Every advance in film technology is bringing Jules Verne's futurist vision to the screen in ever more fantastic and believable ways, author Brian Taves writes in his new book Hollywood Presents Jules Verne: The Father of Science Fiction on Screen.
Talking over the phone from his office at the Library of Congress in Culpeper, Va., the film historian and archivist posits Verne as a canonical author of Hollywood.
The number of Verne adaptations, after all, only trails Shakespeare, Dickens and Conan Doyle – and date back to the earliest silent "trick" (or special-effects) films. Of the more than 300 film and television adaptations of Verne stories worldwide, Taves surveyed nearly 100 from Hollywood and found that Verne's early visions reveal a prophet of the now-present future.
The French novelist's vision wasn't magic, but logic based in reality – even if it was only theoretical at the time. As Verne himself put it, he was nothing like the more speculative H.G. Wells: "He invents things and I use physics."
Verne had a kindred spirit in Walt Disney, whose first science-fiction effort was 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. While that 1954 film performed well enough at the box office, most of its profit came from re-releases in 1963 and 1971, and regular television broadcasts, making it arguably the most influential Verne movie ever made. It and other Verne adaptations by Disney spawned theme-park attractions and installations.
The combination of 20,000 Leagues' artistic and commercial success – coupled with Michael Todd's similarly popular and faithful 1956 adaptation of Verne's Around the World in 80 Days – sparked what Taves calls a 17-year cycle of adaptations and general Verne-mania, a heyday that ended up shaping the tastes of contemporary filmmakers.
"I remember times growing up in Los Angeles in the early seventies, there would be three Verne films playing on TV on a single day – and this continues now, with the 1959 Journey [to the Center of the Earth] being on TV once a month," Taves says.
You can see that influence in this summer's slate of sci-fi films, from Ex Machina and Avengers: Age of Ultron to Tomorrowland and even, at a stretch, Mad Max: Fury Road. (Verne would probably let H.G. Wells take full credit for Terminator Genisys.)
Tomorrowland itself is adapted from a Disney theme-park attraction that has unmistakable roots in Verne and his spirit of exploration, idealism and discovery. From its female teenage protagonist to its initial setting at the 1964 New York World's Fair, the film captures the possibilities of technology and invention that so fascinated Verne.
We can thank Walt Disney for most of this, says Taves, as the mogul was in a uniquely qualified position to popularize Verne for new audiences. "Both men were fascinated by the challenges of presenting a glimpse of a future and its technology, of discerning how dreams might be realized," he says. "They knew that the core of their audience was youth, anchored by the family, and so addressed them with entertainment accompanied by a pedagogical element. For Verne, this element was geography and science, which Disney also used, along with [primarily American] history."
There is also the scientific and humanist idealism that's invested into Verne's characters, one that adaptations bring out in varying degrees and nuances depending on their decade, with each era reading something different. "In the 1970s, you start to have environmental concerns," Taves says, ticking off Hanna-Barbera's popular animated version of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. "You might not expect that much from them in either style or content, but they actually provide some fairly meaty material for what is still a family audience. With Nemo pointing out the decay of the environment, what's happening to the seas – it becomes a very topical rumination on modern issues, just as much as Disney's contemplation of the possibility of atomic weapons was."
Tomorrowland's action starts inside the "It's a Small World" theme-park ride, during which a character discovers a portal that leads to an alternate dimension containing a floating, futuristic city. It recalls another Verne story that Taves brings up called The Self-Propelled Island, a 1896 novel about a futuristic and idyllic self-contained ship, heavily censored by translators at the time to remove his criticism of Americans and now set to be published in its first unabridged English translation. "Today it would be what billionaires would build," Taves says, "but being human beings, they end up destroying the paradise they've created."
Tomorrowland also tinkers with history by adding Verne and Nikola Tesla to a famed meeting with Thomas Edison and Gustave Eiffel in the latter's Tower office in 1889 – a meeting that sparks the conception of the alternate-dimension super-city. We also get a Vernian balloon ride in the form of a Jetsonian hovercraft platform, and a blast off into space thanks to turn-of-the-century cylinders, filament lightbulbs and a leather steampunk interior, designs familiar to any Verne enthusiast.
With Tomorrowland, a possible Sam Raimi-produced reboot of 20,000 Leagues and a wealth of Verne stories being translated into English for the first time – which Taves is editing for the North American Jules Verne Society – the historian expects a new wave of Vernian visions to flood the cultural conversation. The future once again belongs to Verne.