20,000 Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne Review

Even if people aren’t a fan of science fiction, chances are they have seen the 1954 Disney movie, or at least heard of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. In my review of Around the World in 80 Days, you probably picked up on the fact I’m only lukewarm on Jules Verne’s writing style. On the other hand, I’ve read a few different Steampunk books that use Captain Nemo as a character, so I wanted to go back to the original source to learn a bit more.

About the Book

It all begins with the mysterious disappearances of various vessels in 1866. Many believe a giant sea creature is behind the attacks. The narrator, a French marine biologist named Pierre Aronnax, is enlisted in the search while visiting New York. He departs from the United States, along with his faithful manservant, Conseil. They join a team of explorers including a Canadian harpooner named Ned Land. Shortly after setting out, the intrepid team encounters the creature, only to find it is in fact an incredibly advanced submarine. It’s captained by none other than the infamous Captain Nemo. The rest of the story details the journey of Aronnax, Ned, and Conseil as they criss-cross the globe as Nemo’s prisoners.

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea was incredibly well-researched. I used to work at an aquarium, so I probably was able to get a bit more out of it than the average reader. The narrator, Aronnax, goes into exhaustive detail about the different marine animals he encounters while traveling the seven seas with Nemo. I would like to read it again some day, but this time I would make sure to find an illustrated version. When the story was originally published as a serial in Magasin d’Éducation et de Récréation from 1869-1870 it did not include any illustrations, but since it was compiled as a novel a few years later there have been several illustrated and even a graphic novel version of the tale.

What I thought 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea

Unfortunately, this meticulous level of detail can also be a drag. The Mister and I read this one out loud as we often do with the books I review. Even though I have my science background and he is a Roman historian, we both stumbled over the multitude of Latin names. Though of course it makes sense to use the proper scientific names of species, it can make the actual reading a bit tedious. We were about halfway through when my brain was just begging for a giant squid to attack. This bit of action comes very late in the book. Plus, it gets a lot more attention in movie adaptations than Verne gave it in the text. I’ve talked to others who read a different translation than I did, and also attribute some of my complaints to a poor transition from the original French to English. So if you are going to tackle this one on your own, do some research into which translation you’ve got.

The Nautilus as it appeared in the Disney film
The Nautilus as it appeared in the Disney film

Unlike Around the World in 80 Days, there is no comedic relief in 20,000 Leagues. Nemo is an interesting and enigmatic character to be sure, but I think overall it makes for pretty dry reading. The science in this book is sound, so it holds up to time better than Journey to the Center of the Earth. But for me it wasn’t really entertaining enough for the slog through over 300 pages.

Do you have a favorite work by Verne I should review next? Do you have a favorite adaptation of this story? Leave a comment! 

6 thoughts on “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne Review

  1. Good morning, Milady. I’m right there with you on this matter. It feels blasphemous for a steampunk of any stripe to suggest that Verne might not be the Greatest Author Ever, but he really isn’t very good, at least by today’s standards. Give the man some slack, he was practically inventing the craft of novel-writing, but far from being the grand adventures I expected, having been raised on those wonderful Disney adaptations, his stories read like the journals of college students recording their summer vacation trips. I slogged through seven novels before I finally threw in the towel and admitted that it was him, not me. I too found 80 days to be the best, with Five Weeks in a Balloon running a close second. The rest… meh.

    Thanks for this honest assessment. It takes some guts to suggest that Verne might be a mortal on a steampunk site, but he is what he is. Enjoyed your work though, and hope to see more soon!

    1. Thanks, Jack! I think it’s important with Verne and most writers of this era that they were writing serialized fiction, which is a totally different animal than a novel. If they don’t have a good translator and/or editor, that transition if very hard. I’ve got another post this week with a fact sheet on Captain Nemo that has some suggestions for good translations of his works. Maybe you and I can find a way to “fall in love” with some of these versions instead 🙂

      1. I’m eagerly awaiting the follow-up post on translations. I read a pretty good one; the “best?” Probably not, but it was a 7-story compilation that was heavily footnoted with discussions of the original French terms used by Verne and what they were held to mean in English in his own time. I would be pressed to imagine a better one, but whether an individual word was translated as “wing,” “fin,” or some indecent slang for a loose woman seems irrelevant. The story is the story, and I find no real story in Verne’s works. “We went here and saw this, then we went there, and saw that” ad infinitum. These are travelogues, only technically stories because they’re about places that don’t exist. I’ve heard many “purists” complain about translation errors in the King James Bible, but no denies that it’s still the Bible; how much havoc can a translation wreak, really?

      2. I agree, I think travelogues of fantastical places is really a better description for many of his sci-fi works than “adventure.” From what I can tell so far, it seems the early translations were heavily influenced by British politics. Captain Nemo’s anti-imperialist sentiments are very watered down in early version vs. more recent ones, for instance. In addition, it seems like much of the dialog was summarized in translation. Though this probably wouldn’t have changed the ploy, I can see where it would have helped my reading experience for there to be more conversations to break up the “this happened, then this happened” listing of events.

  2. I’ve discovered translation matters a LOT when it comes to Jules Verne. I listened to an audio book of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea about 20 years ago and my feelings were about the same as this review and I really wondered why Verne was such a classic. I then read the translation of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea translated by Walter James Miller and Frederick Paul Walter and published by the Naval Institute Press. That version was amazing and includes clear, concise annotations of the text as well. That was the book that made me a fan of Verne. A resource for finding good Verne translations is: http://jv.gilead.org.il/evans/VerneTrans(biblio).html

    I recently slogged my way through a public domain translation of “Around the Moon” and was reminded by how terrible the English of the nineteenth century treated Verne.

    1. Thanks for the tip! I have been doing some research into the original translators and have learned there were often political reasons behind the changes that were made. That is an interesting story all its own, and perhaps it will get a post in the future.

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