2011-2012 Summer Reading Project: Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea

Twenty Thousand Leagues

On my first day off for summer vacation, I went to the movies by myself to see the one film that I was most psyched for: Prometheus. I am somewhat of a sci-fi geek (though my geekery tends to be in the area of comic books), but hearing that Ridley Scott was making a movie that had ties to one of his most famous movies, Alien, had me all giddy because both Alien and Aliens are two of my favorite movies.

Prometheus premiered the last day of the school year and the day before graduation, so I decided that seeing Scott’s film was the first priority of my summer (and I happened to pick a good day for it because it was pouring out). I loved the movie and even though it’s been a couple of weeks and I am now getting ready to see both The Dark Knight Rises and The Avengers (yes, I am the ONE person left in the country who hasn’t seen The Avengers), I am still discussing it on the internet and after writing this entry will even be listening to a review of the movie on one of my favorite podcasts.

I won’t go too into detail about Prometheus, the questions it raises, and the discussions I mentioned I’ve been having. The reason I brought up the movie in the first place is because after watching this movie, which involves, at one point, a monster that resembles a giant squid, I couldn’t help but think of Jules Verne’s novel Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. Okay, I’ll be honest here: I couldn’t help but think of the Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea</em> ride at Walt Disney World, which I rode at least a few times as a kid and clearly remember the image of a giant squid attacking the Nautilus (sadly, the ride is now closed). My parents did own the Kirk Douglas movie on VHS when we were kids, but I don’t remember actually sitting down and watching it–and if I did, I either didn’t make it through the whole movie or don’t remember anything about it–and needless to say, I had never actually read the book. You’d think that having been such a voracious reader, especially of adventure books, when I was a kid, I would have picked up this particular novel at some point, but I was never one for the “adventure classics.”

In fact, with the exception of War of the Worlds (a book I read and loved as a kid), I’ve never really read any Jules Verne, H.G. Welles, or Robert Louis Stevenson. So, with visions of an animatronic giant squid dancing in my head, I went to Amazon.com to see if there was a copy of Verne’s acquatic adventure available for the Kindle. Thankfully, there is a version that is in the free Kindle store, which reviews list as one of the full translations of the novel (which had been originally written in French and is titled Vingt mille lieues sous les mers). Being that this reading project is about travel, I added it to my list and read it as a break between three books I was reading about driving throughout the country (Robert Sullivan’s Cross-Country, John Steinbeck’s Travels With Charley, and Sarah Vowell’s Assassination Vacation, all of which will get their own entries). And the novel is … good?

The gist of the novel is that in 1866 New York City, seafarers are living in fear of what is supposedly a giant sea monster attacking various ships. The U.S. Government gets an expedition together to hunt down this sea monster, and on said expedition are professor (and our narrator) Pierre Aronnax, his assistant Conseil, and a Canadian harpooner named Ned Land. The ship they’re on comes across the sea monster, which they discover to actually be a submarine and when they are thrown overboard, they are taken onto the submarine, which is named the Nautilus and captained by the enigmatic Captain Nemo. Nemo informs them that they are welcomed as guests on the Nautilus but will never be allowed to leave. From here, the book is one of adventure under the sea and discovery, as Aronnax describes the several months he and his companions spend on the Nautilus via a long voyage (the “20,000” in the title refers to the distance the Nautilus travels throughout the Earth’s oceans during Aronnax’s time on the boat).

Aronnax classifies several different species of fish, “discovers” Atlantis, runs away from natives in the South Pacific, and helps the Nautilus get out of a life-and-death situation in Antarctica. Oh yes, and there is a giant squid. I think that my rather lukewarm reaction to the novel, when I was finally finished with it, was that I think I was expecting something different than what Verne had written. When Aronnax was going through what are very long observations of undersea life, I found myself thinking of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick and all of the chapters in that particular novel that describe whales and whaling in all of its (sometimes gory) detail (chapters I admittedly skimmed when I read Moby-Dick in college). And I think I was looking for more of a plot that centered around Captain Nemo and was not expecting the voyage itself to be the plot.

Nemo seems like an interesting character, and could have been a great villain if this were made as a modern film, but he seems to remain shrouded in mystery throughout the novel and I never got the sense that I knew who he was or what his true motivation was for eschewing life on land for living on the Nautilus. Sure, there are some very good moments–Verne does a masterful job of describing the submarine and explains in great detail how the captain and his crew are able to live underwater, and the suspense in the Antarctica chapters is particularly gripping–but I found myself kind of bored throughout much of the book. And I can’t tell if that’s Verne or if that’s me. Reading this more than 100 years after its original publication, I am looking at the story through the lens of someone who is used to the tropes of contemporary storytelling, which is why I was more concerned with who the captain was and whether or not there was going to be a huge conflict involving him and Aronnax rather than being mystified by what Aronnax sees under the sea (although funny enough, this is almost like doing a “side adventure” or “world exploring” in some of today’s modern video games, so there you go).

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