Thursday, January 25, 2007

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1916)

I'm learning that old, silent movie adaptations of books are generally a lot more faithful to their source material than modern ones are. That's not true of Lon Chaney movies for some reason (at least, not Phantom of the Opera or Hunchback of Notre Dame), but it is of Peter Pan and I understand that it is of Tarzan of the Apes. And it pretty much is with 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.

Jules Verne's novel has some great, pulpy elements to it like the submarine, its unhinged captain, the giant squid, and Atlantis. But I don't call it a pulp because, except for a couple of scenes, it's not at all fast-paced or exciting. It's a long, overly descriptive, chore-to-read travelogue. And unfortunately, the 1916 silent adaptation of it suffers from some of that as well.

Not only was underwater photography brand new in 1916, it was pretty much unheard of and 20,000 Leagues was the first movie to ever use it. They were pretty proud of that fact and even used film time to introduce the guys who developed the technique (and helped shoot the movie) before getting into the actual story. Because of that, there are some long underwater shots of nothing but fish and coral beds that reminded me of how tedious the novel is. I'm sure they were captivating to movie-goers in 1916, but they don't hold up today.

The shark scenes do though. Sharks are always cool and there are some shark scenes that I can't figure out how they pulled off without someone's getting killed. Stuff like deep-sea divers shooting at sharks and having the sharks charge the divers before being driven away by the guns. If that was trick photography or a special effect, Stephen Sommers needs to take notes from these guys. Actually, that's the way it was for a lot of stuff in the film. There's some pretty cool stuff in it, even by today's standards. (Not the octopus though. It was better than the one in Bride of the Monster, but just barely.)

The reason that I said 20,000 Leagues is "pretty" faithful to the novel is that it also incorporates the events from Verne's sequel The Mysterious Island. I haven't read that one yet, so I don't know how faithful the movie to it is, but it's an interesting experiment in that knowing the end to Verne's 20,000 Leagues, I'm sure that Mysterious Island can't take place after it, so it has to take place during it. The film tries to harmonize the two and that's an experiment I always find worth exploring, even if it doesn't end up working all that well. Where it goes wrong here is that even though Captain Nemo appears in both stories, his supporting cast is different in each. So, the movie starts out talking about Professor Arronax and Ned Land, but it just drops them a third of the way in to start telling you about the Mysterious Island characters. It's not an easy transition.

They should have just called the movie The Mysterious Island, because that part of it is a lot more interesting and exciting than the 20,000 Leagues stuff. The reason I haven't read The Mysterious Island yet is that I was so disappointed by 20,000 Leagues, but seeing this movie has encouraged me to give it a shot.

Three out of five sharks

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