September 2, 2004

Take One

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After being raised near the port of Nantes in 19th century France, an ambitious boy moved to Paris to begin studying law, much as his father once had. During his time there, surrounded by culture and cultivation, he became lured into literary circles that included notable writers such as Victor Hugo and Alexandre Dumas. Undeterred, he completed his law degree, but spent a considerable amount of time conducting research for the stories he would later write. After all, much like many illustrious authors before him, including Shakespeare, he lived without the benefit of a scientist”s erudition or a voyager”s tales. This writer, named Jules Verne, would ultimately compose mesmerizing stories that explored the realms of science and travel, including arguably his most famous, Around the World in 80 Days.

Hopefully, as you read this, your single prior encounter with the story has not been the recently-released Disney production, inexplicably starring Jackie Chan. Over a decade ago, while growing up in Great Britain, I first became introduced to the story by a popular television series based on Verne”s classic novel. Earlier this week, I finally watched Michael Anderson”s dazzling 1956 rendition, which earned 5 Academy Awards, including Best Picture. I recommend it highly.

For those unaware of the story, the account begins in 1872 in London, where a particularly punctual and intrepid man named Phileas Fogg wagers a bet with his fellow card players at a local club that he will be able to traverse the globe and return to London in only 80 days — of course without the benefit of modern luxuries such as flight and instead by such means of transportation as foot, train, hot air balloon, and elephants. As he and his servant Passepartout experience extraordinary adventures all around the world, from Suez to Bombay, Hong Kong to San Francisco, they are constantly being pursued by a detective from London who believes that Fogg is a thief who has recently robbed the Bank of England. The detective attempts to hinder Fogg”s advancement, in hopes that he can easily arrest him as soon as he receives a proper warrant from England. The novel, which cleverly makes the reader skeptical as to Fogg”s innocence as well, builds to a clever twist at the end as Fogg tries to win his bet.

The original cinematic version of Around the World in 80 Days, a three hour epic, was shot in more than 100 natural settings and on 140 special sets. The authenticity thus created made the film well-deserving of its Oscars for cinematography and editing. This is in stark contrast with the cartoonish special effects of this summer”s remake. In the original, in addition to a cast which included David Niven as Fogg and Shirley MacLaine playing Fogg”s love interest, a total of 46 famous personalities of the 1950″s appeared in small parts. Among them were Frank Sinatra, Marlene Dietrich, Ronald Colman, Victor McLaglen, and Buster Keaton. Around the World in 80 Days is often noted for being responsible for the popularity of cameo roles. Adding to the grand production was over 70,000 extras and a reported 8,552 animals, including donkeys, buffalos, and ostriches. Unfortunately, the remake falls far short of the standards set by the original, and by Verne himself, whose stories of wild imagination were actually loosely based on the real life voyage of American globetrotter George Francis Train. As I mentioned before, Verne did not travel much, despite the lavish descriptions of exotic locales in his writings. Often his novels assume the tone of a travel guide, reminiscent of the meticulous images created by Jonathan Swift”s Gulliver”s Travels. Who would guess that, despite the exhilarating scene of Fogg in a hot air balloon in Around the World, Verne himself had only taken one balloon flight in his life, lasting less than half an hour. Perhaps he instead enjoyed living vicariously through the characters he created. After all, as he once wrote to his publisher, ‘I must be slightly off my head. I get caught up in all the extraordinary adventures of my heroes. I regret only one thing, not being able to accompany them pedibus cum jambis.’

In Part II (in two weeks), I will attempt to uncover the connections between Verne, Edgar Allan Poe, HG Welles, and Steven Spielberg.

Archived article by Avash Kalra