Journey to the Center of the Earth

Journey to the Center of the Earth. 20th Century Fox 1959.
Journey to the Center of the Earth. 20th Century Fox 1959.

Before watching the movie:

It seems like this is Jules Verne’s most-adapted story, and it’s widely different from version to version. That’s probably because from what I remember of the book, there isn’t so much plot as an excuse to go on a low-tech sci-fi adventure. Exotic locations, exciting science, and fights with dinosaurs. If anyone else had been doing what Verne was doing at the time, we might consider him a pulp author.

So coming into this, I’m mainly expecting some high-budget, relatively innocent excitement. The blockbuster movie of the 1950s. I’m also interested in seeing how much of the parts of Verne’s book that aren’t “dinosaurs underground” still remains.

After watching the movie:

Freshly knighted professor of geology Sir Oliver Lindenbrook of the University of Edinburgh is given a volcanic rock from the Mediterranean as a gift from his pupils, and sets out to study it. Inside, he finds a plumb bob with Icelandic writing on it describing how to find a passageway to the center of the Earth, signed by the infamous geologist Arne Saknussen, who was mocked for his claims until he disappeared three hundred years ago. Lindenbrook sends his findings to Stockholm geologist Professor Göteborg for review, and learns that Göteborg has run off to get there first. Accompanied by his pupil/son-in-law-to-be Alec McKuen, Lindenbrook hastily heads for Reykjavik, where he discovers the professor to be murdered by someone interested in keeping people out of the volcano. Someone who would also be against the Lindenbrook expedition, now consisting of Lindenbrook, Alec, a strong Icelander named Hans (and his duck), and the widowed Mrs. Göteborg.

I was surprised at how much this cleaves to the original. There are a few minor liberties, like changing the Hamburg Prof. Lidebrock and Axel to Edinburg’s Lindenbrook and Alec, and some larger ones for the sake of jazzing up the medium, like adding a woman and an antagonist (with rather flimsy motivation), but quite a lot of the book is still there. And then they get greedy and throw in Atlantis, but don’t do much with it.

I was expecting lavish visuals, but it really isn’t all that spectacular. There are only a handful of sets that obviously involved more design than “caves”, and most of them rely on some (very good) matte paintings. And then there are the dinosaurs portrayed by enlarged augmented lizards, which are fortunately reserved, or they’d be even more comical. These dinosaurs make me glad the more fantastical creatures from the book were cut. They try to make up for the lack of visuals by showing off the actors. Especially Alec and Hans (who’s just there for muscle anyway). Lindenbrook and Carla get showier in their ragged outfits than they necessarily had to, but Mason and Dahl have no trouble making it work.

One might see Lindenbrook’s sexism as unfortunate for the movie, but it seems pretty clearly to just be Lindenbrook’s. In fact, his whining about having a woman butt into his all-guys spelunking trip could possibly be intentionally exaggerated for comedy, and her playing foil to his sexist attitude in general is definitely meant as a source of humor. Carla does handle herself pretty well for someone unaccustomed to the rigors of exploratory geology, and is generally shown as intelligent and capable. Alec is the designated character to put in peril, not Carla.

Even with the added plot-driving characters, this film is pretty light on plot. But even though the visuals weren’t as impressive as I was expecting, the spirit of adventure and discovery keeps the story interesting all the way through. There’s a healthy dose of wit and action, and the character dynamics created by the added characters keep everybody interesting. In fact, more interesting than Verne wrote them.

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