Journey to the Center of the Earth by Jules Verne Review

It’s time to return again to our regularly scheduled Jules Verne programming. Voyage au centre de la Terre is the third Verne novel I have read, and so far it is my favorite. There are multiple translations, and the names of the main characters are different depending on which one you read. I read the version where the narrator is called “Harry Lawson” rather than Axel Lidenbrock. According to Project Gutenberg, this 1871 translation I read is the most widely circulated. But it is also not as true to the original text as the 1877 version. Apparently, what I read was somewhat abridged, but was still about 470 pages!

Synopsis

Harry/Axel starts his story by setting the scene of his life with his eccentric uncle, who is most often referred to as “the professor.” The story really gets going when the professor discovers a coded message scrawled in an antique text he has just purchased. The former owner was a 16th century alchemist named Saknussem who left behind directions to the finding the exact center of the Earth. The enthusiastic professor drags the reluctant Harry along for the ride to Iceland, where Saknussem’s tunnel is located. With the help of a taciturn Icelandic hunter, they embark on an incredible journey of discovery into the depths. Along the way they encounter living fossils, a huge subterranean sea, and a multitude of other wonders.

What I Thought of Journey to the Center of the Earth

There were two main reasons that I liked this book more than 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and Around the World in 80 Days. First, the narration by Harry was often very humorous, especially when it came to his own misgivings and cowardice. Second, this story was not bogged down by minutiae. Verne only dropped the occasional Latin name. Plus, he pulled this place out of his imagination rather than reporting on a real locations, it freed him to be able to drive the action any way he pleased. It would be nice to read a version that has gone through a modern editing process. These old serials are great, but they are also riddled with redundancies.

For instance, the phrase “my uncle, the professor” occurs several times. The Icelander is referred to as “Hans, our guide” almost without fail, as if there would be some other Hans wandering around hundreds of miles below the Earth’s crust. I am sure it helped readers of the original serial over the course of the year it took to read the whole thing. But it sure gets repetitive when reading it as a novel.

The science in this book doesn’t stand the test of time quite as well as others from this period. Yet at the time it came out, it was right in the middle of the scholarly debate concerning the origins of life on Earth. In the 1860s, academics had only recently abandoned the straight Biblical interpretation of our origins. This occurred in large part because of the discovery of fossil hominids in unexpected strata. Scholars also divided themselves into distinct schools of thought concerning the nature of the planet itself. Keep in mind, the theory of plate tectonics wasn’t even put forth until almost a century later.

Adaptations of Journey to the Center of the Earth

Perhaps this is the reason, not to mention the enormous sets that would be required, that Journey to the Center of the Earth has only rarely been adapted to film and television compared to Verne’s other works. The first film was made in 1959, but it wasn’t remade in English again until the 2008 re-interpretation which put a contemporary uncle (Brendan Fraser) and nephew (Josh Hutcherson) on the path described in Verne’s novel rather than following the narrative as it occurred in 1864. Stay tuned for a review of that film and its sequel later this week!

Have you read this book or seen the movies? What did you think? Are there other Steampunk homages our readers would enjoy? Please, leave us a comment!

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