Journey to the Centre of the Earth

by Jules Verne

After discovering a coded note in an ancient book, Professor Otto Lidenbrock and his nephew, Axel, set out to an extinct volcano in Iceland said to hold a passage to the centre of the Earth. Along with their Icelandic guide, they embark on a voyage to a subterranean world filled with unknown wonders and dangers.

This one sure didn’t stand the test of time. (I mean, given how popular it remains, I guess it technically did. I’m just trying to say that I found it poorly written, overall.) It feels like it had the potential for being a compelling, or even spectacular, story, but a number of issues come together to ruin it. To start with, the pacing is atrocious. We’re consistently given leisurely exposition about whatever setting our band of explorers finds themselves in at the expense of the plot. I get a sense that grounding his story in reality was paramount to Verne, so he did everything to try and make it feel like they went to real places and what he described came across as plausible, but doing so makes things drag. The flipside to this is the author’s clumsy, abrupt attempts to move things along and to give his characters personality. Here, we’re met with moments that want to be exciting or emotional but fall far short of that not necessarily because of what happens, but because of the author’s choices for bringing this across. I’d most often blame the narration for this, partly for being dry, more importantly for being removed from the here and now, from the action. In presenting things as an impassive recollection of events, Verne demonstrates that everything from giant monster battles to frightening descents through the abyss can be dull.

And the author doesn’t trust his readers to understand the plot without significant help. Verne overtly explains every plot point, even going so far as to repeat most of the explanations right after he told us the first time. I suppose I can sympathize with an author worrying about losing his readers, especially where the fantastical is concerned, but I don’t think people understand how easy it is to kill a story this way. Better to have readers see things differently than you, to “misinterpret” your work, than to write something tedious. Of course, I initially thought I should be a bit more charitable judging Journey to the Centre of the Earth, given how old it is, but then I remembered Voltaire’s Candide. I know it can be unfair to compare the two stories due to their severe dissimilarity, but my point is that Voltaire had a strong understanding of the importance of having a compelling story, never letting the finer details of his deeper commentary supplant a forward-moving plot, and he understood this a century before Verne wrote his classic.

Despite my overall negative experience with Journey to the Centre of the Earth, however, I can appreciate its place in history. In fact, it’s not hard to see how Verne’s story could lay the seeds of later, greater science fiction. The fantastic wrapped in the real could create a great backbone to either make imaginations run wild or allow authors to make something truly terrifying. And, of course, having clear personalities of such widely different natures and forcing these people to remain in close contact is a great way to bring about compelling conflict––though, in this case, it didn’t.