What’s in a Name? Steampunk Before “Steampunk”

What’s in a Name? Steampunk Before “Steam-punks”

You may recall that last year here on the Journal we had ourselves a “30th birthday party” all of April in honor of the term “Steampunk.” I also had the great pleasure and honor of creating a timeline exhibit that was on display at the International Steampunk Symposium, Motor City Steam Con, and TeslaCon during last year. (Thanks again to P.R. Chase for providing the excellent graphics for the exhibit that I will be using for this series.)

Now, I’ve teamed up with some other awesome sites to host a little “blog hop” chronicling the last three decades together for an online audience. It’s part of the blog tour for the launch of a collaborative Steampunk novel called Army of Brass, which will be released on Steampunk’s “birthday” on Friday. (Want to celebrate, too? Pre-order the book now and get it delivered to your e-reader on 4/27.)

But before we can get into the time since the word existed, I thought it would be a great opportunity to pay homage to those things that fit within the Steampunk canon but came before the 1987 date. Even K.W. Jeter, who made up the word, openly admits that it was happening with or without him.

Is Science Fiction of the Victorian Era “Steampunk?”

My personal and very brief answer to this question is a resounding “no.” Others disagree, but here’s my logic. The purpose of “Scientific Romances” (as they were called by their contemporaries) penned by the likes of Jules Verne, HG Wells, etc. was decidedly forward-looking. They were written largely about a near future the authors thought (or hoped, or feared, depending on the story) might just be possible.

Steampunk, on the other hand, is more or less backward-looking. We are at a point technologically and intellectually beyond the period on which this genre draws. Even if a story is set at some point in the future, if the tech is circa the Industrial Revolution, it’s harkening to the past. These works often use archetypes and tropes created during the steam era that offer commentary on either the past or the present. Therefore, I see them as fundamentally different enterprises from the “classics.” So for the sake of this article about Steampunk before “Steampunk,” I’ll be skipping right over the “greats” and heading into the mid-20th century as a starting point.

Adaptations of Victorian Works

In another article, I’ve discussed the place of “punk” in Steampunk at length. So I won’t retread that ground here. Instead, allow me a brief aside about the act of adapting a work from one medium to another. Some of the best-loved works for the steam era were adapted to stage productions even during the author’s lifetime. For instance, The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson hit the stage only a year after the novella was first published.

The writer attended the production, and promptly stormed out in a huff. In the book, he’d been careful never to say precisely what it was that the good doctor believed was so “evil” about himself (which in turn manifested as Mr. Hyde). In the play, they’d decided to show this evil by making Mr. Hyde was a consummate womanizer. Stevenson was appalled that his “evil” character could be minimized by such a trivial vice. But while vagueness works just fine in print, it really wouldn’t have worked at all on stage.

Changing to Suit

If you’d asked the playwright, not choosing some visual cues as to the nature of said “evil” would have ruined the play. The truth of the matter is that many wonderful books simply do not translate to a visual medium without there being some sort of concession to both the medium itself and audience expectations. In other words, the books almost always get at least a little bit “punked.”

When it comes to Jekyll and Hyde, the more adaptations that were created, the more they tended to deviate. (Dozens in fact!) In the original, the reader doesn’t know the connection between the two men, and the story is told by a third party. In most visual adaptations, there’s no narrator at all save Jekyll and Hyde themselves, who are most often played by the same actor. This is totally at odds with the original and fundamentally changes the audience’s experience. (Though you would have trouble finding someone nowadays who didn’t already know the Stevenson’s twist.) But again, this kind of castings works better for a visual medium than the written version would. So between the pressures of the medium as well as the pressure to do something new, the stories change with each new adaptation.

Early Adaptations (and Re-Adaptations)

Though it may seem paradoxical of me, this is why I put the slew of adaptations of the 19th century classics more firmly into the Steampunk canon than the original works. Note I say “more firmly,” which is to say that they don’t necessarily fit well at all, but by dint of being adaptations there is potential for change. Furthermore, some would be more comfortably placed into one of the other Anachropunks better than “Steam,” so you may disagree with the examples I have provided. All the same, these are some of the first film adaptations of works penned during the steam era, and are worth noting as inspiration for those who were destined to wear the Steampunk moniker later.

Alice in Wonderland (1903, 1931, and 1951)

The book was first published by Lewis Carroll in 1865, and found its way to theaters first as an 8-minute film in 1903. It sticks close to the story, but as a silent film, it lacks the charm and resonance of Carroll’s incredible language.

The adaptation in 1931 gave literal “voice” to the story, but apparently, the amateur American actors had difficulty replicating British accents. The 1930s saw several different plays, puppet shows, and other types of adaptations as “Alice Fever” swept the English-speaking world.

Two decades later, Disney Studios gave it their best shot, but this time in animation. This was their 13th animated feature length film. Originally, Disney began work on an animated feature adaptation back in the 1930s, but abandoned the project. The idea was revived in the 1940s and came to fruition in 1951. This film is noted as one of the best ever made by that studio, and often hailed among the best adaptations of Alice in Wonderland ever made.

You’re probably familiar with the film, but what most people don’t know is that Walt Disney had already made a series of shorts in the early 1920s that paid homage to the story called “Alice Comedies.

Around the World in 80 Days (1919 and 1956)

It surprised me that this Jules Verne story was one of the first to be adapted to film. I’d assumed that so many different locations would have made filming it very expensive and time-consuming. The original story was written in 1873, and the first adaptation came out of Germany in 1919. Despite the World Wars, Germany was a major force in filmmaking during the first half of the 20th century. This version is a parody of the original story and originally had to go by the name “A Journey Around the World” due to a copyright kerfuffle with the Verne estate.

But the version you’ve probably seen came from Disney in 1956. Though this adaptation wasn’t playing for laughs, the screenwriters did take liberties. The most obvious is the addition of a stop in Spain and Phileas Fogg’s arrival by hot air balloon. Though this scene didn’t appear in the original text, it may have been a nod to another Verne classic, Five Weeks in Balloon (1863). To make space, they dropped (rather lengthy) section of the story about the history of the Mormons. I don’t think any viewers minded swapping a lecture for flamenco dancing!

The Mysterious Island (1929, 1941, and 1951)

The first film to tackle this Jules Verne tale in 1929 had the name, but bore little resemblance to the book. In many ways, it was more like a prequel to 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, except that [spoiler] the captain (here called “Dakkar” rather than Nemo) does die at the end of the story as he does in the book. This rendition was thought to be lost until a copy was discovered and preserved in Prague in 2013.

The 1941 film was made in Russia and follows the original text much more closely. A decade later, Columbia Pictures produced the first English language adaptation, but couldn’t resist a little “punking” along the way. In addition to the pirates and natural phenomenon that threaten the shipwrecked heroes, aliens from Mercury also inhabit the island. They could fit in this extra plot because it ran as a serial and totalled over 250 minutes of run-time.

Treasure Island (1934 and 1950)

Another of Stevenson’s works has been popular on the silver screen. What it lacks in steam power, it makes up for through the “shipwrecked” trope. Several writers during the steam era penned tales of the poor, lost souls who came aground on a mysterious land. (Personally, I’d love to see Steampunk embrace this more, but the authors seem to have felt more at home in urban settings.)

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954)

This has to be one of, if not the most popular film adaptations of Jules Verne’s work. Yet, it deviates sharply from the original in terms of the technology involved. Rather than relying on a chemical reaction to create electricity, Nemo’s Nautilus is powered by a nuclear reactor. This choice likely reflected the enthusiasm at that time for a new technology rather than any issue with Verne’s science. The film also makes the encounter with the giant squid into a much bigger event than in the text.

The Fabulous World of Jules Verne (1958)

This Czech film is a mish-mash of Verne’s stories, but draws most heavily from the lesser known Facing the Flag. You can watch the beautiful hand-colored film in its entirety here.

Journey to the Center of the Earth (1959)

In the 1864 book by Jules Verne, an eccentric uncle and nephew team follow centuries-old directions to a tunnel that leads into the earth. This adaptation adds murder and conspiracy to what is more or less a travelogue. Competing factions are trying to prove the truth behind the claims, and are willing to kill for it.

The Time Machine (1960)

H.G. Wells’ 1895 novella became a film on the heals of the many Verne stories. The unnamed “time traveler” character is given the moniker of “George” in honor of the author. This adaptation gives George a few more stops along the way, including the 1940 blitz. Once he reaches the far future the story reconnects to the original. They got the creepy Morlocks right, but the Eloi look just like regular people. The character of Weena gets a larger role and is cast as a love interest. 

Steampunk on Television

Of course, we can’t have any discussion about Steampunk before “Steampunk” with mentioning the TV show, Wild Wild West. Though it has a cowboy-laden setting, the name comes from the main character, James West. With the help of his partner and their gadget-filled train car, they spy on behalf of Ulysses S. Grant. This show blended the genres of Western and spy-thrillers such as James Bond, which were both popular at the time. The show lasted for four seasons between 1964-1969. In addition, 1980 saw the making of TV-movies, Wild Wild West Revisited and More Wild Wild West Revisited.

We’ll end today’s post about the history of Steampunk right here. If you want to know about the first decade of the genre after it got its name, especially the books that make up its literary backbone, check out the continuation of the series on Chris Pavesic’s blog tomorrow!

And don’t forget! Army of Brass is coming out this week.

Order your ebook copy of Army of Brass for $.99 and receive it on Friday, April 27!

Plus, Join us on Facebook April 28-29 to meet the writers, participate in giveaways, and more!

Speaking of giveaways, we’ve got one going on for the entire blog tour, so between April 13-May 13, enter to win ebooks from our writers.

And as part of our blog tour, you can read a review of Army of Brass, take a sneak peek at the full Chapter 1, read an exclusive excerpt, or check out an interview with writer Jason Pere or Jean Grabow. If you want to find out more about collaborative writing, Army of Brass contributors and CWC veterans Crystal MM Burton and Kathrin Hutson shared articles for the tour about the pros, cons, and rewards.


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