Journey to the Center of the Earth – and the films it inspired

Hollywood’s continued preoccupation with Jules Verne’s 1864 novel Journey to the Center of the Earthis a bit of a puzzle. Yes, the book provides a certain potential for visual razzle-dazzle, and any excuse to travel to a lost world inhabited by dinosaurs is a good one, yet outside of the basic premise, the novel has little to offer in the way of plot or characterization. The story is almost as much a travelogue as an adventure, and a modern reader may frequently find himself wondering whether the many strange sights encountered on the journey are really enough to justify plowing through until the end. It is not a bad book exactly, but it lacks the charm and humor that make Conan Doyle’s The Lost World not only readable but fun all these decades later.

Having written his novels in the 19th century, Jules Verne is often called the “grandfather of science fiction” (or other similar terms), but some of his defenders prefer to call his work “scientific fiction” because of the author’s exhaustive research and dedication for writing books that stayed within the bounds of scientific probability. In his own time, Verne’s novels were called “Extraordinary Voyages” (a term coined by the author’s publisher), and he specialized in writing just what those two words seems to convey: descriptions of unusual and exotic journeys to distant lands, filled with descriptions of landscapes and wildlife, but not necessarily with much drama.

Part of the problem is no doubt due to poor English translation from the original French, and over the course of the past decade or so, there has been a movement to rehabilitate Verne’s reputation with English-speaking readers through new, more accurate and complete translations. Verne clearly represents the first full flowering of the “hard science” strain of science fiction, and he had an uncanny knack for imagining events that have since come to pass. Unfortuantely, his work, including Journey, can be slow going for today’s readers, who may be inclined to regard the inevitable changes made by Hollywood, when adapting his work, as improvements.
Journey to the Center of the Earth is indicative of many of Verne’s strengths and weakness. The author imagines a journey that truly is “extraordinary,” and he lays it out in vivid detail for the reader, replete with numerous memorable episodes featuring close calls, near escapes, brushes with death, not to mention encounters with various primeval and extinct animals that have managed to survive in subterranean caverns beneath the Earth’s surface. However, there is precious little story and almost no drama. The entire book simply follows Professor Lidenbrock as he and his nephew Alex and their local guide descend into the crater of an extinct volcano and follow various tunnels until they reach their destination. Character interaction is limited to the most basic sort. Alex, who narrates, is our eyes and ears, a sort of ordinary person who quite reasonably wants to turn back at the sight of each new threatening danger, while his uncle the scientist is eager to continue no matter what the peril, and the stalwart guide simply follows the orders of his “master” without question. Adding to the simplicity, Alex doesn’t speak the guide’s language, so the opportunities for dialogue exchanges and character interaction are mostly limited to him and his uncle. It is symptomatic of the lack of plot that many of the encounters with prehistoric monsters turn out to be dreams or hallucinations brought on by fatigue, and it doesn’t really matter much one way or the other; whether “real” or “imagined,” the incidents imply occur and then the story continues more or less as if nothing had happened.
The 1959 film adaptation, starring James MasonNot surprisingly, when 20th Century Fox filmed the tale in 1959 with James Mason and Pat Boone, they added some antagonists and a love interest (in the novel, Alex often thinks back on the fiancé he left behind; in the movie, she actually goes on the trip). This helps give some small sense of excitement to the story (it’s a race to see who will reach the destination first), but to a large extent the film recreates the strengths and weaknesses of the source material. Its biggest advantage is the combination of color photography, underground location shooting, and special effects, which make the adventure quite a treat for the eye (and the ear, too, thanks to the stereo sound). It also helps to have Mason and Thayer David on board as Lidenbrock and his rival Count Saknussem, but the presence of Boone (yes, he sings) is rather distracting—not that he’s bad in the role of Alec, but it is hard to forget that this is, after all, the one-time pop singer who turned into a shill for the milk industry and a conservative anti-porn crusader.
Still, whatever the weaknesses of the 1959 version (which is considered a classic by many, despite its measured pace), it stands far and away above the 1989 remake, a film so bad that it went unreleased upon its completion in 1988. This version of JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH was all about some kids on vacation in Hawaii who stumble into a volcanic cave that leads them toward the Earth’s core, but the behind the scenes story turned out to be far more interesting. When the film’s production company (the now-defunct Canon pictures) saw the results turned in by first-time director Rusty Lemorande, they called in another director, Albert Pyun, to save the project. In exchange for this service, Pyun talked the company into bankrolling his own underground adventure, Alien From L.A., starring swimsuit model Kathy Ireland. During the reshooting of Journey, Pyun added a cameo from Ireland, turning the film into a sequel to Alien From L.A. Both films wound up going almost entirely unseen, although Alien did find its way onto Mystery Science Theater 3000.
Click to purchase the movie novelizationSince then there have been a few made-for-television adaptations, in 1993, 1996, and one in 1999 starring Treat Williams, but none of those  garnered much attention; there is also an obscure 1976 Philppino version. The latest adaptation, filmed in 3D, and with Brendan Fraser in the lead, alters the story so much that the screenplay was adapted into a merchandising tie-in novelization. This is an unfortunate tradition that extends at least back to the 1950 film adaptation of KING SOLOMON’S MINES, and includes BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA (1992), both of which yielded novelizations that differed significantly from the source material. In the case of JOURNEY, however, one can hardly blame Hollywood for trying to goose the tale up a little bit.
Verne was a prolific writer, with dozens of titles to his credit. Those with the most interest for today’s science fiction fans are the ones that have served as source material for various movie adaptations that keep the titles in the public awareness. Besides Journey, there are 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1870) and Mysterious Island (1874). Of lesser interest are From the Earth to the Moon and its 1870 sequel Around the Moon (which were adapted into a competent but mostly forgotten 1958 film under the title From the Earth to the Moon) and Robur the Conqueror (1886) and its 1904 follow-up Master of the World (which were jointly adapted, under the later title, into a fairly well written but not very well produced Vincent Price movie in 1961).

One Reply to “Journey to the Center of the Earth – and the films it inspired”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *