Spangler’s From Sentence to Screen: Journey to the Center of the Earth

Journey to the Center of the Earth is a 2008 American science fantasy action-adventure film directed by Eric Brevig and stars Brendan Fraser, Josh Hutcherson, and Anita Briem. It is an adaptation of Jules Verne’s 1864 novel of the same name. The film starts with volcanologist and lecturer Trevor Anderson (Brendan Fraser) as he finds out that his late brother, Max’s, lab is being closed. While trying to deal with this, his nephew Sean (Josh Hutcherson) comes to visit him for 10 days. When Sean’s mother drops him off, she gives Trevor a box of his brother’s things, which includes a copy of Jules Verne’s novel Journey to the Center of the Earth. In the book, there are extensive notes and Trevor, along with his nephew, go to his brother’s lab to figure out what the notes mean, and the two soon realize they will need to travel to Iceland to get answers for themselves. When they get there, the two meet a woman named Hannah (Anita Briem) whose father believed Verne’s books included factual accounts, like Trevor’s brother did. Hannah agrees to be Trevor and Sean’s guide up the mountain where an instrument used by Max is strangely working again after being inactive for 10 years. When they get up to the site, a lightning storm starts and the three end up trapped in a cave system, and with no way out are forced to go further into what turns out to be a mine system. The three find themselves going deeper in the Earth, and eventually reach the center. In this blog post, I will look at how the adaptation is different from other films based on books and how this affects the characters and their actions. 

This film is quite unlike the average adaptation, which often just takes the story originally given and then either copies it as much as possible, or only takes names and creates a relatively new story. This adaptation, however, uses the actual book as a reference for the characters to use, and it is the thing that jump starts the plot. Making this choice was an interesting idea, as in the original novel the thing that starts the plot is also a book. The books not only work similarly in terms of the plot, but they also seem fairly mundane, and only the main characters understand the significance of the notes written in their respective books. Another similarity the movie and its source material share is establishing the main characters as highly intelligent, but also strongly driven to find answers to the questions that plague them. As the movie progresses, it becomes clear just how much the plot is like that of the original book, with the characters’ actions mimicking the ones made in Verne’s original novel. Both book and film characters believe that if they want to make it out of the center alive and back to the Earth’s surface, they would need to follow the timeline and steps laid out by Verne. Instead of just having a similar story for the sake of it being an adaptation, Trevor, Sean, and Hannah make it clear the importance of following the directions outlined in the book. The trio understands that significant deviation could lead to their deaths, like Max’s brother, who they find out died in the Earth’s center. This concept is highly interesting, because formatting the movie this way makes it almost seem like a sequel to the 1864 novel. While the two stories take place in the same world and have history repeat itself with the course of travel and people involved, the novel’s journey was planned out much better and takes a longer period of time. 

As far as the characters of the movie, Trevor, Sean, and Hannah, they are all references to the characters in Verne’s original novels, and aren’t original characters as other adaptations tend to do. Starting with the idea of an uncle and nephew duo, this is represented in the book by Professor Otto Lidenbrock, a geologist with radical ideas, and his nephew Axel, who seems to be just as smart as his uncle but is more cautious about their journey. In the movie there is Trevor, who is a volcanologist, and Sean, his curious young nephew. Overall Trevor works very well as a modern version of Lidenbrock, with both being rather eccentric scientists and outliers in their academic communities. With Axel and Sean though, it is a bit harder to see how the characters are connected outside of the fact that they are both nephews. Besides the fact that Axel is meant to be in his mid-twenties and Sean is a teenager, Axel is much more hesitant to go on the journey with his uncle, while Sean is the one who convinces Trevor he should be allowed to go. The characters begin to seem more connected as the stories progress, with each ending up lost and on their own for a significant amount of time which puts them in danger. In the novel, Axel walks down a wrong path, loses his uncle and their guide for several days in the dark tunnels of the inner Earth, and has to wait for the other two to find him before he dies. In the movie, Sean gets carried away by a sail that snags on his pants during a storm at the Earth’s center, and has to find the exit point by himself in order to meet up with Trevor and Hannah. Looking at the final character, Hannah, she actually represents a mix of two characters from Verne’s novel: Hans Bjelke who is Lidenbrock and Axel’s guide, and Gretchen, Lidenbrock’s goddaughter, with whom Axel is in love. This mix of characters is interesting because for most of the movie, Hannah represents the “brawn” of the journey and takes on the masculine role of the guide, which in 1864 wouldn’t even have been considered. The small parts where she is put in a more feminine light and more represents Gretchen, is first when Sean calls dibs on her, a reference to the relationship with Axel in the book, and then at the end when Hannah and Trevor end up kissing. Aging down the two male leads and then giving the female a more assertive and physical role makes sense given the modern context and the fact that it is an action-adventure movie. Also given the fact the film was rated PG and the addition of a teenager helps a younger audience to connect with the story. Whereas if they had kept the same ages, it would have felt more like an adult adventure movie and most likely would have come off more serious, like the book.

Overall, I think Journey to the Center of the Earth did a good job of following the plot of the novel, while not actually telling the same story which is something I really enjoyed. This is quite different from my normal perspectives on my blog, as I won’t necessarily say I’m an adaptation purist, but I do prefer when a story and characters are closer to the original source material. Usually if this isn’t the case the movie feels like a whole new story, just with the same name. This is one of the instances where, when looking at modern adaptations of older novels, not keeping the plot exactly the same actually benefits the story. It seemed like both the movie’s writers and characters use the 1864 book as a reference for what should happen. If something goes wrong or is different, which happens many times throughout the movie, it is up to the characters to figure it out for themselves. Nothing can happen exactly the same way twice, and so if you take the idea of the film being the book’s sequel, then that means even in the same settings and situations they won’t act exactly the same or with the same timing. Which means there is still a sense of excitement and danger for the movie characters to deal with, even if they know all the places they need to get to for them to make it out of the center of the Earth. For readers of Verne’s novel, it is interesting to see how the film takes the original story and gives it a fresh perspective in a place previously explored. There is also a sequel to this movie, Journey to the Center of the Earth: The Mysterious Island, which is based off of Jules Verne’s 1975 novel The Mysterious Island and is also worth a watch. For my next blog post, I will be looking at the 1997 sci-fi film Starship Troopers, directed by Paul Verhoeven and based on Robert A. Heinlein’s 1959 novel of the same name.

—Jo Spangler, Film blogger.

Jo’s bio:

Jo Spangler

Jo Spangler is a junior at Lewis University, majoring in English Literature and Language with a minor in Creative Writing. She is a writing tutor in the Lewis Writing Center and a Youth Enrichment Aide for the YMCA. In her free time, Jo enjoys reading, writing, listening to music, and watching movies. She has been to 10 countries outside the United States, including England, Italy, Turkey, and Austria. One of Jo’s favorite book series is The All Souls Trilogy, by Deborah Harkness, because of how she mixes the supernatural with history and the focus on character development. In the future, she hopes to go into the publishing industry to help find new and exciting books for people to read.

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