Saturday, June 30, 2012
Around the World in Eighty Days by Jules Verne
Yes, Around the World in Eighty Days is the kind of book that everyone knows about and no one has read. But it is well worth reading. Phileas Fogg, the quintessential British gentleman, is wealthy, stuffy, phlegmatic, and punctual beyond all reason. His servant, Passepartout, is excitable, emotional, extremely loyal, and quintessentially French. When some cool remarks on the possibilities of modern travel excites slight agitation in the hallowed halls of the inaptly-named Reform Club, Phileas Fogg causes a sensation by wagering that he can circumnavigate the glove in eighty days. Before Passepartout can object, he finds himself whisked away from the comfortable Fogg residence, far away on a whirlwind tour of the globe which will be filled with danger, excitement, and suspense. And that's even without the detective Fix, Fogg's nemesis, who follows him in the unshakeable belief that Fogg is the bank robber he's after...
One of the really classic adventure yarns, a brisk there-and-back-again story, Around the World in Eighty Days is heaps of fun. Verne's pure storytelling powers are perhaps best displayed here, in a straight adventure story. The plot is extremely simple, yet extremely well constructed. The characters look like stereotypes--but conceal hidden depths: Passepartout rises to all occasions, Phileas Fogg does have a heart, and Aouda, the Indian widow they collect while disrupting her husband's funeral pyre, is not bad with a revolver.
Unlike most of Verne's books, this is the one with apparently the fewest science fiction elements. And yet, by a strict definition, it is science fiction. The book is entirely based upon the cutting-edge technology of the 1870s: steam train and boat. In an age when anyone with the money can book a plane fare and be on the other side of the world in a few hours or at most, days, the idea of being able to book train and boat journeys all the way around the world, in relative comfort and with only slight disruption from wild Indians (brown and red), does not seem as strange and wonderful as it did to the people of Verne's day.
But at that time this was new and wonderful. Could a man really circumnavigate the world in a brief eighty days? Step back a handful of decades to a time when the world was bigger and stranger, and look for some high adventure with Phileas Fogg and his faithful servant.
I've seen two movie adaptations of this book. The 1958 version roughly follows the plot of the book, only adding in as many stereotypical national spectacles and famous-actor-cameos as possible. The 2004 version...best we forget, no matter how much we love Jackie Chan. Neither, of course, really does the book justice.