Sunday, August 14, 2011

Vintage Novels {Around the World in 80 Days}


Are you ready for the classic tale of world travel and high adventure?
Of course you are!
And of course you've heard of M. Verne's famous travelogue, being that you are interesting, intelligent people. Perhaps you've even read it. How could anyone not have heard of Phileas Fogg and Passepartout's famous journey?
If you've never read it, then let me tell you -it's way better than any film version.
If by some bizarre twist of fate and you've never heard of this 1873 novel before, let me briefly tell you about it.
On the night of 2 October 1872, Phileas Fogg, the most punctual gentleman in London and mysteriously wealthy (as people from mysterious backgrounds usually are) is playing whist at the Reform Club (as he does every night) gets into a debate with his friends over world travel and makes a wager of £ 20,000 (about £ 1.3 million today) that he can travel around the world in eighty days or less. Shoving a couple of shirts and £ 20,000 in cash (English pounds were like having a Visa card, accepted everywhere) and dragging poor Passepartout along, he immediately sets off for Dover. What follows next is an exhilarating tale of ship wrecks, missed connections, drunkenness, elephants, mistaken identities, Cowboys and Indians, bribes, mutiny, Japanese circuses and of course train travel. However, there is no hot air balloon scene, that comes from the film. He even manages (or rather Passepartout does) to rescue the beautiful Princess Auoda from certain death in the Indian jungle and fall in love with her.
Does he manage to make it back in time?
Of course he does. After all, his honour is at stake, not to mention the money.
But point of the book is not the final outcome of Fogg's travels. It's the journey itself.
M. Verne wrote the book because it was finally possible to travel around the world as a tourist. Just think, within the space of three years before the book was published, the Suez Canal was created, the Americans finished their transcontinental railroad and all of the railways in India were finally linked up. This was the beginning of the tourism industry as we know it today and Around the World in 80 Days is the greatest travelogue ever written, fictional or otherwise.
For some reason this book has never been taken seriously. It is seen as just a Boys' Own adventure story rather than as a real novel with complex characters. We never hear Fogg's thoughts, we just know his character. We know what Passepartout is thinking and we learn bits and pieces of his life story throughout. Auoda is shown to be an intelligent and independent woman. After all, she was educated in Europe, which is why Fogg decided to rescue her and she can play whist. We are even shown poor Detective Fix's thoughts. But we never know much about Fogg, which makes him so interesting a character and the fact that he is the one character who has been completely altered by the journey. Yet for some reason there has never been a critical edition or a proper translation of the book. There aren't even any academic articles on the book, and there are articles on everything in literature that you could possibly think of.
Why do I love this book so much?
Because it's so much fun to read and imagine yourself right there with Fogg, Passepartout and Auoda.

Of course the 1956 film is the most famous adaptation, it did win Best Picture after all and it is littered with famous cameos. Around the World in 80 Days is not that true an adaptation, since Michael Todd made it as a grand spectacle and filmed it entirely on location. I found Cantinflas as Passepartout annoying after the first hour and didn't like that the film seemed to focus on him. Shirley MacLaine is clearly miscast as Auoda, you can see her makeup melting. However, David Niven is absolutely perfect as Fogg. David Niven is Phileas Fogg because he's David Niven and no one else but David Niven could play the character as M. Verne wrote it.

There is also the 1989 three part television version, starring Pierce Brosnan as Fogg, even though he's clearly too young to play him. Like the 1956 film, this one also adds bits that weren't in the book in order to make it more visually thrilling. However, Eric Idle is perfect as Passepartout and Peter Ustinov is brilliant as Detective Fix and I loved Henry Gibson's cameo as the conductor. Even though Pierce Brosnan is great at Fogg, I would have preferred to have seen David Niven as Fogg because he's perfect as the character. But I do recommend that you watch this version since you've probably never heard of it.

Michael Palin's travel programme (shot in 1988) is my favourite version. It's also the closest to the book. What makes this version the best (I'm saying it's the best, you can argue with me if you want) is that he's not only following in the footsteps of Fogg, but he's doing it more than 100 years after Fogg, using only surface transport and proving not only is it still just as difficult to travel the around in 80 days, but that if you choose to take up Fogg's wager, you too can have the same sort of adventures that he had.
Michael Palin is right when he says in the opening episode that we travel nowadays more than humans have ever travelled before, but we are seeing less and less of the world thanks to the "conveniences" of modern air travel. And that's what make undertaking a journey such as this so wonderful. It's a way of seeing this rapidly shrinking world for the truly vast beauty that it is.
Is it still possible to travel around the world in 80 days just by using surface transport?
I don't know, but I hope it is.
If you would like me to undertake this experiment, I will accept any donations, however large, through my PayPal account.

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