Are we there yet?

The Journey To The Centre of The Earth was the first “grown up” book I ever read at the age of eight years old. I don’t consider myself an especially precocious child reader, but my parents do: I don’t know if that’s an exaggeration based on pride, or if they just remember my childhood better than I can. In such an ambiguous situation, I think it’s best to opt for humility. I remember reading The Importance of Being Ernest because my grandmother was worried that I was reading it from an Oscar Wilde anthology that included Salome – a play that I still haven’t read, so I have no idea what’s so salacious about it that it shouldn’t be read by children.

Anyway, ‘Journey’ definitely made an impression on me. As I got older my memories faded until last year, when I re-read it in December because I was going to Iceland – the location of the extinct volcano that holds the passage into the Earth’s crust, obviously. Actually I wouldn’t recommend ‘Journey’ to anyone who wants to read fiction specifically about Iceland in anticipation of going there, because Verne is hilariously rude about the country and the apparently depressing lives led by its inhabitants. Also, they’re only above ground for like two chapters, and they’re short chapters. (I wholeheartedly recommend going to Iceland though, it’s amazing).

The snubbing of Iceland is perfectly in keeping with the character of Axel, the whiniest narrator in anything I’ve ever read and by far the least likable of the three main characters. Axel hates Iceland because he hates everything. He spends the entire journey whining and complaining, having been dragged along against his will by his borderline-sociopathic uncle. Occasionally he gets a chance to talk about science, or to say something smart-alecky that proves his uncle wrong. This is the only thing that makes him happy.

The other two leads are Professor Lidenbrock, the aforementioned uncle, and Hans, a redheaded Icelandic guide. The former is a geologist with obsessive tendencies who begins the book by purchasing an obscure ancient Icelandic book and refusing to let Axel eat until they crack the code in which it is written. Lidenbrock may be exasperating, but he provides a sense of mad energy that acts the centre of the novel. His terrifying mood swings are used by Axel as a measurement of how much danger the group is in, or how amazing the spectacles at the centre of the Earth are supposed to be. His utter lack of interest in anything but the accumulation of knowledge and casual disinterest in the people around him suggests to me that he might be autistic.

Hans is totally the best character in the book. He never panics and he is quiet but compelling, like some kind of earthly Spock. Axel and Lidenbrock, for all the initiative they show in taking on the titular journey in the first place, need Hans because they’re such stuffy old academic types. They might have an encyclopaedic knowledge of geology, but Hans knows the earth in a more instinctive, way

What I didn’t remember until my rereading was how much of the book is made up of diatribes about geology. Oh my gosh, there’s so much science in this book, it really explains why we call it ‘science fiction’ because if you remove the geological theory from the book there really isn’t much going on. Most of the obstacles that the characters come across are explained in excruciating detail, for example, when Axel gets lost and separated from his companions, his ability to reunite with them hinges upon their synchronised watches and the structure of the caverns that they traverse beneath the Earth’s crust. It’s just a shame that so much of the science in this book has been refuted since 1864, because I ended up skimming the more science-heavy passages in order to avoid miseducating myself. If you happen to be a geologist, I imagine you’ll either have a whale of a time cataloguing Verne’s mistakes, or you’ll find them too distracting to get lost in the adventure.

The emphasis on (outdated) science also explains why adaptations upon adaptations of ‘Journey’ completely ignore the actual book and make up crazy plots of their own. I can’t figure out how I feel about this. On the one hand, adapting these books in an entirely faithful manner would make for a pretty dull film about three people arguing and getting thirsty in a tunnel. On the other hand, why bother adapting them at all if you feel that way? Why not make a new film about a different ‘Journey to the Centre of the Earth’ with a new name? I know that brand recognition is the most important thing in the world to moviemakers these days but it’s not that great a name to begin with, just a vague description of the plot.

Adaptations of ‘Journey’ seem to make the same changes over and over again, some of which are perfectly understandable, others less so. Turning one of the characters into a woman makes sense * and so does changing Axel’s character to a child. Both of these are obviously designed to appeal to a broader audience. That makes sense. Americanizing (or possibly Britisizing) them seems less logical. Er, are the rest of us just unable to relate to Germans, as in the original text?

One oddly specific alteration that crops up surprisingly often is to change the motivation for the journey, setting the case on a quest to find a lost friend who tragically died when making the trip himself. At first I thought this was negligible, reasoning that a bit of ‘human interest’ might be a reasonable addition to the story in response to the removal of the science stuff. But then it occurred to me that this new motivation was actually super detrimental to the plot, because it reduces the extent of Professor Lidenbrock’s mania for science. His character willingly puts the lives of himself, his nephew and a random Icelandic man who he barely knows in terrific danger, all because of a really old book he got at a flea market and that’s what makes him interesting. Hell, that intensity of character is arguably what makes the whole book interesting. Perhaps the real subject of his book is the question of what kind of man would go so far for his beliefs. Or if he’s really acting in the name of science, or just for the glory of being a pioneer. I said earlier that there would be no plot without geology, but there would also be no plot without Lidenbrock’s (and to an extent, Axel’s) extraordinary enthusiasm for geology.

* although naming your Icelandic guide ‘Hannah Asgeirsson’ shows a lack of basic research because a glance at Wikipedia could tell you that that’s not how Icelandic naming convention works and she should be ‘Hannah Asgeirsdottir’ if anything)

and I got the jazzy images from the wonderful screencraps.

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