Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Saturday, January 15, 2022

Around the World in 80 Days - Thoughts and Adaptations

The Darwin household took in the first two episodes of the new BBC miniseries of Around The World in 80 Days, based on the Jules Verne novel which I had not read since I was a teenager, so when I was down-and-out for a day after getting my COVID booster last week, I took the opportunity to read the original novel again.

We also ended up watching the old 1956 movie.

It's always interesting coming back to a book that you haven't read since childhood.  I'll discuss the book first and then talk about the different adaptations.

The first thing that struck me while re-reading 80 Days was how short it was.  Perhaps this was magnified by the fact I haven't had a chance to just lay around all day and read for hours on end for months until a vaccination put me on the sick list.  But the story really does rip along and the copy I had was well under 200 pages.

Another thing which struck me in particular was the different national characters as shown in the book. Verne is, of course, French.  The books which we know in the US are English translations.  The classic translations of Verne into English, dating back to the 1870s, were not only slapdash in their approach to his science and details but apparently at times also made intentional and significant changes to Verne's stories. (Arthur Evans' article "Jules Verne's English Translations" discusses this in some detail.  I won't go into it further here in that as far as I can tell from some brief research the standard translations of Around The World in 80 Days are in fact fairly accurate and complete, but apparently it makes a very big difference if you want to read 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea or From The Earth To The Moon.)

Phileas Fogg is presented as a sort of ultimate British type: calm in the face of every danger, willing to risk his entire life savings over a gentleman's wager, ingenious in mind not apparently having an profession because he is a gentleman, constantly plays whist while being utterly unmoved by the scenery he's passing, etc. In many ways we never get an insight into Fogg as a person until near the very end, though a bit more on that in a bit.

His valet, the Frenchman Passepartout seems the more rounded human character through much of the story, and my impression is that Verne intends him to be the reader's true viewpoint.  Passepartout himself is a bit of a larger than life character, and seems a fit stand-in for the French national character in the story.  He's widely traveled and has held a number of different jobs (as indicated by the name he has taken on) having worked as a singer, a gymnast, a fireman, and for the last several years a servant in England.  However, having come to England in search of a quiet and ordered life he has been frustrated by a series of wildly eccentric employers.  He takes work with Fogg after hearing that he is so regular that his daily schedule is planned down to the minute and never varies.  And yet, on Passepartout's first day of employment Fogg makes his fateful bet with the other members of the Reform Club that it is possible to travel around the world in 80 days, and so they are suddenly off on their trip.

Resourceful in his own way, physically capable and brave, but more emotional and not quite able to believe that Fogg will go through with this mad bet, Passepartout is the sane Frenchman's eye on the story as it unfolds.

When we meet Americans later in the story (including the inexplicably named Colonel Stamp Proctor) they tend to be hot-headed and willing to take utterly mad risks, but also incredibly resourceful and inventive.  At the broad level, in Verne's world the British seem suited to own the world, the Americans to invent it, and the French best fit to live in it.

But I've perhaps already devoted too much time to set up and national character.  We get a lot of these in the first few chapters, but soon the story is whipping along at the speed of Fogg's journey around the world. 

The length of story devoted to various portions of the world is pretty well suited to their geographical size, which is to say that Fogg makes it out of Europe in double quick time.  In my reading, one of the things which was exciting to Verne and his readers was the amazing fact that you could circumnavigate the world in less than three months using all the best of modern technology, and so he spends no time at all on the comparatively time task of taking a steamer across the English Channel and trains across Europe to Brindisi, whence Fogg takes a steamer to the newly opened Suez Canal. 

And this gets to one of the differences between the book and various modern adaptations. Fogg never takes a mode of travel as impractical as a balloon, though both the 1956 movie and the 2022 BBC adaptations are eager to put him in one.  

Think of 80 Days as a bit like the novel of The Martian (though Verne is a more competent writer than Wier).  Fogg is a smart guy who is trying to solve a really hard problem, one which should be solvable using the best modern technology.  Verne is going to show you how an incredibly smart and brave and resourceful guy can solve all the problems that keep coming up, and he's not going to waste your time and patience on modes of travel which everyone in 1872 knew were not all that practical or fast, such as a balloon.  

Which also gives you something of the structure.  Fogg has set himself a task which should be hard but possible, but then things keep going wrong, and he has to solve the complications as they come up in order to stick to his 80 day timeline.

[The following does reveal some plot points, so if you haven't read the novel and want to be totally surprised, be warned.]

Thus, the most unusual steps which Fogg takes (buying an elephant to traverse 50 miles of jungle when it turns out that the railway across India is not entirely finished and taking the wind driven snow sledge across the prairie to Omaha when the train has gone on without them in the aftermath of the Indian attack) both represent the best and fastest available option left for Fogg in a difficult situation. Also, notably, on both cases Fogg hires a local expert experienced in the means of transportation: a local guide in India who is familiar with elephant travel and the owner of the sledge on the plains who uses it to make supply runs between train stations when the trains are snowed in.

Maybe this is a sense in which modern readers (and adapters) have a hard time getting into the mentality of the era in which the book was written.  To my mind, an exciting thing for Verne was that this trip was just possible if you used all the most modern means of travel.  Yet this wasn't quite like organizing a trip around the world now where one flew from Chicago to Dubai to Tokyo and back to Chicago again while never having to leave the gleaming corridors of modern airports. (If there are any members of the reform club out there, I'm willing make that trip in 80 hours for a sufficient consideration.)  Fogg has to dip into strange parts of the world repeatedly in order to negotiate the next leg of his travel, not to mention that the hard deadline means that he sometimes has to get from one travel hub to the next via some locally expedient means of transport.

So, for instance, when Fogg misses a key steamer out of Hong Kong to Yokohama, he can't wait for the next steamer because it would put him too far behind.  Instead he hires a smaller boat which takes him to another nearby port, where he picks up a different steamer going to Yokohama, which gets him there in time to catch the Yokohama steamer to San Francisco.  Then a storm and various other obstacles make things more difficult, until the connection to the steamer is made by a hair's breadth (with Fogg making the connection to the steamer as it's already leaving the port.)

None of these moves involve Fogg being a crackpot inventor or using fabulously unlikely modes of transport.  Indeed, that's entirely against the point of the story.  Fogg succeeds by using the fastest modes of high technology (circa 1872) transport and by being willing to pay more and remain more determined than most others would.  Is the steamer he needs already leaving the harbor as the boat he's on is entering?  Give up?  No!  Ask the boat to put up a distress signal and see if they can get the steamer to stop.

Fogg's single-minded dedication to all this becomes endearing over the course of the novel.  Indeed, I gradually developed the theory that Fogg is what we would call "on the spectrum" today: He has developed an encyclopedic knowledge of the whole world and the means of transport that fascinate him while sitting in the Reform Club reading newspapers six hours a day.  He likes his days to be utterly predictable, with a schedule for his valet written out down to the minute, but he is so passionate in defending his knowledge that it's possible to circumnavigate the world in 80 days that he makes a high stakes bet that will take him around the world.  Once he's on the trip he's utterly focused on the trip itself, ignoring politeness, danger, convention, and also the scenery and cultures around him.  He is always and utterly focused on the problem at hand and doesn't let himself get distracted by the humans around him except when it penetrates his attention that someone is in need of help.

Indeed, Fogg's willingness to help others is one of his endearing traits from the beginning.  He spends much of his time playing Whist for high stakes (a game which he enjoys and which we're told he's very good at) but he keeps all his winnings to one side and gives them all to people in need.  Indeed, just as they're leaving on the journey Fogg gives away his day's winnings:

Passepartout jumped off the box and followed his master, who, after paying the cabman, was about to enter the station, when a poor beggar-woman, with a child in her arms, her naked feet smeared with mud, her head covered with a wretched bonnet, from which hung a tattered feather, and her shoulders shrouded in a ragged shawl, approached, and mournfully asked for alms.

Mr. Fogg took out the twenty guineas he had just won at whist, and handed them to the beggar, saying, “Here, my good woman. I’m glad that I met you;” and passed on.

I had a feeling that twenty guineas in 1872 was a lot of money now.  An inflation calculator tells me that it is equivalent to about $11,500 USD!  (This also means that Fogg's bet of 20,000 pounds, which we're told is half is fortune, is equivalent to about $3.2 million modern US dollars -- and he spends an equal amount on his voyage in order to win the bet.)

This instinct also leads to Fogg's biggest single delay, and the emotional attachment which saves him at the end of the story. While crossing the fifty miles of jungle in the railroad gap from Kholby to Allahabad, Fogg, Passepartout, and their companions see a procession which they realize is preparing for the Sati of a raja's widow.  They're saddened when their guide describes what is going on, but indignant when he goes on to explain that the widow who is to be burnt on her husband's pyre is in fact a young woman who was forcibly married against her will to the aging raja and is now being sacrificed so that his family can inherit her wealth.  They form a plan to rescue the woman, in which Passepartout takes an ingenious and heroic part, and Aouda accompanies them through the rest of their travels, since she is no longer safe in India and the relatives with whom they try to help her reunite in Hong Kong have moved to Europe.

Passepartout who, as the author seems to think is appropriate for a Frenchman, is a good observer of things emotional, sees that Aouda is becoming increasingly attached to Fogg as they are traveling, but Fogg seems utterly oblivious to this.  It's only at the end, where due to a mix-up Fogg believes he has lost his bet by five minutes and is putting his affairs in order to accept financial ruin, that his astonished and passionate reaction to Aouda's proposal of marriage to him makes you realize that Fogg himself has been unaware all this time that Aouda has any interest in him, although he apparently has become increasingly attracted to her.

So while the story is, overall, focused on the excitement of pulling off this feat of modern travel, there is an interesting bit of character going on as well which I think goes further than "oblivious Englishman achieves feat while remaining impassive and is then rewarded with exotic woman" as some have portrayed it.  While deep portrayal of character is clearly not Verne's main purpose here, there is, I think, an interesting bit of light character building which Verne does, which seems missed by the adaptations that I've seen so far.

Turning fully to those adaptations (and recognizing that I've run quite long already):

The 1956 adaptation is one of those Technicolor epics which is very, very aware of the fact that they are filming on site.  Are we in Paris?  Well, then surely you'll want to see several plotless minutes of random Paris scenery.  Did the movie-makers contrive to get the characters side-tracked to Spain?  Then we'll take ten full minutes to show off that actor Cantinflas can bull fight by putting Passepartout into the ring.  It also has a serious case of the cringe-worthy 1950s casting of "exotic" characters.  Aouda is played by Shirley MacLaine with some spray tan, not one character in India sounds or looks remotely Indian, and any actor with dark hair is considered a candidate to play Chinese characters.  The attack by American Indians on the train across the plains is turned into a series of scenes which manages to be egregious, drawn out, and boring all at the same time.  Verne's text does not require any of this. Despite coming out of the 1870s, there aren't any egregious or unlikely moments of "primitive peoples" in the novel.  In part, this may be because it's so short.  Verne is a fairly impartial observer and a lot of the adventures that come along are based on things he had read about.  Trains were, at times, attacked in the American plains.  Satis did still occur in remote parts of India.  

The BBC adaptation is also very much of its time.  In this one, Passepartout is a black Frenchman whose family has been caught up in revolutionary politics, and the meddling detective Fix is replaced by plucky girl reporter Fix, determined to tell the story of Phileas Fogg to her readers and prove that a woman doesn't need a man any more than a fish needs a something-or-other (yes, she does use that phrasing in episode two.) Fogg is also turned into a character who is constantly doubting his own ability and courage, despite his repeated successes in pulling off quite impressive feats.  This adaptation is also even more set on drawing the story out with unlikely means of conveyance.  It seems as if to the modern adapter, it's impossible to imagine that just making the trip could be exciting, and so we need revolutions and balloons and such to spice things up.  It's passable in its way, but I wish someone would work on drawing out the things that are interesting in the story itself rather than laying on things that they think might make it more exciting.


Agnes said...

You made me think of Chesterton writing in Orthodoxy (I think) about how exciting and romantic/poetic regular and normal things are if not viewed with a jaundiced eye, mentioning Robinson Crusoe's list of things he saved from his shipwreck, just enough to survive, stretching all his capabilities to do it.

JCambias said...

This is an excellent analysis of Verne's book. Well done! I'd love to see your take on 20,000 Leagues or From Earth to the Moon.