Journal of Film Preservation, No. 62 (April 2001): 25-39

Brian Taves

The Novels and Rediscovered Films of Michel (Jules) Verne

Seldom has an individual both written the stories published under the name of another person, and then proceeded to film those stories—a feat accomplished by Michel Jean Pierre Verne (1861-1925), son of renowned French writer Jules Verne (1828-1905). With the recent discovery and preservation of two of Michel Verne’s movies, this curious and almost unknown chapter in filmic and literary history may now be told for the first time.

In 1857, with success as an author still six years in the future, Jules Verne married a widow with two young daughters. The couple had one offspring of their own, Michel, who grew up as the typical problem child of a famous parent who was more engrossed in his writing than his paternal obligations. Michel’s personality embodied all the rebellious spirit which his father had channeled into writing, and his childish tantrums evolved into adolescent insolence. When, in addition, he began habitually running up huge debts, Jules Verne responded in the manner of the time: first with a mental institution at age thirteen, then to sea at age sixteen, each for a year. At eighteen, Michel left school to elope with an actress, living on a lavish allowance his father funneled through his publisher. In 1883, without mentioning that he was married, Michel seduced and abducted a sixteen year old piano student, and they quickly had two children. Jules Verne was left to support Michel’s abandoned first wife, who soon agreed to a divorce, while the family’s different responses to the remarriage divided them for a time.

Michel began to settle down in his twenties with his second wife, but was still unable to support himself and his children, and was described by his own son as “never easy to get on with.” The mutual love of writing finally brought father Jules and son Michel together, and the two collaborated on literary endeavors. In 1888, after the death of Jules Verne’s long-time editor, Pierre-Jules Hetzel (his son Louis-Jules inherited the firm), Michel took his place as his father’s literary advisor—introducing him to new ideas, and arguing on behalf of socialism and Dreyfus. While still a teenager, Michel Verne had begun fusing his identity with that of his father, reconstructing his name as Michel Jules-Verne (sometimes abbreviated as M. Jules-Verne, convincing a few editors that the “M.” stood for Monsieur). Michel wrote a number of articles about science, and science fiction stories, beginning with an 1888 series for Le Figaro—Supplément littéraire entitled “Zigzags à travers la science.” Proud of his son’s work, the elder Verne did not mind when, the next year, Michel’s short story “Au XXIXe siècle: Journée d’un journaliste américain en 2889” was first published in the United States under the paternal name. Indeed, Jules Verne rewrote it for French publication the next year as “Journée d’un journaliste américain en 2890.” One of Michel’s “Zigzags à travers la science” stories, “Un Express de l’avenir,” was subsequently also published in many countries under the Jules Verne byline.

In the early 1890s, Michel made and marketed what he called the Universal Stove, which failed to sell despite efforts that won his father’s admiration, and the result was the same when he converted to manufacturing bicycles in 1893 with a modern, innovative design. With a job preparing the Universal Exhibition of Paris in 1900, Michel made trips to Russia, Siberia, Silesia, and Rumania for mining interests that finally led to financial success. Afterwards, he ran a paper mill until it burned down; tried banking, but resigned rather than endorse illegal transactions; and sold his share in nickel mines at an advantage at his father’s urging that he become more than a businessman.

Shortly afterward, Jules Verne died, in March 1905, at age 77, leaving nine completed novels and a melange of short stories ready for publication, together with a variety of other manuscripts, some of them incomplete. As Jules Verne had intended, Michel helmed most of these works through to publication over the next nine years, becoming the full-time executor of his father’s literary estate, in this way filling the career gap that had opened when he sold his business interests. Michel, and subsequently his son Jean, claimed he made no changes to Jules Verne’s posthumously published works beyond stylistic polishing, updating, or possible verbal instructions from father to son.

However, when the evidence from the family vaults became public over twenty years ago, it proved that Michel had substantively altered, in both minor and major ways, all the works that appeared under his father’s name after his death, even originating some of them himself. The publisher was aware of Michel’s activities, and regarded the alterations as improvements to the originals. Contemporary literary scholars have had to rewrite the analysis of Verne’s oeuvre to take into account that they were partly the result of a father-son collaboration—which continued in a new medium when Michel began his filmmaking career, a fact entirely overlooked until now.

In 1910, Michel began his final “Jules Verne” book, the long volume L’Étonnante aventure de la mission Barsac. His springboard was his father’s Voyage d’études, a half-dozen sketchy chapters beginning a novel of exploration in Africa, colonialism, and esperanto, together with a page of factual notes about the region copied down and entitled Une ville saharienne. Michel abandoned writing the book less than a year later, after the death of his son, Georges, at age 25, and required the collaboration of a journalist when he eventually resumed work on the first part of the novel, before completing it on his own.

By spring 1913, Michel submitted L’Étonnante aventure de la mission Barsac to Louis-Jules Hetzel for serialization. However, with an exaggerated conclusion celebrating “le grand mot, le mot sublime, le roi des mots, le mot: Fin,” and the subtitle “Le Dernier voyage extraordinaire,” Michel had clearly decided to preclude the possibility of any further posthumous works in his father’s name. Eight years after Jules Verne’s death, it might have been problematic for Michel to continue publishing works under his father’s name (even though several Jules Verne manuscripts remained that would not appear in print for another 75 years). Michel may have also recognized that he was better at embellishing the existing texts of his father than he was at originating books on his own, as he had with L’Étonnante aventure de la mission Barsac.

By then, Michel was ready to make the transition from ghost-writer to adapter; his first known mention of the possibility of filmmaking is in a letter to his publisher dated April 16, 1908. Michel grasped that a new medium might be profitable and well suited for presenting his father’s unique stories. Movies offered Michel the opportunity to end the anonymity that he and Louis-Jules Hetzel had conspired to preserve: while still retaining the Jules Verne identity in the supposed source of his films, Michel could finally step forward as a creator in his own right. As well, his entrepreneurial instincts, evident in his earlier business career, were reawakened by the prospect of joining a new, alluring industry, open to independent, individual efforts.

By this time, thirteen short screen adaptations of Jules Verne had been made around the world, and they had begun to move beyond the trick film stage of Georges Méliès, Segundo de Chomon, and Louis Feuillade in such movies as LE VOYAGE DANS LA LUNE (1902), VOYAGE AU CENTRE DE LA TERRE (1909), and VERS LE PÔLE SUD / AVENTURES DU CAPITAINE HATTERAS (1909), respectively. Not only had such filmmakers vivified Verne’s science fiction, but his adventure stories had been adapted for the cinema as well; in 1908, Essanay produced MICHAEL STROGOFF, with a remake from Edison in 1910. These two films were derived not so much from the 1876 novel as from various well-known theatrical versions. Jules Verne had begun this trend himself with several successful stage adaptations of his prose fiction, and many imitators followed suit. Verne probably was aware, before his death, that his stories had become an active source of inspiration for motion pictures—although it is not known whether he actually ever attended a screening. He had long understood the potential of sound and visual reproduction of events: in his 1888 novel Le Château des Carpathes, Verne wrote of an obsessed baron who owns an invention that allows him to listen to recordings of his unrequited love, a deceased opera singer, and to simultaneously project her image to achieve a ghostly, chimerical effect. Michel had also expressed a similar interest in the visual medium; his July 21, 1888 article for Le Figaro described a photographic process that produced an imaginary woman.

Michel decided there was an opportunity, with films gradually becoming longer, to make spectacular, big budget, high-quality, full-length versions of his father’s novels, without the inherent limitations encumbering short films or stage presentations. Michel believed he was the one to make these live-action features, planning from the outset to script, produce, and direct himself. Forming the company “Les Films Jules Verne” in Paris, his plans were announced and advertised in many countries.

Michel sold to Société Éclair exclusive rights throughout the world to films of Jules Verne’s stories, in exchange for a pledge of funding and distribution, and a large fee. This seemed an ideal connection; Éclair was an expanding, prosperous firm, with offices opening around the globe—appropriate, given Verne’s appeal. The properties initially mentioned in press accounts as prospective productions included Voyage au centre de la terre (1864), Verne’s lunar novels (De la terre à la lune [1865] and Autour de la lune [1870]), and his arctic stories (“Un Hivernage dans les glaces” [1855] and Voyages et aventures du Capitaine Hatteras [1867]). Although the practicality of filming some of these stories might seem questionable, the versions by Méliès, Chomon, and Feuillade, set in all of these regions, had already proven the possibility of producing them. There was also word that some drafts left by Jules Verne, and not yet published, might be used in bringing some unknown and original stories to the public through the medium of film—indicating Michel’s interest in using some of the four novels and three short stories he had left unpublished or, just as likely, continuing to fabricate his own stories under his father’s name. The first three pictures actually announced as in preparation were VINGT MILLE LIEUES SOUS LES MERS, LES INDES NOIRES, and the premier movie of the “Les Films Jules Verne” series: LES ENFANTS DU CAPITAINE GRANT.

Michel was producer of LES ENFANTS DU CAPITAINE GRANT, from a best-selling 1867 novel that Jules Verne had turned into a popular play in 1878 and which had already been filmed in 1901 by Ferdinand Zecca. (The novel would later serve as the basis for a 1936 Soviet feature, DETI KAPITANO GRANTA; 1969 and 1977 movie and television versions, respectively, of a Spanish zarzuela, LOS SOBRINOS DEL CAPITAN GRANT; a 1981 French animated television version on FR3; and most recently and definitively a seven-hour Russian-Bulgarian television mini-series in 1985, AUF DER SUCHE NACH KAPITAN GRANT—although the best remembered adaptation is the 1962 Disney version, IN SEARCH OF THE CASTAWAYS.) Production of Éclair’s version began in 1913, but abruptly ended on June 22 with the sudden death of director Victorin-Henri Jasset. Production resumed later in the year, filming around Cherbourg, with Henry Rousell directing and a cast composed of well-known artists in Paris theaters (M. Dussoudeix, Michel Gilbert, Denise Maural, M. Delamarcie, M. Daragnan, M. Jordan, M. Delmonde), with at least one player, Josette Andriot, returning from the cast Jasset had assembled. Éclair’s exotic “glass house” studio in Epinay-sur-Seine, the garden estate of the celebrated naturalist Etienne de Lacépède, allowed shooting the New Zealand scenes involving 200 Maori warriors painted green for the cameras.

Released in 1914, LES ENFANTS DU CAPITAINE GRANT proved popular, and it is preserved with its original tints at the Nederlands Filmmuseum (in their Desmet collection) in the Dutch release version. The plot closely follows the main incidents of the novel but is tightly telescoped to fit the six part, five reel, 65 minute running time. LES ENFANTS DU CAPITAINE GRANT was a big budget adventure film, accenting the action and the incidents of peril in the round-the-world journey. The chases are startling, such as Robert’s pursuit of a train about to be derailed by Ayrton’s gang. Some of the effects, such as the miniatures, are effective, but the brief shots of Robert in the talons of the giant condor reveal a bird distinctly undersized to carry such weight (although an actual stuffed condor was used). LES ENFANTS DU CAPITAINE GRANT seems to have been created with the expectation of audience familiarity with the novel, relating the plot in a rather sketchy fashion; on May 15, 1914, Variety noted that there are “some scenes that one cannot readily understand by looking at the film in the running ....” With the long, explanatory intertitles, the film has the flavor of a pageant of illustrations of the book rather than a narrative adapted to the screen. The acting is variable; Paganel’s eccentricity and fallibility become the chief source of amusement, while the performers playing Robert and Mary are clearly much too old for their teenage roles. The scenery is effectively varied, if never quite convincingly unique to the region (especially the dull ascent over the Andes), but the film does create a sense of spectacle.

Michel may have been dissatisfied with a number of elements. Most notably, the characterizations are nearly lost (even Disney’s 1962 version, essentially a children’s film, was more credible). Only some of the humor of Paganel, and the bravery of Robert, are perceptible, while the rest of the characters are little more than names; for instance, there is no preparation for the concluding engagement of Mary and Captain Mangles. Without the intertitles, Ayrton’s villainy and double identity as Ben Joyce would be ambiguous.

Because of the delays in production, several other Jules Verne features in different countries appeared almost simultaneously with LES ENFANTS DU CAPITAINE GRANT, including the Popular Plays and Players version of MICHAEL STROGOFF (preserved at the Library of Congress). The worldwide release of DIE REISE UM DIE WELT / DIE JAGD NACH DER DE HUNDERT PFUNDNOTE (Germany, 1913, with a remake in 1919) probably precluded production of the potentially expensive version Le Tour du monde en quatre-vingts jours (1874) announced by Éclair in 1914. Éclair’s anticipated VINGT MILLE LIEUES SOUS LES MERS could not be realized because of the cost and the technical problems of creating a convincing screen version, finally overcome in 1916 when Universal produced TWENTY THOUSAND LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA with the first significant scenes in a fictional film actually shot beneath the waves. Michel discovered he could not enforce his exclusive screen rights to his father’s novels in other countries, any more than his father had been able to stop decades of pirated editions of his books. Briefly there was even a question of whether Michel’s rights included overseas distribution of his film adaptations of Jules Verne books. Just as THE CHILDREN OF CAPTAIN GRANT was released in England in February, 1914, the British publishing firm of Sampson Low told Éclair that their original translation rights included film rights, but when Louis-Jules Hetzel reminded Éclair that Sampson Low had never represented theatrical or cinematic rights in Verne’s work, the error was quickly acknowledged.

With production in France declining since the outbreak of war, Michel decided to revert to his original plan to take over the writing and directing chores himself, in addition to production. “Les Films Jules Verne” was a company where he hired the cameramen and would even supervise the costumes, in the words of his son Jean. After the failure to get such elaborate productions as LE TOUR DU MONDE EN QUATRE-VINGTS JOURS and VINGT MILLE LIEUES SOUS LES MERS started, Michel may have felt compelled to try a more modest film, one from a story that he unquestionably controlled. LA DESTINÉE DE JEAN MORÉNAS (1916) appeared two years after LES ENFANTS DU CAPITAINE GRANT, and was a sharp contrast. Precisely how Michel’s second film survived the years is unknown, but it turned up in private hands in the mid-1990s, and the Société Jules Verne financed purchase and restoration, issuing the film on video in 1998. There is internal evidence that it may have been originally partly hand-colored, especially in a scene by the ocean; the restoration by Lobster Films is fully tinted following the original print.

In the opening, the two Morénas brothers are at home with their widowed mother: Jean studies, while Pierre idly dreams of easy wealth, preferring to spend his time at the tavern. A flashback to childhood reveals a triangle: both brothers have long been in love with Marguerite, goddaughter of their uncle Tisserand. Pierre’s delusions of discovering a fortune cause him to abruptly leave home, but when his hopes remain unfulfilled, he returns to rob and kill his uncle. This theme of the evil influence of gold, and its social impact, resounds throughout Verne’s oeuvre, especially in three posthumously published novels coauthored by Michel: Le Volcan d’or (1906), La Chasse au météore (1908), and Les Naufragés du Jonathan.

As he was dying, Tisserand wrote a note identifying his nephew as the murderer—and in Pierre’s absence it is interpreted as implicating Jean. During the trial and ultimate conviction and imprisonment of Jean, his mother falls ill and dies. Pierre later returns, now wealthy thanks to his uncle’s fortune (although no one seems to notice the coincidence) and discovers to his dismay the consequences of his deed. After marrying Marguerite and beginning a family with her, the guilt-stricken Pierre finally conceives a successful plan for Jean’s escape.

However, unknown to Pierre, Jean has decided that, before leaving the country, he must see home one more time. Entering through the hidden door he was shown as a child, Jean sees Pierre commit robbery and attempt another murder. Jean simultaneously realizes that it was his brother, in disguise, who freed him from the galleys—and that his brother killed his uncle. Jean also observes Marguerite and one of her and Pierre’s children, and for their sake is willing to voluntarily assume responsibility for Pierre’s crimes. However, this time Marguerite also saw Pierre—and her realization of his guilt causes Pierre to place a gun to his head and fire. In the closing scene, Jean, now free, at last proposes to Marguerite, offering to be a father to his brother’s children.

For a neophyte filmmaker, Michel demonstrates directorial assurance and a surprising visual ability in LA DESTINÉE DE JEAN MORÉNAS. A few of his scenes are clearly modeled on the illustrations that had accompanied the publication of the original short story, but he prefers a more naturalistic approach, not designing his visuals according to the engravings, a technique pioneered by Méliès and Chomon. Michel grasps the use of space in filmic, rather than stage terms, and the shots edit together in terms of angles, framing, and alternating from long shots to medium shots to close ups. He frequently cuts on movement and gesture, and uses a mirror in shots of the second robbery to show the action from two perspectives. Michel understands the use of parallel action (if not quite parallel editing), diverging to tell two stories in different locales simultaneously: Pierre has left home and goes away, leaving Jean and Marguerite to fall in love; during the trial, sentencing, and imprisonment of Jean, his mother dies and is buried. The abundant exteriors are well-chosen and are used in a very natural manner, as are the sets; the repeated use of one interior does not become stagy or dull. The acting is skillful and a distinct improvement over LES ENFANTS DU CAPITAINE GRANT, despite the previous film’s larger cast of name players; none of the performers in the movies Michel directed enjoyed sufficient reputation to demand screen credit.

On the other hand, at least at this early stage in his career as a director, Michel lacked the necessary range of visual devices for successful feature filmmaking. Initially, his direct cutting to scenes of a character’s thoughts is visualized in a clever manner, but these mental images soon become tiresome with overuse. Only rarely does Michel resort to the more traditional use of a split screen to convey Pierre’s agonizing over Jean’s imprisonment, and an inset to capture Jean’s fear of returning to the galleys. There is also an excessive reliance on intertitles (which are, perhaps surprisingly, not drawn from the text of the story) when visuals are already successfully advancing the narrative; Michel’s fondness for the written word despite working in the new visual medium of film is obvious.

LES ENFANTS DU CAPITAINE GRANT had certainly been more “professionally” directed; for example, there was throughout that movie more action within the frame. On the other hand, the direction is simultaneously more theatrical, with long takes instead of the briefer scenes favored by Michel. There is a greater range of sets and exteriors in the more lavishly-produced LES ENFANTS DU CAPITAINE GRANT, most of which appear only once in the travels, without some of the repetitions of LA DESTINÉE DE JEAN MORÉNAS. Yet, LA DESTINÉE DE JEAN MORÉNAS manages to use its settings more atmospherically; those in LES ENFANTS DU CAPITAINE GRANT tumble by so quickly and change so frequently that they have less impact. The intertitles in LES ENFANTS DU CAPITAINE GRANT are used almost exclusively for descriptive, narrative purposes, whereas in LA DESTINÉE DE JEAN MORÉNAS they convey the tone, accentuate certain points, and fill in details of characterization.

LA DESTINÉE DE JEAN MORÉNAS is certainly the most personal of Michel’s screen works, and he seems to have been particularly devoted to this story and to the task of “rewriting” it. LA DESTINÉE DE JEAN MORÉNAS is not once but twice removed from the work of Jules Verne: a film adaptation of Michel’s own complete prose reworking of his father’s story. One of Jules Verne’s first completed literary efforts, entitled “Pierre-Jean,” was written in 1852, although it remained unpublished. In the story, Bernardon, a visitor to the galleys, is horrified at the conditions and fate of the prisoners, and takes pity on one upstanding young man (Pierre-Jean), doomed to premature death, and facilitates his escape. The title name is derived from reversing the name “Jean-Pierre” given to the guillotine in an old song, but Jean and Pierre also became the two middle names Jules Verne gave to Michel—perhaps indicating a special meaning this early work would have for both father and son. Although Jules Verne never intended to publish “Pierre-Jean,” Michel decided to include it in the posthumous anthology of his father’s uncollected short stories, Hier et demain (1910).

In revising “Pierre-Jean,” Michel was told by Hetzel to downplay the social comment, and through enlarging the story by about a third, Michel shifted the emphasis completely, giving it a melodramatic flavor at the expense of its protest of prison conditions. In other posthumous stories, Michel had already grafted subplots and new characters of his own onto his father’s original works. In Michel’s hands, “Pierre-Jean” became “La Destinée de Jean Morénas,” gaining greater complexity as Michel splits the single character of “Pierre-Jean” into two entirely separate individuals, one good brother (Jean) and the other evil (Pierre), doppelgänger-fashion, with the virtuous brother destined to suffer imprisonment for the sins of his sibling. (“Morénas” was a name Michel had originated when revising “Pierre-Jean,” and he also used it as the alias of the heroine in L’Étonnante aventure de la mission Barsac, who discovers her stepbrother is, like Pierre Morénas, of fundamentally evil nature.) In the film and story of Jean Morénas, Michel seems to have strived to produce a character study, perhaps in response to the frequent criticism that his father’s works emphasized action, but without recognizing the rather clichéd pattern of brothers as polar opposites.

Since Michel was already planning films by 1908, he may well have had a screen version in mind even as he tackled revision of the manuscript of “Pierre-Jean.” Six years after the publication of “La Destinée de Jean Morénas,” in creating the movie, Michel offered a version substantially different from his own prose, as if he were perhaps dissatisfied with what he had written. Even less of the father’s original remains: the only incidents in the movie having their origin in “Pierre-Jean” are the unjust imprisonment and the escape, now a subsidiary element (with Bernardon actually Pierre in disguise).

In effectively retelling “Pierre-Jean” a second time, Michel fills in more detail, elaborating and extending the plot, organizing it in a new manner. Some of the incidents in the movie from Michel’s version of the story are taken from brief sentences and enlarged into full-scale scenes, such as the early discovery of a passage into the inn. In the film, Tisserand’s goddaughter Marguerite is an ambivalent character, strangely impassive as she is alternately the bride of one brother, then of the other, accepting either as husband. She dreamed of Pierre after his departure when courted by Jean, recalls Jean when Pierre returns, and after her husband’s suicide she thinks of him when Jean offers to marry her. In the short story, her affections have more consistency: initially uninterested in Jean when she comes of marriageable age, after he is imprisoned she finally responds to the “un peu brutal” character of Pierre. One of the few passages deleted from the film that appeared in both prose versions is the only recognizably Vernian element, Jean’s use of a diving helmet that resembles a buoy to conceal his escape from the prison harbor.

The major change between Michel’s story and his film is in reversing the ending—in the story, Jean sacrificially accepts a return to prison to secure the happiness of his brother and Marguerite; whereas in the movie Pierre’s murderous inclinations are exposed. Only by proving Jean’s innocence is LA DESTINÉE DE JEAN MORÉNAS more like “Pierre-Jean,” which had concluded with the prisoner’s escape. However, the downbeat conclusion had also been the only aspect of “La Destinée de Jean Morénas” that gave substance to Michel’s version of the story. Without the tragedy of Jean’s doom, the trite aspects of the story become all the more obvious, and indeed Michel almost seems to concentrate on the most banal elements in the film, with the slow tempo making it seem stretched from a naturally shorter length.

The movie and the short story had also followed a different narrative pattern. “La Destinée de Jean Morénas” had begun in the present, opening in the prison, and gradually filled in past events before bringing together the results of both past and present in the conclusion. These temporal shifts had served to conceal the lack of any true surprises in the plot revelations. In the film, Michel proceeds chronologically, interrupting with insets to show the thinking of the characters by sometimes utilizing brief flashbacks. This alteration in the narrative organization eliminates any veneer of suspense or uncertainty; for instance, in the story, Pierre simply disappears on his 25th birthday, and nothing more is heard from him, while in the film, Pierre’s activities after leaving home are shown.

LA DESTINÉE DE JEAN MORÉNAS fits within the early examples of the realist tradition, outlined by Richard Abel in French Cinema, The First Wave, 1915-1929: a handful of characters in simple, stereotypical settings, a sensitivity to the outdoors, natural light, location shooting, and stories related to particular regions. Michel may have believed that a melodrama was likely to be popular, but LA DESTINÉE DE JEAN MORÉNAS lacks any of the elements of adventure or science fiction associated by the public with the Verne name. LA DESTINÉE DE JEAN MORÉNAS was hardly the only Verne story possible on a low budget: filming the 1888 shipwreck novel, Deux ans de vacances, for instance, requires merely a stretch of sandy beach, some small ships, and just over a dozen actors, most of them juveniles (as demonstrated in the 1969 Australian Verne movie STRANGE HOLIDAY). Nor was “La Destinée de Jean Morénas” the only one of the posthumous stories to which Michel unquestionably owned the rights and that offered filmic potential.

The fact that this was the first film Michel made on his own, and that it was so unlikely a property, indicates it was probably not so much a commercial decision as a personal one. The motivation that may have impelled Michel to make the film, just as he had earlier rewritten “Pierre-Jean,” is indicated by Michel’s addition of a nephew’s murder of his uncle to both the story and film—a plot fictionalizing a very real family trauma. Jules Verne’s only brother, Paul, had three sons and a daughter; the eldest, Gaston (1860-1940), one year Michel’s senior, seemed to have a bright future, holding a position in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Gaston and his uncle Jules were fond of one another, but Gaston had begun to evince a persecution complex, for which he was under treatment and the watchful eye of his family, when he abruptly went to Jules’s home and shot him in the leg on March 9, 1886. Michel rushed to be at his father’s side and took charge during his recovery as the event was covered by the press around the world. Gaston was committed to an asylum for the rest of his life, but he often was allowed to visit relations and called on his uncle many times without ever speaking of the shooting or the permanent limp that was its residue. Just as “La Destinée de Jean Morénas,” story and film, leaves the precise motive for choosing to murder the uncle sketchy, so too was Gaston’s purpose. He was reported to have thought he was somehow drawing attention to his uncle, while the author’s grandson, Jean Verne, speculated Gaston may have felt smothered by his uncle’s fame. Michel’s additions to “La Destinée de Jean Morénas” perhaps reflected his resentment of the favoritism shown to Gaston when both were young, as Gaston seemed to be the more promising of the two boys. Michel may have felt like the innocent Jean, who had been mistakenly incarcerated, while the true villain, Pierre, was at liberty until his true nature was exposed—as Gaston had been free to shoot his uncle. Providing an explanation of the family tragedy, by analogy, in prose and film, the story and movie of Jean Morénas revealed Michel’s feelings about it for all who realized the link.

Despite the seemingly narrow appeal of LA DESTINÉE DE JEAN MORÉNAS, there was not the delay in production for the firm “Les Films Jules Verne” that had followed LES ENFANTS DU CAPITAINE GRANT in 1914. Instead, Michel wrote, directed, and produced three more films (all of which appear to be lost), thus turning out one film every year for four consecutive years, from 1916-1919, approaching his initial goal in 1914 of making two motion pictures annually. Unlike LA DESTINÉE DE JEAN MORÉNAS, but similar to LES ENFANTS DU CAPITAINE GRANT, all of Michel’s subsequent films were from the genres more closely associated with his father.

The next movie was one of the titles first promised in the original announcements in 1913: LES INDES NOIRES was finally released in 1917 as a collaboration with Édition Aubert. Aubert was expanding into production, offering partial financing to independents as well as a guaranteed distribution outlet, releasing in conjunction with Éclair. LES INDES NOIRES, a four reeler, was based on an 1877 Jules Verne work, relating how the reopening of an abandoned coal mine leads to the construction of a subterranean city near an enormous underground lake. This subject may have had a special appeal to Michel, given his own experience starting up mines in eastern Europe that had first brought him prosperity. Yet the production again raises questions about Michel’s filmmaking logic. Although Les Indes noires was one of Verne’s better-selling novels, with mild science fiction elements, it was not nearly as famous as another story with a similar setting, Voyage au centre de la terre, that Michel had planned to film and certainly would have been easier to produce and likely more popular.

Mining was again part of the setting of his next film, and in it Michel returned to the theme of greed that had been so central to LA DESTINÉE DE JEAN MORÉNAS and several of the posthumous novels. The five-reel L’ÉTOILE DU SUD (1918) is an African adventure, relating the discovery and theft of an enormous diamond (the “star”) in the South African diamond works. The 1884 book (which had sold poorly) mocks the expectation of Jules Verne’s readers for science fiction by having the story pivot on the belief of a likable young inventor, Cyprien Méré, that he has manufactured the diamond. Instead, it turns out to be the product of ordinary natural forces, although no less valuable, and Méré ultimately wins his fortune. Michel had demonstrated his own interest in an African setting with his novel L’Étonnante aventure de la mission Barsac and had first written of the possibility of diamond manufacturing in his June 2, 1888 article for Le Figaro in his series, “Zigzags à travers la science.”

In the production of L’ÉTOILE DU SUD, the area around Toulon, the town where Michel lived, doubled convincingly for Africa, using local blacks and aged lions to embellish the atmosphere. One scene included thirty blacks in a dug-out canoe on the wild river Verdon above Grasse—reminiscent of Michel’s original publicity announcing that he would film on distant locations, directing everywhere in the world, often in very dangerous situations. (Actually, all of Michel’s movies were shot in southeast France.) Despite the lack of true authenticity, audience reaction was extremely positive, at least when L’ÉTOILE DU SUD was shown in Geneva in 1920, with the public applauding as Méré overcame his vicissitudes (according to the April 17, 1920, issue of Revue Suisse du cinema).

Michel’s last film is the only one of the four he made entirely on his own which is not a surprising choice, and was probably the most costly to produce of all his films. The six-reel LES CINQ CENTS MILLIONS DE LA BÉGUM (1919) is science fiction, from a novel originally written in the wake of the Franco-Prussian War, a conflict that was probably a formative event in young Michel’s life. The novel reflected a simple duality between good and evil: a bequest from an Indian Begum financing the construction of rival cities. One city is led by a French humanitarian, the other under the dictatorship of a German militarist, and the 1879 novel may have seemed acutely prophetic and appropriate in the era of another conflict between France and Germany. In a letter to Louis-Jules Hetzel on July 16, 1915, Michel had reserved all film or theatrical rights to the novel, and the movie was shot in 1918. However, it was not released until October 1919, by which time wartime emotions may have subsided sufficiently to diminish its propaganda value and topicality (in the way that Universal’s TWENTY THOUSAND LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA had been released at the height of wartime concern over submarine attacks).

Like the earlier LES INDES NOIRES, with its construction of a city inside of a coal mine, LES CINQ CENTS MILLIONS DE LA BÉGUM again demonstrated the concern with an urban community and the tensions surrounding its construction. The motif was also apparent in Michel’s prose, from the rewriting of his father’s novel En Magellanie into Les Naufragés du Jonathan, to his own original stories “Au XXIXe siècle: Journée d’un journaliste américain en 2889” and L’Étonnante aventure de la mission Barsac. The latter novel had displayed an enormous debt to Les Cinq cents millions de la Bégum, revisiting the idea of a super-scientific city used for evil purpose, but without the compensatory, benevolent vision of in an alternative city offered in Les Cinq cents millions de la Bégum.

Michel’s last two films share another unusual factor in common: both were from novels that were the only other examples of prose collaborations by his father with another writer, besides the stories Michel himself had rewritten. Pascal Grousset (1844-1909), known by his pseudonyms of André Laurie in fiction and Philippe Daryl in nonfiction, conceived the plot for Les Cinq cents millions de la Bégum (1879), and the success of the covert pairing led to another similar match five years later on L’Étoile du sud, although Laurie and Jules Verne received joint credit for a third collaboration, L’Épave du Cynthia (1885), that was largely from Grousset’s pen. Their mutual publisher, Pierre-Jules Hetzel, had brought Grousset and Verne together in 1877, when Grousset was a young, untried author with many literary notions similar to Verne. Although the arrangement might seem unfair, it was necessary because Grousset was in exile from his homeland for having been involved in a political duel and as a leader of the Paris Commune who had escaped from New Caledonia. Grousset returned to France after the amnesty of 1880 and wrote a series of pioneering science fiction novels of his own, and for many years his works were regularly serialized alongside those of Verne in Hetzel’s Magasin d’éducation et de récréation—and Grousset also gave Jules Verne’s funeral oration.

Why did Michel select two of the Verne-Grousset novels, of the over sixty novels and many additional short stories by his father that he could have chosen? Michel and Grousset were complimentary influences on Jules Verne, both of whom could be regarded as his “literary sons.” Michel’s interest in writing began in 1886, the year after Grousset’s last collaboration with his father, so Michel may be seen as Grousset’s successor—providing Jules Verne with the infusion of fresh ideas that he needed. Both were significantly more leftist and radical in their politics than was Verne, and Grousset and Michel preferred science fiction that was more futuristic and less limited by the possibilities of contemporary technology. Grousset may have served as a model for Michel’s aspirations, with Michel hoping to emerge from his father’s shadow as a creator in his own right, just as Grousset did after his collaborations with Jules Verne.

Problems had arisen on Éclair’s side less than two years after signing their contract with Michel; with the company’s personnel mobilized upon the outbreak of war, operations did not resume until January 1915. By 1917, Éclair was regaining its foothold, releasing a multiple-reel film weekly, but by the Armistice, it was struggling once more. Five years after Michel signed a contract with Éclair, they ended their association at a time when business was slack, and Michel sought to join forces with another, more prosperous firm. As late as 1920, Éclair owed Michel 25,000 francs, a sizable sum, and in 1922 he received a payment of some 4000 francs. Although films produced by small firms and independents accounted for the majority of French productions, Michel himself always lacked sufficient funds. Despite once having as many as 300 extras in Marseilles at a time for a film, his younger son Jean wrote that Michel “never had enough backing to do things properly, even in those heroic days of the cinema.” None of “Les Films Jules Verne” produced, directed, and written under Michel’s aegis saw the worldwide distribution that LES ENFANTS DU CAPITAINE GRANT had achieved in Éclair’s heyday.

Other factors influenced Michel’s selection of his father’s stories to present on the screen. Contrary to the thoughts of Louis-Jules Hetzel, Michel expressed the belief (in a letter of June 24, 1914) that films would not only be profitable themselves but serve the very practical purpose of promoting sales of his father’s books. Michel may have been especially interested in promoting Jules Verne novels that were becoming forgotten (although widely translated in their own time), as opposed to those whose sales continued to be strong. Moreover, Pierre-Jules Hetzel’s 1875 contract with Jules Verne had ensured that he received little new payment for editions of his stories published prior to 1876, which encompassed most of the best-known books. Michel’s pecuniary interest was in publicizing those novels from which he would receive the greatest remuneration—precisely the later, lesser-known novels from which he chose four of the five titles he filmed. However, from the standpoint of the potential audiences for his films, such a selection was to Michel’s detriment. For a filmmaker whose prime asset was the public recognition of the Verne name and its use as the main selling point, Michel generally minimized this advantage by deciding to film relatively obscure stories, such as the collaborations with Grousset (L’ÉTOILE DU SUD and LES CINQ CENTS MILLIONS DE LA BÉGUM), and especially the one from his own pen (LA DESTINÉE DE JEAN MORÉNAS). Of the more than three hundred adaptations of Verne produced for movies and television around the world, Les Indes noires, L’Étoile du sud, and Les Cinq cents millions de la Bégum have each only been filmed on one other occasion, in 1964, 1969, and 1978, respectively; “La Destinée de Jean Morénas” has never returned to the screen.

As a result of a fatal accident during the shooting of LES CINQ CENTS MILLIONS DE LA BÉGUM, Michel Verne had to ask his son, Jean, a lawyer and future judge, to defend him in a lawsuit. In 1920, an arm of Éclair produced MATHIAS SANDORF (1921), a nine-part serial also released in feature form, made as an expensive superproduction to compete in overseas markets—a contrast with Michel’s low-budget efforts. Subsequently, the company “Les Films Jules Verne” was wound up, and Michel sold his cinematographic rights in block. However, authority to film Michel Strogoff was sold separately, to Sapene, the Director of Le Matin, the journal that had first published L’Étonnante aventure de la mission Barsac, and a three hour epic version of Michel Strogoff was in production in the very year of Michel’s death, 1925. For a time Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer bought Verne rights in the 1920s for their THE MYSTERIOUS ISLAND (1929), and eventually as a result of the various transfers it became too formidably expensive for the family to try to assert any control over Verne films. Perhaps the last on-screen last reference to these rights was in the 1937 Hollywood version of Joseph Ermolieff’s French and German pictures of Michel Strogoff, THE SOLDIER AND THE LADY, noting “motion picture rights assigned by Society Jules Verne.”

Since three of the five films Michel made were from collaborations, Michel’s filmmaking seems to have manifested the same urge to rewrite his father that had already been carried to fruition in the posthumously published works. Had Michel’s goal been one of honoring Jules Verne and his literary legacy, he would have filmed stories that best reflected that vision. Instead, during the twenty years he outlived his father, Michel rewrote his work, first in prose, then on screen, and there was little difference between the manner in which he undertook both tasks. Michel originated ideas and imposed his own changes, and his work in prose and on screen represents a basic continuum. Michel is an example of filial intervention, rather than the mask of filial devotion he presented to the world and that the family maintained for seventy years. Although the evidence is inadequate to reach any final conclusions with only two surviving films, there is no reason to think that Michel Verne has any true distinction purely as a filmmaker. Rather, Michel’s importance is to the study of adaptations, providing a unique example of a writer, adapter, and filmmaker. In Michel’s case, the question is not the fidelity of the film to the source, but to what degree the source was related to the actual writings of Jules Verne. Through his films, Michel extended his own literary work, and that of Pascal Grousset, that combine in what is now recognized as the franchise known as Jules Verne.

The author wishes to acknowledge the assistance of Hervé Dumont; Jean-Michel Margot; Philippe Burgaud and the Société Jules Verne; and Stephen Michaluk, Jr., my coauthor on The Jules Verne Encyclopedia (Scarecrow, 1996).

Brian Taves (Ph.D., University of Southern California) is on the staff of the Motion Picture/Broadcasting/Recorded Sound Division of the Library of Congress, and is the author of three books; he is presently writing a volume on the 300 adaptations of Jules Verne in film and television from around the world.

Copyright © Zvi Har’El
$Date: 2007/12/26 17:46:09 $