Tuesday, June 29, 2010

The Mysterious Island: Jules Verne’s Little World

The recent films Jonah Hex and Knight and Day were forgettable wasted efforts and I have nothing to say about them, so I thought I’d bemoan the absence of imagination in most of this year’s films and pay tribute to that master of the imagination, Jules Verne, whose novel The Mysterious Island (1874) I am currently re-reading.

As my blog title might suggest, I yearn for imaginative films that transport me to other worlds – those little worlds of imagination that films have the power to create. James Cameron’s Avatar features a richly detailed little world. On the moon Pandora, jungle vegetation lights up with bioluminescence; thanator, viperwolves, and hammerhead titanothere, oh, my!, roam the dense jungles; winged banshee swarm over the floating mountains; and the blue Na'vi people live in harmony with all around them. (How nice!) Despite its corny dialogue and borrowed storyline, the film's imagined world has consistently engaged me throughout nine viewings at the movies and on DVD.

Similarly, when I was ten years old, I was totally transported to another little world of the imagination by the film Mysterious Island (1961), directed by Cy Enfield, based on Jules Verne’s classic adventure novel. Enfield also directed Zulu (1964) and wrote the screenplay for Zulu Dawn (1979).

Even today, this movie captures my imagination and engrosses me completely. I love the use of matte paintings to establish an otherworldly atmosphere, but a masterstroke is the use of islands off Spain that provide the real beaches, jungle, and rocky slopes of the island. Unfortunately, the film strays dramatically from the plot of Verne’s novel. There are no giant creatures in the novel, but one of the main attractions of the film is Ray Harryhausen’s magical stop-motion animation that renders a thrilling giant crab (a real crab), an oversized dodo bird (funny but sinister), huge bees (realistically menacing as they seal two islanders into a honeycomb), and a multi-tentcled nautilus (frightening as it is revealed but ultimately a dud). The film is especially memorable for its rich, brooding, deep-toned musical score by Bernard Herrmann.

Although I would love to see a movie version that is more faithful to Verne’s novel, Enfield’s film faithfully adheres to a number of classic elements. Thankfully, the story is not updated. Set during the American Civil War period, its 19th century trappings contrast nicely with its science-fiction elements. As in the novel, five men flee Richmond in a balloon, they end up on an uncharted island, they live in a cave in a granite cliff, they fight off pirates, and they solve the mystery of a series of strange occurrences aiding their survival when they discover Captain Nemo and his Nautilus in a hidden cavern.

Most importantly, the film portrays the main characters pretty closely to the way Verne imagined them, and N.C. Wyeth depicted them in the classic book plates for the 1918 Scribner’s edition, the edition I am reading now. As played by Michael Craig, Cyrus Harding (Cyrus Smith in the original French text) is the zealous Yankee captain, fervently faithful to Lincoln’s cause. (He names the island after Lincoln.) There is no doubt in anybody’s mind, including his own, that he should be the leader. Thus, he keeps his comrades very busy. Pencroft (a sailor in the novel) is a Confederate balloonist, and Percy Herbert plays him as a light-hearted soul who yearns for a good old bottle of rum (tobacco in the novel). The film’s Herbert (Michael Callan) is a young lad who has run away from battle but who proves his mettle by fighting a gigantic dodo bird. Gary Merrill plays Gideon Spilett, a journalist, sparring with Pencroft, not as industrious as his over-achieving comrades. Dan Jackson plays Neb, an African American follower, doggedly faithful to the Captain. (Neb, or Nab, is a former slave freed by Harding in the novel).

A major divergence from the novel is the introduction of two female characters: two upper-class English women washed ashore from a wreck: Lady Mary Fairchild (Joan Greenwood) and her niece, Elena Fairchild (Beth Rogan). The beautifully curvy Rogan, another major attraction in the film when she dresses in a deerskin mini-shirt, provides much-needed companionship for the lusty young Herbert (Michael Callan). And while it adds two women, the movie eliminates another male character: the castaway mutineer Ayrton (a character from Verne’s novel The Children of Captain Grant or In Search of the Castaways (1868), reduced to a savage state after twelve years of isolation on a neighboring island, saved by our heroes from Lincoln Island. (In the highly entertaining Disney fantasy-adventure In Search of the Castaways (1962), with Hayley Mills and Maurice Chevalier, the dastardly Ayrton is played by George Sanders.)

Although the gigantic creatures offer entertaining conflict, they don’t appear in the novel. In the film, they are the results of the crafty Captain Nemo’s (Herbert Lom) experimentation with super-sizing plants and animals in order to end world hunger and promote world peace. (As you might remember from both the novel and the film Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (1870), the bitter Nemo sinks warships in his crusade against war.)

Re-reading the novel after a first reading many years ago, I am struck by two things. First of all, even without gigantic creatures, the story is sheer fantasy. By means of the Captain’s vast knowledge of chemistry and metallurgy, and Herbert’s encyclopedic knowledge of natural history, and by means of that good old Puritan work ethic and heavy doses of Yankee ingenuity, our castaways, at this point in my reading, have been on the island for two years, but they have used the bounteous resources of their island, which includes a wide variety of flora and fauna that you’d have a hard time finding in the same continent, to make bricks, leather, wool thread, iron tools, pottery, glass, a hydraulic mill for their crops of wheat that have multiplied from a single grain found in the lining of Herbert’s coat, a wagon pulled by wild donkeys, a small sailboat, bridges, dams, roads, a stockade, as well as nitroglycerine, enough refined chemicals to fill a deluxe chemistry set, two electric batteries, and telegraph wires linking their stockade with their multi-roomed granite cliff-house. But, second of all, and most importantly, this novel is the creation of an amazing imagination.

Bound by his prolific writing career, his involvement in stage versions of his novels, as well as by finances and family troubles, Jules Verne never traveled around the world he wrote about. (He owned a steam yacht, but the French adventure writer who wrote about the seven seas never sailed farther than the Mediterranean.) His novels are the product of book research and a vivid imagination. Though that kind of armchair research wouldn’t get him published today, I have always been impressed by this writer’s vast imagination.

Since Lincoln Island is wholly the product of Verne’s mind, Verne has the liberty to indulge his fancies and create his little world to his liking. Lying in the South Pacific on a latitude that runs through New Zealand and South America, Lincoln Island incorporates topography, flora, and fauna from both locations: cliffs, beaches, dunes, marshes, woods, rivers, a lake, a volcano, and fields of volcanic rock; eucalyptus, bamboo, conifers, and deciduous trees; and a Noah’s Ark of animal life ranging from seals, dugongs, and sea turtles to capybaras, peccaries, koala bears, kangaroos, foxes, orangutans, wild goats, wild donkeys, and jaguars – as well as every kind of land and sea bird that ever took wing. The island feels like the creation of an excited boy playing an imaginative game in a backyard that can become anything he wants it to be. Harding concludes that the island was part of a continent that sank into the sea. As fantastic as this might be, it is that rich imagination and the fantastical elements of the novel that make it an interesting read.

Another unrealistic element, though it is effective in establishing a Dickensian tone of perfect good cheer in a contrived world where things go according to plan, is that the five castaways, who consider themselves colonists, face only the relatively mild adversity of storms and wild animals throughout most of the novel, until they are attacked by merciless pirates toward the end. So far, everything had succeeded, thanks to the activity of these courageous and intelligent men. Everyone works together so well, there are no quarrels, all of Harding’s experiments work, and he never has any accidents with his nitroglycerine! There they talked, they instructed each other, they made plans, and the rough good-humor of the sailor amused this little world, in which the most perfect harmony had never ceased to reign. But a lot of this perfect harmony is due to the inexhaustible efforts and determined personality of Cyrus Harding, my favorite Verne creation. (I love the driven, enigmatic Captain Nemo too!)

Captain Harding is like some of my neighbors here on Cape Cod – constantly working on their lawns and gardens when they could be going to movies and writing blog posts. Yes, the good Captain hails from Massachusetts, and the fervency he devotes to Lincoln’s cause is matched by a Puritan work ethic so severe you wish he would spend a little time relaxing on the beach. The undisputed leader, he makes the plans and regulates the day’s enterprises. An engineer in civilian life, he has a vast knowledge of chemistry and metallurgy that leads to the fantastic inventions mentioned above. At times bossy and superior, he nevertheless acknowledges the other men’s best skills. He bows to young Herbert’s knowledge of plants; he allows Pencroft to build a small sailboat and sail to a neighboring island even though he is against the undertaking; he honors Spilett’s marksmanship and hunting prowess; and he never interferes with faithful Neb’s cooking. (Although Neb’s role in the colony fits 19th century biases, he does get to shoot pirates and he is treated as an equal.) In addition, there is a tender side to Harding when he patiently nurtures Aryton back from a savage state, helps him put aside his deep-seated guilt and become a trusted member of the colony. But a merciless hardness comes to the fore when his island and all he has established there are threatened by pirates. We have each eight or ten enemies to kill, and they must be killed. When the pirates burn the colonists' crops, mills, and farm sheds, Harding smolders with an internal anger which he commanded with difficulty. Like a typical Yankee, he has trouble expressing his emotions!

Certainly when the encounter with the pirates necessitates killing them to the last man, a dark element invades Verne’s perfect little world. But perhaps that dark side appears earlier in the story. The novel can easily be read as negative commentary on 19th century Anglo-Saxon conquest and industry. The five Robinson Crusoes seem to kill more game than they can possibly eat. They slaughter seals for their hides and blubber and leave the rest to rot. They relent to their rage when their precious Granite House is invaded and ransacked by orangutans by shooting all of them except for one they name Jup, dress in a little jacket, and train as servant. During their very first year on the island, they alter its topography. They use their nitroglycerine to cut a channel in a granite escarpment, lower the level of a lake, and create a waterfall that gouges a new river in the beach. They enjoy the wild woods of the Forests of the Far West, but they don’t waste any time cutting roads through the virgin woods for their wagons.

But the novel also suggests the futility of this industry and conquest, and the superiority of nature’s power over man’s endeavors. At one point, the Captain theorizes that the oceans’ currents have the power to alter climate. (Sounds like The Day After Tomorrow!) Despite the colonists’ creation of a little America, their isolation in the middle of the South Pacific puts them at the mercy of the ocean’s magnitude. Indeed, with all their inventions and watercraft, they never succeed in saving themselves. Finally, when the volcano erupts, their island is destroyed, and with it all that they have created: the boats, the roads, the bridges, the crops, the windmill, the hydraulic lift, the telegraph line, and their beloved Granite House. All is gone, and they end up clinging to a reef in the middle of the vast Pacific.

Or maybe I’m reading too much into it. Perhaps it’s just an adventure novel, but that’s fine with me. This is a work of imagination that achieves a high escapist factor, which is something I can't say about most of the movies I’ve seen this year. I applaud an imagination like Jules Verne’s. I wish Verne were alive today to make movies. But that kind of imaginative power to create absorbing little worlds must be out there somewhere. Unfortunately, it’s not being employed to tell original stories in new films that transport viewers to memorable places.


The Film Doctor said...

Nice post. It occurred to me that by emphasizing Mysterious Island, you are trying to replace shoddy recent movies with something better? How does Island stack up next to Treasure Island or Robinson Crusoe? I'm not as familiar with Jules Verne's work.

Richard Bellamy said...

I suppose Treasure Island is a tighter, better written construct - but I just love Verne's extravagant worlds more than Stevenson's - though Stevenson's classic adventure tale is great too. Parts of Verne's novels are ponderous - too much cataloguing of flora and fauna and chemical processes - but I really get into the vastness of his imagination. (Robinson Crusoe is a bit too ponderous for me and moralizing.) I've read Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea about four times; Nemo is one of literature's great characters. Verne's science is not always realistic, but there's just a tone to his best books that is so readily escapist. Especially in The Mysterious Island I really enjoy the very detailed physical nature of the story - which is absent in a lot of modern fiction (which often relies too heavily on dialogue). Verne is very specific about the setting - the trees, the animals, the look of the island. Also, things happen - and Verne is very specific about how they happen. The description of the destruction performed by the lava in TMI is memorable!

When I checked my facts on Verne on Google, I found all sorts of groups of Verne enthusiasts. It was fun to discover - including that wonderful map I included in this post.