and correspondingly afraid of invasion from a mythologized collective or mass-mind.1

Elizabeth Ammons has described the development of the engineer as an image of masculine power in the industrial age. His ability to control workers and modern machines is a fundamental dynamic of Euro-American colonialism (748). Electricity in the nineteenth century and atomic fission in the 1950s were each turned into symbols of male dominance. Each was mythologized as a life-force, the divine power of creation, or, as Professor Aronnax says in the movie, “the veritable dynamic power of the universe.” The desire to possess this fire of the fathers is a Promethean desire. Gaston Bachelard points out that the Promethean Complex consists of the wish to possess the father’s knowledge, as the sign and instrument of his power (12). The Nautilus, or the Atom Sub, becomes an expression of the symbolic phallus, the coveted techno-social power of the fathers.

In his revision of Freud, Jacques Lacan interprets the phallus not merely as a sign of the physical penis, but as a symbol of male social power and the mystery that surrounds it in patriarchal cultures. By identifying the symbolic phallus in cultural texts, even if it takes the characteristic elongated cylindrical forms, one is not pointing to hidden obscenity or “reading in” sex. Rather, one is taking gender and sexual politics as an underlying preoccupation of culture. The penis, as an object of infantile envy or pride is coveted not for any inherent virtue but as a symbol of the social power accorded to males. It operates as a symbol of individual power only as it signifies membership in the hierarchical order of men in a patriarchy. Thus, for example, and not to put too fine a point on it, the recurrent image of cigar-smoking gentlemen in private clubs found in Verne and much other literature of the time is filled with phallic connotations not merely because cigars look like penises, but because cigars are signs of a certain class of masculine power, as are the images of the

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private clubs themselves. I read such images as realistic representations and, at the same time, as cultural codes with symbolic connotations and unconscious resonances.2

It is not difficult to visualize such cigar-smoking gentlemen of the nineteenth century reading these stories of scientist-heroes and convincing each other that the development and exportation of technological wonders would earn the eternal gratitude of an “undeveloped” world. Yet, the technical optimism of both the 1870s and the 1950s also masked deep ambivalences toward the political realities that threatened the loss of individual freedom. Verne’s France—like Disney’s United States—was founded on conflicting values: the abstract ideal of individual freedom alongside a hierarchic culture of capitalism, corporate bureaucracy, academic elitism, and state authority. Moreover, in World War II, humanity had seen the horrifying potential that such technology held for state control and mass destruction. The years immediately following the McCarthy hearings in the United States were years not merely of ambivalence but of paranoia about being swallowed up by the monstrous side of technoscience.

2. Mythic Variations. When the Disney team adapted Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues to film, they engaged in a process of creative misreading that produced a powerful variant of Verne’s original myth. In an article on the Disney film’s production, Director Richard Fleischer remarked that the version of Verne’s masterpiece “that is known today by most young people is the one we invented for the screen” (Frazier and Hathorne 39). In discussing the choice of scenes from the novel, Fleischer says that he and Earl Felton, the writer of the screenplay, took only “the most memorable scenes”:

Everybody remembers the underwater burial, the cannibal attack, and the fight with the giant squid, so we had to include those incidents. We didn’t use them in the same continuity nor in the same way because we counted on the fact that nobody ever really read the book very carefully. (Frazier and Hathorne 39)

In fact, the film’s action, structure, and characterization, as well as its moral tone, are significantly different from those of Verne’s novel. And, in some cases, there are strategic reversals. For example, Harper Goff, designer of the Nautilus for the Disney film, credits himself with several improvements to Captain Nemo’s submarine. His decision to make a baroque Nautilus that looked like the Loch Ness monster was probably a wise choice from the standpoint of the film medium because it did produce a visually fascinating design that enhanced the sense of mystery and wonder surrounding the vessel. But it is more interesting as an interpretation of the Victorian Age than as a representation of Verne’s submarine design. The Victorian Age is mythologized as a period in which wealth and technical power were combined. Acquisition, industry, and individualism all merge in the image of the high-speed machine appointed in velvet and brass. Glimpsed only fleetingly at various points during the film, Goff’s Nautilus exteriors tantalize the eye of the viewer and give the same impression of elegant power as the rich interiors with theirs

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pecimen cases, draperies, and polished brass instruments. This interior opulence is certainly not a departure from the comfortable submarine-yacht designed by Verne, but the extension of the baroque to the exterior of the ship and its machinery is. Walt Disney wanted to follow Verne’s own minute description of the design and construction of the Nautilus in chapter thirteen of the novel, but Goff disagreed.
I told Walt that the Nautilus was built hastily and roughly at Nemo’s secret base... The only material available was the rough iron that was salvaged from wrecks... Nemo got everything for his submarine—building materials, furniture, objects of art, and even a pipe organ adorned in filigree—from the wrecks he found on the ocean floor. (Frazier and Hathorne 35, 40)

Though it preserves the idea that Nemo derived all he needed from the sea, this hard-pressed scavenger is a significant revision of the novel’s captain. In the book, Nemo had ordered the parts of his submarine to be manufactured by industrial giants in Europe and America, secretly shipping them to a deserted island and assembling them with his crew. Goff conflated this process with Nemo’s salvage operation of gold bullion from the wrecks of a Spanish fleet sunk in Vigo Bay. The effect is interesting, however, for it replaces Nemo’s logistical genius with something almost supernatural. In the novel he is an Indian prince whose Western education permits him to masterfully exploit the industry, technology, and knowledge of the colonial powers to built machinery more powerful than anything produced by the enemies who destroyed his family. In Goff’s interpretation, Nemo is a fugitive desperately fleeing the world above the waves. He is less powerful, in a social sense, because he does not command the industrial world with his money. He is less scientific than the character in the book because the design of his submarine is less based in hydrodynamics than in a sense of drama. Through Goff’s re-envisioning, Nemo becomes more fantastic, and at the same time more vulnerable.

In adapting the novel to the film medium, Disney, Fleischer, and their creative staff compressed and changed the tone of the incidents of the story as well as the characters and their relationships to each other. These changes are often minute, but they accumulate to weaken Nemo’s character, to strip away his science of its power. Verne’s original plot is a counterpoint between two elements: first, wonder over the natural world from a scientist’s point of view; and, second, the strange incidents of Nemo’s underwater travels during which his individualist philosophy is revealed. Behind these overt themes is also a story of four men thrown together in extraordinary circumstances, the juxtaposition of their characters and their affections for each other. Yet, despite this complexity, Richard Fleischer would remark that when he and Felton set out to write a workable script, they “became acutely aware that there was no real story, only a series of incidents” (Frazier and Hathorne 40). The director vaguely blames this perceived flaw on the translations, which is partly true, as Walter James Miller has argued. Nevertheless, I would suggest that each episode in Verne’s plot was carefully positioned and paced. The scenes of natural wonder, reverie, emotion, and the escalation of violence and natural catastrophe support the slow unfolding of the characters and their personal

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dilemmas. From the standpoint of plot, the episodes may seem loose, but from the standpoint of symbolism, the action builds in a careful, contrapuntal structure to Nemo’s ultimate crisis of soul and Aronnax’s decision to leave him in its grip.

The desire to improve on Verne’s story led Fleischer and Felton to focus on the escape plot. Making the story about “a prison break” (Frazier and Hathorne 39) shifts the focus away from Professor Aronnax and science, and toward Ned Land and his rough-and-ready individualism. Ethical subtlety is reduced to a Hollywood mythos of macho heroism. Far from simply describing a “prison break,” the novel combines the desire to escape from the Nautilus with Aronnax’s ambivalent urge to stay with Nemo and share in his studies of oceanography. Psychologically, Aronnax occupies the place of a son longing for the power/knowledge of a symbolic father. This is further complicated by Nemo’s own ambivalent position as a defender of freedom who keeps prisoners. He is a father who has lost ordinary domestic and social ties and replaced them with a hierarchy of perfectly loyal and subservient crewmen. The Disney Leagues emphasizes the emotional appeal of these aspects of the story, but Nemo’s power as an archetypal father is undermined as his uncanny infallibility is turned into accident-prone aimlessness. The attraction between Aronnax and Nemo is still there, but the emphasis on Ned Land and actor Paul Lucas’ age make Aronnax look like one of the symbolic fathers. Power is thus shifted from the fathers to the son who is rebelling against them and their scientific value system.

Part of the weakening of Nemo’s character comes from taking away most of his ferocity. Frazier and Hathorne write that “Verne’s Nemo always takes the defensive; he sinks ships only when provoked into doing so. Verne did not let his character kill for the sake of killing” (39). Such an interpretation is not based in careful reading, nor does it even represent the film Nemo’s actions. Although Nemo does not kill “for the sake of killing” (and in fact remonstrates with Ned Land about this in the book), he drugs Aronnax and his companions when he is about to launch his attacks precisely because he does not want them to witness his calculated acts of revenge. He is never on the defensive in the book (except against natural forces and the cannibals who are represented as no serious threat). In the novel, Nemo always has the advantage over his human opponents. His motives, if justified by the violence against his family (and in this sense perhaps “defensive”), are ethically outside the pale of international law which calls such revenge piracy.

Captain Nemo is not, however, simply a pirate. One learns in Mysterious Island that he is a prince, which gives him a reason to see himself as a sovereign will. The film masks his regal origins. Instead of focusing on Nemo’s dilemma, the film shifts the emphasis onto Ned Land as the hero of individual freedom, a freedom to be asserted at the expense of—rather than by means of —scientific knowledge and technological genius. Freedom and science are no longer united but are opposed. Worse still, Ned’s push for personal liberation directly results in the killing of Nemo and his crew through Ned’s complicity with what is represented as a brutal regime of colonial slavers and arms merchants.

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There is an interesting blurring in that near-final scene where the khaki-clad troops storm Nemo’s volcanic crater. Are we to understand that they are the forces of that “hated nation” or are they the American military finally succeeding in the hunt initiated aboard the frigate Abraham Lincoln? Intended or not, Disney’s film carries with it American doubts about the use of military force and its relationship to technoscientific miracles.

3. Submarines and Symbolic Phalluses. Nemo’s infallible scientific knowl-edge, his mathematical skills, and his hardened exterior all symbolize the power of the symbolic phallus. This power is vested in Nemo as a man of genius and is thrown into relief by the relatively few glimpses the novel affords us of his more tender side. When he lovingly regards the sea and cooks a gourmet meal from the fruits of the body of that Great Mother, one sees the Dionysian eros and pleasure usually hidden behind his cold, Apollonian control. Captain Nemo’s oscillation between the poles of Eros and Logos is what ultimately leads to his despair. Even the Nautilus herself is both instrument of war and a luxuriant domestic space. In the film’s abbreviation of character development one can lose this subtlety, but it is still played out by James Mason in non-verbal ways that enhance the emotional tensions of the story.

For example, in the scene where Nemo orders the Nautilus to “collision speed,” the camera focuses closer and closer on his face, finally entering a single eye. Symbolically, it is as if the clinical gaze of the scientist witnesses its own destructive power with abject horror. The technician, whose ocularity consumes Nature and alienates him from others by reifying the world, is visually consumed himself, disappearing into that omnivorous eye, and so into the viewer’s eye. This moment of the film is a fascinating commentary on the character of Captain Nemo. In the novel, one never gets a description to match this scene. The terror and strain on Mason’s face as he anticipates the collision, makes him seem less cold and ruthless than the man described in the novel—which is to say weaker in the value system of machismo. The eye and the perspiration might be read sympathetically, making him more human, but it might also be read simply as the sign of madness. Unlike the scientists of Verne’s novel, whose objective gaze is always a source of wonder, the 1950s’ scientist (sometimes) experiences his own rationalized and mechanized self and its acts of destruction with horror and a sense of alienation. The extreme close-up used in this climactic scene renders a glimpse of Nemo’s subjectivity while keeping him (and his point of view) an object, a mystery. Sobchack notes that it is characteristic of 1950s’ science-fiction films to see the “dark secret behind human nature” to be rationalization itself, not irrational Nature (39). The instrumental reason of mechanized warfare haunts the film, troped as both liberating power and consuming madness.

The relative emphasis in the film on Nemo’s passion and luxuriance is especially evident as his desire to form a homosocial bond3 with Professor Aronnax is brought to the fore. The attraction between the two scientists is accented, in part, because Aronnax is made to side more angrily with Nemo against Ned and Conseil (something unnecessary in the book because of Conseil’s

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self-effacing loyalty to his master). In part, this marriage of minds is also accented because Nemo is not absent for long stretches of time as he is in the book. At the same time, the bonding between Ned Land and Conseil is heightened as they are rendered more visible than in the book. As Peter Brooks observes, Verne’s novels “define themselves as children’s literature through a kind of lack, an absence, or perhaps more accurately a sublimation. The genre of the adventure novel defines itself as a world of men pitted against nature or the forces of the universe without the necessary intervention of women” (8). Verne’s “fictional conflicts are most explicitly based on man’s struggles to master and order the world of contingency through the deployment of his intelligence” but these conflicts also “create complex allegories of good and evil from the midst of which the banished erotic element reasserts its absent presence” (9).

The interplay of the three men vying for the love and loyalty of Professor Aronnax can be read as the cultural play of gender surrounding the figure of the scientist-engineer as an icon of male power. Aronnax is not manly in a physical sense (he doesn’t, for example, help in the fight against the squid as he does in the novel), but he represents the modern locus of power in scientific institutions such as the Paris Museum. As his interview by the reporters at the opening of the film points out, he is an authority because of his knowledge. The figure of the ship’s captain is a familiar trope (a metonym as well as a metaphor) for patriarchal power based in military and hierarchic institutions. Nemo, as a renegade captain, transports that power outside of an institutional structure.

In the Disney film, Ned Land’s machismo is accentuated and adapted to a Hollywood stereotype that counterbalances the luxuriant masculinity of Nemo. In other words, the original Ned is revised to suit the need for a proper Hollywood hero—headstrong and muscular, ready for a brawl—while Nemo is robbed of most of his heroic moments. It is not a coincidence that “the American,” as Verne calls the Canadian harpooner, takes center stage as the representative of the United States and of American youthful, comical, unscientific, but essentially good-natured, strength. By contrast, in the novel, Ned’s physical prowess is clearly subordinated to the much greater cerebral prowess of the two scientists. He is, along with Conseil, treated in the background as a member of the working class, subservient to the gentlemen of the elite and always highly respectful, however much he dislikes being kept prisoner aboard a submarine. In other words, he is invariably courteous and deferential to his “betters.” In the film, however, Ned is invariably rebellious, a rakish rogue with an individualistic disregard for authority that would earn him the brig from most captains (as it in fact does from the film’s Nemo). The contrast is between two versions of masculinity neatly split along the Cartesian division between Body and Mind.

4. The Enigma of Enclosure. If the symbolic phallus is present in film and novel in the images of the submarine, the fist, and the penetrating gaze of the scientist, the maternal womb is equally present in the multiple symbols of

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enclosure. From beginning to end of the novel, Captain Nemo and the Nautilus constitute an enigma to Aronnax and most of the suspense of the plot derives from the professor struggling to penetrate their captor’s secrets. One of the most intriguing elements of the book—which the Disney writers might have maintained, but didn’t—is the secret language of Nemo and his crew.4 In the novel they speak only in an artificial language to erase their nationalities and their past. It is part of the way they cut themselves off from the rest of the world, and it is crucial for the atmosphere of helpless isolation that surrounds Professor Aronnax and his companions. He is a scientist whose own power comes from an identity constructed within a discursive community and its international institutions. When we see him in the film, he is often writing.

Nemo, too, shares this worldly power, as exemplified by his multi-lingual library of technical and scientific treatises (including, significantly, Professor Aronnax’s own book on the sea). When James Mason takes down a huge folio edition of Aronnax and peruses it in the opening moments after discovering the professor aboard his ship, he conveys the mastery Nemo asserts over his captive colleague. His scientific knowledge of the seas is far greater than Aronnax’s or that of any other scientist of the time. But what one loses with the omission of the secret language is the sense that Nemo has achieved a discursive superiority over the whole institution of Western science, by, as it were, containing it inside his own language. Andrew Martin has particularly commented on the theme of consumption/containment and the conflation of cognition and digestion in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (Martin, 122-32). Ned Land’s voracious appetite for red meat and his classification of the fishes only into those that are good to eat and those that aren’t contrasts comically with the desire of Nemo and Aronnax to consume the natural world through naming and classifying according to the discourses of science.

The film retains something of Aronnax’s quest to know Nemo and Nemo’s sporadic courtship of his brother-savant, but undermines the seduction by having Nemo rush to explain himself and demand the professor’s love. Instead of the gradually developing attraction between Nemo and Aronnax, in which the Captain shares his secrets and stages acts of technical prowess to impress his new companion, the film presents us with the full flowering of the relationship moments after the characters have met. Instead of the long quarantine of the castaways and Nemo’s deliberation over what he should do with them, the film presents a rash and callous tyrant who immediately orders Conseil and Ned thrown into the sea and tells Aronnax that he alone may stay. Nemo tries to woo him by announcing that he has penetrated all the secrets of the seas. “Secrets,” he says, “which are mine alone, but which I would be willing to share with you.”“At the expense of my companions’ lives?” asks the professor incredulously. Nemo responds coldly, “I’m sorry. You’ll have to choose between them and me.”

This line from the film points toward the obvious homosocial triangles present in Verne’s narrative. Nemo wishes to exchange the feminine body of la mer, the Mother Sea, as the container of love. Jealously, the film’s Nemo wishes to eliminate the other men, his rivals for the professor’s love. These

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changes depart from the representation of cool rationality and careful political philosophy originally presented by Verne. In the novel, Nemo keeps his prisoners confined for some time, considering what to do with them, finally deciding that he must not throw them overboard, even though, as a self-proclaimed sovereign, he can claim the right to such an execution. In his script, Felton did include the important moment when Aronnax accuses Nemo of being a savage rather than a civilized man, but note the difference. The Captain responds with the famous line: “I am not what you call a civilized man! I have broken with society entirely, for reasons which I alone have the right to assess. I, therefore, do not obey its laws, and I advise you never to allude to them before me again!” (§10:62).5 Nevertheless, he spares them.

The film’s Nemo, by contrast, tosses the professor out on deck with the others, submerges, then surfaces after Aronnax and Conseil have been washed off the deck. The dunking episode in the film is presented as a test of Aronnax’s mettle. Will he betray his friends to save his life? The scene is designed to focus attention on the contrast between the violent Ned Land and a Nemo who is more concerned with the power of personal loyalties. In the novel, the captain is less harsh, more philosophical, and more concerned with containing the castaways. They pose no threat to his power, except insofar as they might reveal his secret existence. In the film, we are lead to believe that Nemo is thinking of using Aronnax as his emissary to the world. The result of this revision of the story is to make Nemo less closed, less self-sufficient, and at the same time, less decisive.

The subtle change in the balance of power between the castaways and the captain is figured even earlier in the way Aronnax and the others come on board the Nautilus. In the novel, Aronnax is nearly drowned, saved only by Conseil’s valiance. The scene subtly signals the body-intimacy that exists between the professor and his man: Conseil has to cut away the professor’s clothes, as well as his own, so that they can swim. The nakedness of the two men in this scene signifies their reduction to an abject state—thrown down from the ship into the hostile sea, they sink towards a world that is at once death and wonder. Like Nemo, they cast off society and are reduced to their common humanity (despite Conseil’s insistence on remaining the servant to the bitter end). When they encounter the mysterious submarine at the last moment, they find Ned Land already resident on the silent, closed hull. They are unable to gain admittance until, rapping on the iron plates, they rouse Nemo and his crew. The castaways are violently drawn down into the submarine by masked crewmen and thrown, cold and soon starving, into a dark, doorless chamber. This image of entombment, imprisonment, and the return to the womb of the Great Mother Sea foreshadows everything that follows: their desire to remain, their desire to escape, Aronnax’s dream of becoming a mollusk, and a complex symbolism of devouring and uterine enclosure.

In the film, on the other hand, Nemo not only leaves the hatches open, but leaves the Nautilus completely unmanned while he and his crew perform undersea burial rites for one of their fellows. The inclusion of the burial scene here, at the beginning of the story, provides a beautiful sequence of underwater

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photography to get us quickly into the wonders of Cinemascope, but it ignores the character development which unfolds through Verne’s plotting. In the novel, the burial in the coral graveyard occurs in chapter twenty-four, the very center of the novel and the end of its first part. In this position it is the culmination of the development of Nemo’s character. His rational scientific power and engineering genius, and his seeming lack of human compassion, have been developed through many displays of technical prowess. This sequence climaxes when he uses the Nautilus to kill, ramming an enemy warship. He has drugged Aronnax and his companions to prevent their witnessing the attack, but afterwards the professor, who is qualified as a physician, is asked to treat a crewman who has suffered a concussion. The man is beyond help and the burial follows, exhibiting previously unsuspected depths of feeling and devotion between the captain and his crew.

The undersea cemetery is a grim yet beautiful sign of the total withdrawal of these men from the world of dry land and human society. Positioned at the beginning of the film, the scene is deprived of the power Verne bestowed upon it within the structure of his plot. Even more subtly, the completely empty ship the castaways encounter replaces the initial impression of Captain Nemo as a powerful commander with an impression of him as one who subordinates military discipline to religious feeling. Rational infallibility almost disappears as a character trait and is replaced by that other side of Nemo’s character: passion, hatred, and love of the sea. Further, the captain seems vulnerable, open to invasion rather than perfectly sealed in his self-made world.

5. Knowledge and Omnipotence. Another episode in which Nemo’s infallibility is undermined in the film is that in which the Nautilus is trapped in the Torres Straits. In the novel, Nemo dismisses the grounding of his submarine as only an “incident” not an “accident.” He confidently refuses to use the ship’s power to winch them off the reef, saying that they will wait until the moon is full, four days hence, when the tide will float them again. This is a typical gesture of the Vernean hero, predicting the forces of nature with mathematical precision, and so mastering them. But unlike in the novel, the film’s Nemo doesn’t succeed in this patient waiting game.

During the time they are grounded, the adventurers are attacked by cannibals from a nearby island. The exhibition of Captain Nemo’s “thunderbolt” which repels the savages using the electrical power of the Nautilus, follows the novel closely, reproducing its images of colonial power through the superior technology of the West. Nemo demonstrates his technical mastery and his superiority over Ned Land as well. But in the next moment of the film, a warship is sighted and Nemo has to use the submarine’s engines to power them off the reef in a desperate panic. This results in the representation of Nemo fleeing his enemies. In the book, the episode with the “savages” and the reef is just one more demonstration of Nemo’s invulnerability and his godlike relationship to the rhythms of the tides achieved through scientific knowledge. It is extremely significant that Nemo does not use force where knowledge and patience will do the job for him, for he has merged with Nature in his mastery

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of its forces. In the film, by contrast, he is made to look like a fugitive and when the Nautilus is hit by a cannonball, she springs a leak and sinks backwards into unknown depths. And, almost at once, they are attacked by the giant squid.

In the novel, the squid fight“paralleling Nemo’s equally horrible slaughter of a school of sperm whales—creates a symmetry of violence flanking the conquest of the South Pole which is arguably the climax of Nemo’s achievement as a conqueror of Nature. After near failure under the ice, and a growing sense of Mother Nature’s desire for revenge against Nemo’s assertion of his mastery over her, the squid attack takes on deep symbolic significance. In the novel, Nemo has to rescue Ned Land from the giant squids. The scene thus strikes to the heart of the novel’s ambiguities, for Ned not only represents the element Earth, the land Nemo has renounced, but he also symbolizes a robust, rebellious individualism that threatens to destroy the closed world of personal loyalty the Captain has created aboard his ship. When one takes this rivalry into account, Nemo’s saving of Ned’s life demonstrates his altruism.

Disney’s version, in a dramatic reversal, presents us with Ned saving Captain Nemo from the tentacles of the squid. Following the rescue, Ned immediately regrets his action and leaves with a swagger to get drunk with the captain’s pet seal. This inverts the symbolic action of the novel. Scientific heroism is shown to be helpless and in need of rescue by the older ideal of muscular manliness. Ned has lost his nobility and selflessness, leaving only unthinking reactions that may save or kill without regard to any higher principle than the urge of the moment.

6. Poles and Opposition. The novel’s concern with poles and oppositions is brought to the surface, as it were, when Nemo takes the Nautilus under the south polar ice and surfaces in an ice-locked sea at the pole itself.6 Unfurling his black flag, inscribed only with the letter “N,” Captain Nemo is an icon of masculine conquest. His is a conquest not of other nations, but of Nature in her most inhospitable, secret, and all-encompassing aspect. As a conquest of the convergence of all lines of longitude, it is symbolically a victory over the whole globe. The scene is thus a powerful image of the longing for conquest in the heart of Nemo’s hatred of imperialism. The omission of this scene from the film is understandable from the standpoint of production, but it nevertheless works with the other changes to elide Nemo’s explicit anti-imperialist impulse as well as his obsessive desire to be a conqueror.

At every step of the novel’s plot, Ned Land and Captain Nemo are not simply opposites, as they are in the film, but mirroring doubles. Both are highly skilled fighters and hunters, but in the book Nemo—with his command of superior technology and scientific understanding of the seas—bests Land who relies only on muscle, harpoon, and sailor’s common sense. They are rivals, but Ned is clearly unable to compete with this technological superman. His subjugation is continuously apparent in the fact that Ned spends most of the novel trying to figure out how to escape from the Nautilus but can’t because

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the prisoners dare not set out in the submarine’s dinghy unless they are close to shores inhabited by Americans or Europeans.

The film’s Ned is also placed in opposition to Professor Aronnax in his desire for freedom. So much so that, at the end of the film, we see Ned punch the professor as he earlier punched Conseil—a requisite of Hollywood machismo, but also a blatant subordination of the intellectual to the man of brute force. The brutality of Land is shifted in the film away from his love of killing game and cetaceans to his ready fists against his fellow men. In the final escape, Ned drowns the first officer of the Nautilus in the obligatory Hollywood fist fight. These changes affect the story on several levels. First, they confirm Ned Land as a stereotype of a certain type of machismo: anti-intellectual, self-serving, violent. Second, the change to Ned’s character casts into relief the diminished and ineffectual Nemo as he has consistently been presented throughout the film. Finally, it forcibly dismantles the emotional triangle that exists in the novel between Ned, Aronnax, and Nemo. In the book, not only is Aronnax friends with both men, but he becomes the object of a rivalry between them: for Ned, winning Aronnax to his side is crucial to his own escape, in part because Ned’s sense of loyalty to the professor as a social superior won’t let him leave Aronnax behind.

Conseil’s attempt, in the film, to wheedle the professor into following Ned’s plans for mutiny is also an inversion of the valet’s character. In the film, Conseil’s betrayal of Aronnax and Nemo (by giving Ned the coordinates of the secret base) is a turning point of the plot. The shift of loyalty comes when Conseil is angrily rebuffed by his master after he has suggested sympathetically that Ned values his life beyond all of Nemo’s science. The professor responds testily, “His life means nothing. Nor does mine nor yours, compared to what’s behind all this.” Sulkily, Conseil addresses the professor as “Captain” suggesting that Aronnax is identifying with Nemo as tyrant-master. Conseil’s defection shifts the moral balance leading the viewer to believe that Ned is correct. We are supposed to be persuaded further by the comic scene in which the harpooner flushes Nemo’s zoological specimens down the sink to use their bottles for his messages. Thus Peter Lorre’s Conseil prompts the film’s audience to side with Ned and dismiss the values of science dear to both Aronnax and Nemo.

In the novel, by contrast, Verne represents the scientist as a noble figure whose superiority is acknowledged by his inferiors in an almost sentimental way. After Aronnax, Ned, and Conseil (along with everyone else aboard the sub) have almost died of suffocation under the Antarctic ice shelf, Ned and Conseil save Aronnax’s life by giving up the last of their own air supply to keep him alive. The professor praises Ned’s generosity and Ned replies in an ironic imitation of the way Aronnax himself thinks in mathematical figures: “How can you give us any credit for that? It was a matter of simple arithmetic. Your life is worth more than ours. We had to save you!” (§17:309). In the milieu of 1950s America, such a romanticized idea of class relations would be, not surprisingly, impossible to stomach.

The novel represents competing masculinities united by mutual affections

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and admirations, and by the repeated exchange of the body of the Mother Sea and her creatures among the men to form their bonds to each other. Across differences, the four main characters form personal attachments. The conflict between a masculinity of the belly and a masculinity of the brain is mitigated by these affections. The film shies away from such expressions of love between men and replaces them with rivalries, often semi-comic in tone. In the film’s climactic end, the polarization between the superior man of mind and the man of brawn is suddenly disrupted as Ned magically acquires an ability to operate the controls of the Nautilus and bring it to the surface. This sudden acquisition of technical knowledge implies that any man, no matter how disrespectful of science, can operate its sophisticated tools without training. Further, this action disrupts the symmetries Verne delicately maintained throughout his novel. Disney’s Ned paints muscular and brutal masculinity as a powerful force of subversion against which neither technical expertise, nor the class system can stand. The corollary of this relationship is that techno-science is envisioned as open to all men and unjustly controlled by a few. Ned’s naive desire to bring the outside world to his rescue, however, is betrayed when the invading armies at Volcania turn out to be just as careless of Ned as they are intent to possess Nemo’s power.

Turning Nemo’s secret subvolcanic harbor into a permanent and easily invaded base also undermines Nemo’s independence of the land. In the novel, the volcano which he uses as a harbor is the location of his coal-mining operation by means of which he supplies himself with sodium for his batteries. It is not treated as a “home,” and only the professor and his companions go ashore to examine the flora and fauna living inside the volcano’s interior. The image of the place is womblike, enclosed with only a small circle of light far above, reminiscent of the Pantheon. The nameless island in the novel is one of the many Vernian volcanoes that are scattered through his novels and symbolizes a dramatic return to the Mother’s body, the fecund inner fire of the Earth that is the source of life.

The incongruity of birds and bees living inside the dark chamber is parallel to the vibrant picture Verne draws of the birds and creatures at the island Nemo discovers in the center of the open south polar sea. The island motif signifies a microcosm, a model of the world, but also an icon of the individual self. In the novel Aronnax falls asleep in a cave within the volcanic cavern and dreams he is a mollusk in a shell. The dream points to his life aboard the Nautilus, and beyond it to something deeper: the enclosures of ego, and the withdrawal from society both he and Nemo seek. It is a withdrawal that fulfills masculine desire to be free of the feminine world of relatedness, free from society, free from oppression, but at the same time symbolically returning to the omnipotent “magical thinking” of the pre-Oedipal state, or to the womb itself. It is a state Freud called that “oceanic feeling” of oneness with the environment, the feeling C. G. Jung, following Rudolf Otto, would call the numinous, the source of religious awe.

Disney leaves out this symbolism, as he did by omitting the penetration of the south-polar sea. Instead, Volcania and its dish antenna (receiving what

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signals?) make Nemo just another “mad scientist” with a secret industrial complex of the variety that would become a cliché in the next decade of James Bond films. The changes shift the significance from the submarine itself as Nemo’s home, and permit the further changes of Ned’s escape plans. His secrets now directly threatened by his enemies, the film’s Nemo must blow up the base with an atomic bomb. The impressive mushroom cloud that destroys the base is a sign of the enormity of Nemo’s power. But, ironically, the way in which it is used substitutes once again vulnerability for invulnerability. The captain is in retreat and is shot (in the back) by the invading army. Dying, he orders his men to scuttle the Nautilus in what Ned calls a “suicide pact.”

While there is a suggestion at the end of the novel that Nemo is enervated by suicidal despair, Verne makes Nemo’s fate ambiguous. It almost seems as if the captain permitted his passengers to escape, and it certainly does not seem that he intended to steer his boat into the Maelström. But even if his negligence resulted in the Nautilus being pulled down into the whirlpool—the “Navel of the Ocean” as Aronnax calls it (II§22:353)—the action is not simply suicide but an abandonment of himself to a devouring Mother Nature. This is significant in a novel that has shown Nemo’s repeated defiance of Nature and human limitations. But most of this defiance of Nature has been elided from the film. The film’s death scene shows the destruction of a hero who Verne led us to believe was indestructible. Fleischer’s movie shows him instead dogged by bad luck. In the context of the other changes I have pointed out in the film version, suicide can only be read as the final failure of the heroic scientist, the culmination of accidents and incapacity, and the defeat of intellect by brute force.

In the novel, Verne’s hero is last heard lamenting in his darkened library, “Almighty God! Enough! Enough!” (II§22:352). In the film, James Mason’s Nemo seems at peace, relieved by his death when he proclaims: “When the world is ready for a new and better life, all this will someday come to pass—in God’s good time.” On one level, it is the invocation of Verne’s mythical prescience, but it takes on an intensely ambivalent meaning in the context of 1954. We seem intended to conclude that God’s good time has come and he has given the United States nuclear submarines and the atomic bomb because it can succeed where Nemo failed. Nemo says this power source can produce “Enough energy to lift Mankind out of the depths of Hell into Heaven—or to destroy it.” The Atomic Energy Commission could not have written a better commercial for its glamorous new power source. Translated into the Atomic Age and the milieu of the Cold War, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea takes on an eerie nostalgia, a longing for seas not yet swarming with the submarines of industrial superpowers, and yet at the same time, a glamorization of those very warships. And it asks: what of the men who captain them?


  1. See Easthope and Theweleit on this configuration of masculine ego as a fortress of solitude, from which the only relationship possible with others is one of aggressive self-assertion.

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  2. Thus, if it is true that “sometimes a cigar is just a cigar,” it is also true that cigars—by virtue of their shape and their origins in European colonial economies of trade and the class consumption of luxuries—cannot escape the excess meanings they bring into a smoking room. A pipe or cigarette will have similar, but subtly different, associations in the cultural codes of a given time and place, but these also have become associated with variant brands of masculinity: the James Dean roughneck, the archetypal literature professor, or the family man was at one time each given a particular smoke, which became signs of particular types of male power.
  3. I borrow this term from Eve Sedgwick’s Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire. Homosocial eros is distinguished from overtly homosexual eros, constituting the bonds of love through shared objects of desire.
  4. I cannot help but think that the single sentence Verne affords us of the Nautilus’ secret language—“Nautron respoc lorni virch”—might have achieved the same effect as the famous “Gort, Klaatu barada nicto” of the sf film The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951).
  5. Quotations from the novel are taken from Walter James Miller’s “restored” edition, The Annotated Jules Verne: Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. I have provided part and chapter numbers for ease of reference to other editions. The most recent and well-annotated edition—which is also a new translation—is by Emanuel J. Mickel (reviewed in SFS 19:261-63, #57, 1992).
  6. It is worth remembering that a very similar act marked the triumph over Nature’s limitations for the crew of the nuclear U.S.S. Nautilus when it passed under the icecap at the North Pole.


Ammons, Elizabeth. “The Engineer as Cultural Hero and Willa Cather’s First Novel, Alexander’s Bridge.” American Quarterly 38:746-60, Winter 1986.

Bachelard, Gaston. The Psychoanalysis of Fire. Trans. Alan C. M. Ross. Boston: Beacon, 1964.

Easthope, Anthony. What a Man’s Gotta Do: The Masculine Myth in Popular Culture. Rev. edn. Boston: Unwin Hyman, 1990.

Evans, Arthur B. Jules Verne Rediscovered: Didacticism and the Scientific Novel. New York: Greenwood, 1988.

----------. “Science Fiction vs. Scientific Fiction in France: From Jules Verne to J.-H. Rosny Aîné.” SFS 15:1-11, #44, March 1988.

Filene, Peter. “Between a Rock and a Soft Place: A Century of American Manhood.” South Atlantic Quarterly 84:339-55, Autumn 1985.

Frazier, Joel, and Harry Hathorne, “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea: the Filming of Jules Verne’s Classic Science Fiction Novel” Cinefantastique 14:32-53, May 1984.

Jan, Isabelle. “Children’s Literature and Bourgeois Society in France Since 1860,”Yale French Studies 43:57-72, 1969.

Kuhn, Annette. “Cultural Theory and Science Fiction Cinema.” In Alien Zone: Cultural Theory and Contemporary Science Fiction Cinema. Ed. Annette Kuhn. London: Verso, 1990.

Martin, Andrew. The Mask of the Prophet: The Extraordinary Fictions of Jules Verne. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990.

Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire. New York: Columbia UP, 1985.

Sobchack, Vivian. Screening Space: The American Science Fiction Film. 2nd ed. New York: Ungar, 1987.

Theweleit, Klaus. Male Fantasies. 2 vols. Trans. Stephen Conway, Erica Carter, and Chris Turner. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1987.

Twenty-Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. Dir. Richard Fleischer. Disney, 1954.

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Verne, Jules. The Annotated Jules Verne: Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. Ed. Walter James Miller. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1976.


Periodic interest in Jules Verne’s novels has often been sparked by film adaptations. One of the most famous of these is the 1954 Disney film of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. This film may be read as a symbolic text exploring myths of masculinity, science, technology, and power. Reading the film against the original novel reveals a pattern of changes and shifts in the four main characters and their relationships. Produced under the shadow of the Cold War and the launching of the first nuclear submarine—named the Nautilus after Captain Nemo’s famous boat—the Disney film of Leagues shows viewers a Nemo grown far less heroic. The enigmatic captain emerges as a desperate fugitive dogged by military and imperialist powers, rather than the infallible champion of science as a means to freedom from the surface world of European empires and warfare. Disney’s film elevates the American, Ned Land, a working-class sailor and harpooner, to the level of hero, suggesting that brawn and not brains is the true source of male power. Analysis of the symbolic undercurrents of the texts reveals a struggle for the symbolic phallus of the fathers and the Promethean fire of intellectual and technological superiority. Between Verne and Disney, an ideology of individualism and anti-intellectualism struggles with the Vernian romance of technological man. An image of men as cooperating brothers sharing a love for Nature clashes with the image of men as inevitably subordinated to institutional brotherhoods founded on violence, competition, conquest, and the repression of the individual.

Copyright © Zvi Har’El
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