The Adventures of Mark Twain (1985) is an 80s-tastic way to Learn About this Great American Writer
I was born in the 1980s, but a little too late to really remember its pitfalls (like huge hair and shoulder pads) or its triumphs (the advent of the music video, and of course, Steampunk) first hand. Luckily for us, this was a time when tons of weird, wonderful and sometimes experimental television and movies were being made, which captured some of the essence of that era. The 1970s and 80s saw a revival of a film technique that was pioneered by Thomas Edison’s manufacturing company in 1908: clay-animation. You can see their film, A Sculptor’s Nightmare, here.
The very first stop-motion film of all time, which employed moving toys, was made in 1897. Samuel Langhorn Clemens, better known by his pen name, Mark Twain, lived until 1910, so it is entirely possible that he saw the first clay-animation film and probable that he saw earlier stop-motion films as well.
The Adventures of Mark Twain was made in 1985 and is a trippy clay-anmation sojourn through the works of Mark Twain. There is a little bit of biographical information, but mostly it is a chance to showcase his contributions to literature. The viewer is swept away along on an airship adventure along with some of Twain’s best-known characters, Huck Finn, Tom Sawyer and Becky Thatcher. Twain was born near the passage of Halley’s Comet in 1835, and always said he believed he would leave this world again the next time it passed in 1910 (he died the day after it returned), so the film revolves around him trying to keep his “appointment” and visiting some of his greatest works along the way.
Though it may seem morbid that he is racing to his own death, the film is wonderful combination of stunning visuals, abstraction and humor, which totally downplays the seemingly morbid plot line. Though I should warn you that even though this is an animated film, and so you may be thinking it was made for kids, the depiction of “The Mysterious Stranger” is pretty terrifying. Adults would get much more out of this movie than kids, especially if they have read any Twain at all.
I thoroughly enjoyed this film, which came out on DVD in 2006. When it was originally released in 1985 it had a very limited run, so I wouldn’t be surprised if few people even knows it exists.
Journey 2: The Mysterious Island (2012) Tries Too Hard
We Steampunk fans enjoy a nice mash-up of literary references like in Alan Moore’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, but it takes an exceptional writer to make it all fit together in a coherent narrative. Unfortunately, this sequel to Journey to the Center of the Earth shoe horns this notion between overwrought action and family drama in a pretty unsatisfactory way.
A few years have passed since the events of the first film, and Sean (Josh Hutcherson) has a new stepfather, Hank (Dwayne Johnson). His relationship with the former Navy code breaker is rocky, but when Hank helps Sean decipher a message from his wayward grandfather (Michael Caine) they find some common ground. The message reveals that the island in Verne’s novel is not only real, but is the same island described in Treasure Island and Gulliver’s Travels, and resides somewhere off the coast of the Philippines. (I actually winced when Hank rips the map pages out of the three books in order to fit them into a single island. Have some respect, dude!)
Once they reach Palau, they find that the only people willing to take them to their coordinates (which turn out to be caught in a perpetual hurricane) are a helicopter pilot (Luis Guzman) and his daughter (Vanessa Hudgens). The four of them crash land on a lush island populated by giant insects and Lilliputian pachyderms, and must fend off a dinosaur-scale iguana within minutes of landing. After a brief respite at grandpa’s house, they journey into the jungle past a volcano spouting gold (a reference to the mountain of gold in Treasure Island), see the remnants of the lost city of Atlantis that Verne described in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, and discover that the island is rapidly sinking once again. Without any means of contacting the outside world during the storm, their only hope is Nemo’s Nautilus, which is still hidden somewhere on the island.
Okay, so you know how I like crappy movies? Even I had some trouble with this one. The action is overblown and basically unending and the dialog was hit and miss. I almost stopped watching the film completely when I got to a scene which centered on “The Rock” popping his pectorals and saying it was the best way to get women. GAG! Also, the “science” didn’t really work. For instance, I am willing to play along with their use of island dwarfism/gigantism, especially as the much-lauded 1961 Mysterious Island features giant critters as well, but if the island is trapped in a perpetual storm and periodically sinks to the depths of the ocean, where did the animals even come from???
It’s pretty much only worth a viewing if you like making snarky comments about what you are watching (which is a regular pastime in the Darqueling household) and can take it all with a grain of salt. Also, the effects are pretty awesome so the visuals are cool. But if you are looking for a good story that has much of anything to do with Verne’s book, skip it.
Journey to the Center of the Earth (2008) Pays Homage to the Original Without Just Retelling the Story
I just went back and counted how many TV and movie reviews I have posted since I started this site. Over the last 18 months I have told you about over 20 different films and shows, and to tell you the truth I didn’t even know there were that many to talk about when I started. Plus, I have a list of another dozen or so that are still forthcoming! With the exception of a few, my reviews have mostly been focused on stories that took place during Victorian times, but there are also films that make references to things from that era that occur at later dates. They may lack the Steampunk aesthetic that we know and love, but I think they deserve a nod for their “punking” of the classics.
The big-budget Journey to the Center of the Earth is one of these films, and should not be confused with the mockbuster by the same name that came out the same year. As a fan of the Mummy movies, there was no way I was going to miss Brendan Fraser in another adventure story. It served as the big screen directorial debut for Eric Brevig, someone whose work you have probably seen without knowing it because he worked on the visual effects for tons of movies such as Wild, Wild West, Men in Black, and several M. Night Shyamalan films. I only just finished reading the book, but as I was doing so I was able to draw a lot of parallels between the text and this contemporary reinterpretation.
The world of this story hinges on one central fact: Verne was writing the truth. According to the story, there is a secret society of learned folks called Vernians who are trying to find their way to the places described in the novels. Brendan Fraser’s character, Trevor Andersen, is not a Vernian but a volcanologist who has devoted his life to the study of volcanic tubes. His brother, Max, was also studying this fringe branch of geology, but he went missing on the path described by Verne leading to the center of the earth.
All that is known to his brother and his son Sean (Josh Hutcherson), is that he disappeared during field research in Iceland, but when an old copy of Journey to the Center of the Earth covered in his cryptic field notes (a direct reference to the discovery of the coded message in the professor’s volume in the novel) is discovered among Max’s belongings, Trevor and Sean rush to his lab to investigate the similarities to his own readings. Upon finding that the equipment placed on Sneffels has come back to life after years of dormancy, the uncle and nephew team head to Iceland to retrieve it.
They enlist a tough as nails mountain guide who recognizes the scribbles in Max’s book as belonging to a Vernian because her own father had also been a believer until his death a few years earlier. They hire her to take them up the mountain to get the scientific instruments, but none of them believe in the reality of the story until a landslide traps them in a cave and they have no choice but to descend into the bowels of the earth in hopes of finding a way out. After a side trip into an old mine and surviving a preposterously long fall down one of the aforementioned volcanic tubes they find themselves on the shore of the same sea recorded in Verne’s story. They attempt to voyage across the sea as their predecessors did, and like them fall prey to sea creatures and a terrible storm to find themselves on a distant shore and in danger from the rapidly rising temperatures in the granite chamber.
Oh yeah, and dinosaurs. Did I forget to mention the dinosaurs?
This is a lighthearted, fun movie that borrows some great parts from the original story, and adds some bits of its own. I remember when it came out it was at the forefront of the “we must make every movie 3D!!!!” phase of film-making which has thankfully calmed down in recent times, and some of the added scenes feel like they were definitely conceived with that in mind rather than say, moving the plot forward. But still, it is enjoyable and a nice way to waste 93 minutes if you’ve got the time. A lot of reviewers I read have nothing nice to say about Josh Hutcherson, but I liked him as the moody teen companion to his stodgy uncle.
I also appreciated that the biggest bad-ass in the group was obviously the female mountain guide, portrayed by native Icelander Anita Briem. She was only really in danger like one time because she was carrying all the heavy stuff and it almost drowned her. She’s the one that gets them through the physical challenges and keeps her cool in face of danger, not unlike her counterpart in the Verne novel.
What do you think? Should movies stick strictly to the original story, or is there room for this kind of interpretive punking?
Jules Verne’s Mysterious Island (2012) Adds Time Travel to the Classic Tale
In this made-for-TV flick part of the mystery of the island comes from relocating it from off the coast of New Zealand to the Bermuda Triangle. According to the movie, ships regularly disappear from this spot because of a rift in time that sucks in travelers. This allows the story to include not only 17th century pirates and refugees from the American Civil War, but also some ladies from the present. I really enjoyed this twist because it was a chance to call attention to how much has changed in the last century and a half. There are culture clashes even between fellow Americans because of advances in technology and social norms.
Ever since the 1961 version, the trend with movie adaptations of The Mysterious Island seems to be to add some kind of creepy critter to up the ante when it comes to danger and action to what is really a pretty subtle story about a group of castaways. In both the 1961 the 2005 version, all of the animals on the island grew to huge proportions. In this one, in addition to a giant octopus blocking their escape by sea, the island is overrun by apelike creatures who (spoiler alert) turn out to be Nemo’s disenfranchised crew.
The writing had a few holes and the acting was pretty hit or miss, but it was a fun movie all the same. I, of course, like “bad” movies so I will probably put with more than your average movie viewer. You can watch it on Netflix or through youtube below.
This mockbuster was made to piggyback on the major motion picture release the same year of Journey 2: The Mysterious Island, which was a sequel to the big budget Brendan Fraser movie, Journey to the Center of the Earth that came out in 2008. I’ll bring you reviews of those as well, so stay tuned during March for even more Verne and adaptations!
Steampunk Sourcebook: Around the World in 80 Days
Fun Facts and Context
- Le Tour du monde en quatre-vingts jours was Jules Verne’s 11th novel, and like many of the time it was first presented in a serialized format before it was compiled into a book in 1873. It was accompanied by the illustrations of Alphonse de Neuville, a French painter known for his depictions of the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871).
- Verne served in the Franco-Prussian War, and doing research for this book likely served to take his mind off of those events.
- The dates of Fogg’s return to England coincided with the final date of publication for the original serial. Because of this, some readers believed they were reading a real travelogue rather than a fictional story.
- Many people associate a hot air balloon trip with this story, but in fact there was no balloon in the original text. This is likely because the 1956 Disney film added an additional stop in Spain to the tale and the protagonists reached it by balloon. Jules Verne did write about a daring escape by balloon, but it wasn’t until The Mysterious Island was published in 1874.
Timeline and Synopsis of the Story
- September 28, 1872: Bank of England is robbed. 50,000 GBP is stolen. This is the equivalent of four million GBP or 6.2 million USD today.
- October 1, 1872: Phileas Fogg hires Passepartout as his new valet after his old valet gets the temperature of his shaving water wrong. Fogg goes from his home on Savile Row to the Reform Club as usual, and during a discussion about a new stretch of railroad in India he is drawn into a bet with his friends. With the hefty sum of 20,000 GBP (1.6 million today) on the line, he agrees to travel around the world and return at the same time 80 days later on December 21, 1872.
- October 2, 1872: Fogg and Passepartout leave England by train.
- October 9, 1872: After a brief stopover in France, the travelers reach Suez, Egypt and meet Detective Fix for the first time. He is on the trail of the bank robber, and Fogg’s erratic behavior and passing resemblance to the vague description of the burglar make him a suspect. They leave Suez by ship with Fix in tow.
- October 20, 1872: The travelers arrive in Bombay, India, two days ahead of schedule. Passepartout wanders into a temple and is chased out by the monks for not removing his shoes. He arrives at the platform and boards a train bound for Calcutta just in time.
October 22, 1872: Fogg’s train can go no further because the railway is unfinished, despite what the newspapers say. They manage to hire a guide called Parsee and an elephant named Kiouni to carry them on toward Calcutta.
- October 24, 1872: While traveling through the jungle, the travelers encounter a ceremony where a young bride, Aouda, is being prepared to follow her aged husband into death. She cannot struggle because of the influence of drugs, so she is rescued by Fogg and another traveling companion after Passepartout creates a diversion by posing as the deceased man’s body and “rising from the dead” to scare the natives. They escape by means of their trusty elephant and continue to Calcutta.
- October 25, 1872: The travelers arrive in Calcutta with five hours to spare to remain on their original itinerary despite the delay. As soon as they arrive Passepartout is arrested for his transgression in Bombay and both he and Fogg are taken into custody. They use some of Fogg’s considerable cash resources to pay off his valet’s debt and make the noon ship bound for Hong Kong. Aouda continues on the journey because India is no longer safe for her, and she knows of family living in China. Fix, still without a warrant but with high hopes for Britain’s Easternmost colony, tags along in secret.
- November 7, 1872: The travelers arrive in Hong Kong. Unfortunately, Aouda’s family member had already moved away from Hong Kong years earlier. While out getting supplies for the next step of the journey, Passepartout gets news of an earlier departure time for their vessel. Fix still has not received his warrant for Fogg’s arrest and is determined to keep him from leaving British soil. Fix invites Passepartout out for a farewell drink and gets him to try opium. The valet becomes so besotted that he falls asleep and Fogg does not hear about the new travel arrangements. In his delirium, Passepartout says the name of the disembarking ship and is brought there and installed in his master’s cabin. He awakes the next morning to find that he has left his master behind, but determined to rejoin him somewhere along his route and alert him to the danger that Fix represents. Fogg hires a small vessel called the Tankadere to carry he and Aouda to Shanghai to catch the ferry to Yokohama at its next port.
- November 13, 1872: Passepartout arrives penniless in Yokohama, Japan. He seeks for ways to continue his journey to America to intercept Fogg by offering his services to the owner of a traveling circus. He is hired as an acrobat and during his first performance is astounded to see Fogg and Aouda in the audience, having also arrived in Yokohama after flagging down the American vessel in the port of Shanghai. Fix continues to travel with Fogg, who is covering all of his expenses.
- November 23, 1872: Fogg and company pass the 180th meridian, which marks the halfway point of their circumnavigation of the planet.
- December 3, 1872: The travelers reach San Francisco and are caught up in a political rally where Fogg has a confrontation with an American named Colonel Stamp Proctor. Fix steps in to help because he needs Fogg to return to England before he can be arrested. The company boards a train that evening intent upon using the Transcontinental Railway to reach New York.
- December 7, 1872: Fogg runs into Colonel Proctor on the train and a duel ensues. It is interrupted by an attack on the train by the Sioux tribe. Passepartout is taken hostage and Fogg, Fix and Aouda are left behind when the train continues on its route as they attempt to devise a rescue mission. With the help of American soldiers stationed nearby, Fogg retrieves Passepartout and the travelers are forced to continue by way of a wind-powered sledge to Omaha in hopes of catching another train.
- December 9, 1872: Arrive in Omaha and board a train for Chicago.
- December 10, 1872: Arrive in Chicago and board a train for New York.
- December 11, 1872: Arrive 45 minutes late for their steamship from New York to Liverpool.
- December 12, 1872: The party boards a ship bound for Bordeaux with little hope of arriving in London before the December 21 deadline, but it is the only ship leaving with a destination even close to England.
- December 16, 1872: Fogg proceeds to buy the ship from the captain and throw all of the wooden parts into the furnace to fuel their journey. He redirects the ship to bring them to Liverpool, England.
- December 21, 1872: With six hours to reach London in order to win the bet, Fogg and co. arrive in Liverpool. They would have just enough time to beat their deadline, but now that they have finally arrived on English soil, Fix arrests Fogg. It doesn’t take long to find out the real bank robber had been caught during the mad dash around the world, but the short delay is just enough to lose the wager for Fogg. He arrives in London 5 minutes late.
- Actually, December 21, 1872: The party gained an entire day during their journey, but they have yet to realize it. Aouda proposes marriage to Fogg and he heartily accepts. They intend to marry that very day and send Passepartout for the parson. When he arrives at the parson’s door he says he cannot perform the ceremony at that time because it is Sunday and he was busy on church business. Passepartout races back to Savile Row and whisks Fogg away to the Reform Club, where he arrives exactly on time to win the wager.
References in Steampunk Literature and Other Media
- Philip Jose Farmer wrote The Other Log of Phileas Fogg as part of his Wold Newton Universe. In it, Fogg is the foster child of an alien and Captain Nemo is aligned with another race of aliens. The bet and journey around the world were an elaborate cover story to disguise Fogg’s quest for an alien artefact that would change the tide of the war between the two competing races.
- It has been adapted for film five times since 1919, the most recent being in 2004, where martial arts expert and comedic actor Jackie Chan played Passepartout opposite Steven Coogan (Night at the Museum, Despicable Me 2) as Phileas Fogg in a new adaptation of the novel.
- It has been adapted for television four times since 1972, including a Japanese version where all the characters are animals.
- It was adapted for the stage for the first time in 2001 by Mark Brown. He has also written a sequel for the stage for another Victorian classic in the form of The Trial of Ebenezer Scrooge.
- In 2014, a game called “80 Days” was launched by Inkle Development Company. It is an interactive game that blends the story and retro-futuristic technology.
- Also in 2014, Ben Steele released a version of Around the World in 80 Days (a Steampunk Reimagining) with illustrations by Josh Ross. It includes “lost” content and a board game.
- The International Steampunk Symposium in April of 2015 is going to feature the theme “Around the World in 48 Hours” as an homage to Verne’s work.
Mysterious Island (2005) Both Adds and Subtracts from Verne’s Story
I caught this quirky two-parter for the first time close to when it first aired in 2005. I wasn’t familiar with the Mysterious Island book, but the premise sounded fun and I was familiar with several of the actors. During my research I found several people who say their favorite rendition is from 1961, but I haven’t had a chance to see that one yet. So during March I will bring you reviews of adaptations in 2005 and 2012.
Quick book synopsis: During the American Civil War, five people escape a POW camp in Virginia by stealing a reconnaissance balloon. They end up crash landing on a tiny island off the coast of New Zealand. Their chances of survival seem bleak, especially with bloodthirsty pirates afoot, but thanks to a mysterious benefactor they create a cozy home for themselves. It turns out that their “host” is none other than Captain Nemo, who has retired the Nautilus and now lives with a single servant on the island. (Note- the chronology of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea as it relates to this book is problematic. The American Civil War ended in 1865, but 20,000 Leagues takes place in 1866, which means the war would have been over before the events of The Mysterious Island.)
Now onto the movie. It originally aired on the Hallmark Channel in two, 90-minute parts. This makes it a big commitment for a single evening. In this version, the lead role of the engineer and Union soldier is played by Kyle MacLachlan (Sex in the City, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.), and in place of two of the soldier-types they substitute a comely widow (Gabrielle Anwar) and her teenage daughter. They also decided that building up the mystery surrounding Nemo (Patrick Stewart) wasn’t worth their time, so giant CG animals are added to the mix. The pirates, lead by Vinnie Jones (Snatch, Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels) also get a more central role in the plot.
Though this is technically not a mockbuster because it did not accompany any big-budget release with a similar name, I would file this under that heading in terms of quality. The graphics were probably pretty good 10 years ago when it came out, but look pretty choppy and fake by today’s standards. I actually dug the addition of the monsterous creatures because it added action to what would be a pretty boring film, but my inner geek has to complain for just a second. I am perfectly fine with suspending my disbelief enough to buy into the explanation that the animals got really big because there was radioactive material on the island, I can live with that. But the uber ant was like 20 times bigger than the XL rat. Proportions people! Ok, I am done now.
So, yeah, if you like giant insects and a plot dripping with pirate-itude, then by all means, check this one out (both parts are embedded below). If you are trying to get your hands on a faithful portrayal of Verne’s vision, maybe try to find the 1961 version instead.
March is Jules Verne Month
Jules Verne died in March of 1905, so to commemorate his many contributions to the science fiction canon that have inspired myriad interpretations within Steampunk, I am devoting all of March to Verne-themed books, movies, artwork and characters.
Here are few things to look forward to this month:
Steampunk Sourcebooks for Around the World in 80 Days and Jules Verne himself
Reviews of two adaptations of The Mysterious Island
Unveiling a brand new 3D paper illustration by yours truly
Book reviews of two classic Verne tales
But there is still space in my editorial calendar for a few more things, so feel free to make suggestions! Have you ever dressed as a character from a Verne novel and you’ve got a photo you want to see on my blog? Do you know some fun facts you think others would enjoy? Let me know : )
The Brothers Grimm Fairy Tale Guide (and Drinking Game)
One of my most popular posts is my review of The Brothers Grimm movie with Matt Damon and Heath Ledger. The original book of stories, Children’s and Household Tales, was published in 1812, and its English translation was read in nurseries during the Victorian period. This is one of my favorite movies of all time, so I have watched it many times with many different people. Across these viewings, a drinking game has emerged according to the references to the Grimm’s fairy tale collection. There a few instances of fairy tale-like phrases and characters that I haven’t been able to find a basis for in the Grimm’s book, so below is a guide both for people who want to play the game or who just want to know what the movie is referencing.
The rules of the game are pretty simple. Every time there is a Grimm’s fairy tale reference, you have to take a swallow of you adult beverage of choice. These references fall into a couple categories:
1. Fairy tale numbers: The numbers 3 (as in 3 wishes), 7 (dwarves) and 12 (dancing princesses) often occur in fairy tales. This film uses 3 and 12 more than once, so each time one of these numbers is mentioned, take a swig.
2. Phrases: Things like “Once upon a time” and “happily ever after” have become synonymous with fairy tales. Other recognizable tropes are “the fairest of them all,” “true love’s kiss,” and “Mirror, Mirror on the wall.” So any time you hear these types of phrases that ring a bell from a childhood tale, swallow away.
3. Direct references: There are tons of verbal and visual references to classic fairy tales throughout the film as well. The writers combine several tales into single characters, so there may be several times to drink stacked on top of each other. These are the ones that I have been able to confirm using a translation of the original text.
- Jack and the Beanstalk- Magic beans are mentioned at least 5 times
- Briar Rose (aka Sleeping Beauty)- one of the first gadgets they use is said to be from Briar Rose’s castle, and later several girls are put into a magically induced sleep after their fingers are pricked.)
- Little Red Riding Hood (cape, “what big eyes you have”, big bad wolf)
- Godfather Death
- Rumpelstilkskin (Jacob mentions an imp whose name they had to guess)
- The Frog Prince (“kiss a frog” mentioned, and kissing a toad in the woods)
- Hansel and Gretel (Hans and Greta)
- Rapunzel (tower with no entrance, long hair used to escape the tower)
- The Juniper Tree (trees that move. You could play that any time you see a tree move you take a drink, or only the first time when Greta is taken)
- Snow White (old crone with an apple, magic mirror)
- Cinderella (Cavaldi calls the brothers this while making them scrub floors, later glass slippers appear on the feet of a kidnapped girl)
- The Goose Girl- the peasants of Marbaden can occasionally be seen herding geese in the film.
Red herrings: There are other fairy tale references that you will recognize, but they were NOT in the original Grimm’s collection. It is up to you if you want to play the game with or without these.
- Bridge Troll (3 Billy Goats Gruff)- This is a Norse tale, first recorded in 1841.
- Horse infected by spiders- There is a terrifying scene where an enchanted horse swallows a little girl with the aid of the spiders who infected it earlier. Though compelling and in the spirit of the dark tales, I couldn’t find any basis for this in Grimm’s collection.
- The Gingerbread Man- in the film, one of the girls is encased in mud and takes the form of a gingerbread man. This story was not published until 1875, so post-dates the Grimm’s collection.
- The Princess and the Pea- In the film, the evil queen is sleeping on a thick stack of mattresses. But, this is a Danish story recorded for the first time by Hans Christian Andersen in 1835.
- “Huff and puff”- Though there are two “big bad wolves” in the Grimm collection, they don’t blow anything down.
- Ravens as minions- There is a tale in the Grimm collection of seven brothers who are turned into ravens, but in the film the evil queen employs them as spies and to carry someone up to the tower window. Ravens were the minions of Odin in Norse mythology, but are not used this way in the German collection of stories.
Did I miss something? Leave a comment below!