Saturday 1 June 2019

Journey to the Centre of the Earth, book and 1959 film

This novel by French SF writer Jules Verne was first published in 1864, and is regarded as a classic of the genre. I probably read it as a young lad – it was the kind of book I devoured – but could recall nothing about it, so I decided to rectify this lapse in my memory.  I was prompted to do so by the fact that the well-known 1959 film version (there have been several others) was recently shown on UK TV, so I took the opportunity to compare them.

Readers of this blog who have only seen a screen version of Journey to the Centre of the Earth may be surprised to discover that the main characters of the book are in fact German: Professor Liedenbrock is the leader and driving force of the expedition, although the story is told in the first person by his nephew and assistant Axel. It begins in their shared home in Hamburg (which, technically speaking, was at that time an independent sovereign state of the German Confederation – Germany did not become a nation state until 1871). The professor discovers an old book by a legendary Icelandic explorer which includes a coded message giving directions to the centre of the Earth. Without wishing to give too much away (although the book title provides a clue!) the professor, Axel and Icelandic guide and assistant Hans Bjelke manage to find the route, following natural tunnels in a dormant volcano. It will be a long time, and only after many adventures, that they see the sky again.

This and other SF novels by Verne were best-sellers in their day (and have remained in print ever since) but were more than just entertainment. Verne was an enthusiast for the scientific developments of the time, and was writing in the aftermath of fundamental discoveries. Geology was a new science, with an understanding of the great age of the Earth, and the identification of geological periods, having largely taken place in 1820-1850; while Charles Darwin's sensational On the Origin of Species was published in 1859.  Verne's aim was to educate as well as entertain, so the story is packed with references to geological ages, fossils the development of life, and other scientific matters. While there were still considerable errors and uncertainties in the scientific understanding of some aspects of geology (without which this plot would have been impossible – particularly concerning an ongoing debate about the temperature deep in the Earth) Verne did his best to ensure that his story reflected current scientific thinking; I was in fact surprised at the detail and accuracy of much of the science in the book.

That does not mean that the story is just a large infodump. Verne was a skilled story-teller and draws the reader into the tale. His account of the journey from Hamburg to Iceland and his description of life among the Icelanders makes a fascinating historical travelogue in its own right; in fact, this is so convincing that he must either have visited the country, or had access to an extremely detailed source. There is room for character development too, despite the modest length of 184 pages: the professor is impatient and irascible, keen to press on regardless of the difficulties and dangers. Axel, on the other hand, is a timid and fearful young man who only wants to marry his sweetheart and live a peaceful life in Hamburg, and is appalled to be dragged into the adventure. The nearest to a hero is the impassive and imperturbable Hans, who saves the expedition from disaster on several occasions. There is also room for the occasional spark of dry humour, for instance when Axel qualifies his uncle's enthusiasm for old and rare books: "…but no old book had any value in his eyes unless it had the virtue of being nowhere else to be found or, at any rate, of being illegible."

One incidental source of amusement in my edition (Wordsworth Classics) is the occasional footnotes by the (unnamed) person who translated the story from French to English. These point to various inconsistences in the text, e.g. concerning conversions from metric to imperial. There is a particular problem with Verne's use of "leagues" to measure distance. The normal English custom (assumed by the translator) was that a league = 3 miles, but I note from Wiki that the measurement meant different things in different parts of Europe, and could be anything between 2.4 and 4.6 miles, which presumably added to the translator's confusion. It is worth mentioning that there are several different translations into English, of varying quality. These are discussed at

To most modern readers, Journey to the Centre of the Earth stands alone in its plot, but it the idea was not original. As mentioned in my review of Science Fiction: A Literary History posted on this blog in January 2018; "there was a separate sub-section of "hollow earth" stories about adventures underground – Jules Verne's Journey to the Centre of the Earth was really a late revival of this". It was also about the last time that such a plot could have been used with any pretence of scientific credibility, before the Earth's structure and temperatures deep underground were understood.

Verne's story has certainly gripped the public imagination ever since, with other stories being influenced by it (most notably, Arthur Conan Doyle's The Lost World, which was itself the inspiration for the Jurassic Park film series) and Edgar Rice Burroughs' Pellucidar stories. It has also received a number of screen treatments, the best known being a Hollywood epic which emerged in 1959.


The 1959 film is a widescreen spectacular in glowing colour, nearly 2¼ hours long, and was a financial success. The basic plot remains the same, with various alterations and additions to appeal to a wider (and specifically US) audience. The principal characters become Scottish instead of German; the young man in the expedition (played by Pat Boone) is bold rather than a wimp, and is keen to take part; there are not just one, but two, rival explorers trying to beat the professor (James Mason) to the entrance of the underground world, with murder and other shenanigans resulting; the expeditionary group is expanded to include an attractive woman (Arlene Dahl), and a pet duck (uncredited) for comical effect. And the film makers could not resist chucking Atlantis into the mix.

Missing from the film is the richly detailed information about Iceland, and much of the detail about science in general and geology in particular. Together with the inherent lack of a viewpoint character, these changes soften the focus of the story. However, the result is probably more family-pleasing entertainment than a straightforward following of the text would have been. For myself, I would be much more interested in reading the book again than watching the film.

According to Wiki, other screen versions include a 1993 TV movie, a 1999 TV miniseries, and a 2008 release in versions for both TV and the cinema which has led to sequels based on other Verne stories. I have no information about any of those, so comments would be welcome!

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