Home > 19th Century, Classics, French Literature, Made into a play, Verne Jules > Around the World in Eighty Days : from book to play

Around the World in Eighty Days : from book to play

September 30, 2011 Leave a comment Go to comments

Le Tour du monde en 80 jours by Jules Verne (1828-1905). 1873.  English title: Around the World in Eighty Days

A couple of weeks ago, I took a bunch of CFOs and CFOs-to-be to the theatre in Paris. Yes, contrary to what you read in books and newspapers, finance guys have a soul, can be a lot of fun and half the time are women. I had chosen Around the World in Eighty Days and as always in this case, I like to read the book first to compare it to the theatre version.

It can sound strange but I had never read Jules Verne at all. In this novel, Mr Phileas Fogg, a British gentleman, bets with acquaintances in his club that he’ll be able to travel around the world in eighty days. He takes his French valet Passepartout with him. At the same moment, £50 000 are stolen from the Bank of England. The Inspector Fix, from Scotland Yard, is certain that Fogg is his thief and he follows the man in his trip around the world, in the hope to get a mandate to arrest him as soon as they are on British grounds. The novel relates their adventures in boats and trains, in foreign countries.

Several things struck me while I was reading.

The first one is its buoyant optimism, present in the style as Jules Verne makes an abundant — and sometimes tiring — use of exclamation marks. Verne shows a strong confidence in science and marvels at technological progress. Transcontinental trains in America. The Canal of Suez. The book was written in 1873 and I thought the morale of the country was rather low at the time, not far after the defeat of Sedan and riots in Paris. Was he trying to cheer people up?

The second one is the caricature of the British gentleman. Really, Fogg corresponds to the perfect cliché the French have about British gentlemen of the Victorian Era. Imperturbable. Utterly polite. Dressed to the nines. Generous and chivalrous. Unmovable whatever the difficulty. Self-confident. By the way, I suppose it’s highly improbable that a man like Phileas Fogg could marry an Indian woman without a huge scandal in his social circle. In real life, wouldn’t that even mean banishment from his beloved club? The opposition of characters between Fogg and Passepartout is rather funny. The valet’s name means “master key” or as an adjective “all-purposes”. Passepartout admires Fogg and his bonhomie. They make a good comic team, the British forecasting all the problems and the French creating most of them. In French we say “avoir une idée fixe” i.e. to have an obsession. I wonder if Inspector Fix’s name comes from that expression as he relentlessly pursues Fogg.

The third one would be the style and the vocabulary. All amounts in pounds are dutifully converted into francs for the French reader. Today, it sounds so odd. I also noticed many many English words instead of French ones. Like: Londoner, railway, steam-boat, cab, steamer, pardeck. I can’t tell when the corresponding French words were invented but “billet de banque” for “bank note” must have existed in 1873, as well as “chemin de fer” for “railroad”. I wonder why Verne wrote like this. Sometimes, I also thought that the syntax was strange, like L’Etat de Névada, when we now say l’Etat du Névada or Il égalait le Mongolia [a boat] en vitesse mais pas en confortable where we would usually say Il égalait le Mongolia en vitesse mais pas en confort. Some phrases are incomprehensible out of the context, like Il y avait grand concours de populaire for Il y avait beaucoup de peuples différents. He even included English expressions in sentences like Ce “great attraction” de la représentation devait clore la série des exercices. Weird for a French reader, really, it kept catching my eyes and attention. I wonder how it is translated into English.

For once, the play was a lot better than the book. I was rather bored by Fogg jumping from boats to trains and trains to boats. Of course, he doesn’t get seasick, finds a solution to any impediment, all this with perfect class. I’m bored by perfect characters, they don’t exist in real life so I was a little bored by the book. The play was…playful. It was so funny. The actors yelled, jumped, danced and created the atmosphere of boats and trains in a very convincing manner. They inserted double-entendre and allusions to today’s society that perfectly fit in. We had a wonderful evening.

For another take, Amateur Reader has written a great review Ballooning with the dummy in the top hat. I love that title.

  1. September 30, 2011 at 4:02 pm

    I have never read anything by Jules Verne either. I was tempted a few times but rather by 20.000 leagues under the sea. The optimisn and belief in technology would annoy me. I thought he was a bit like H.G.Wells. I also have never seen any of the movies. At least the play was good. He was such a prolific writer, I think I should at least read one of his books, one day.

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    • September 30, 2011 at 4:05 pm

      He was a man of his time: technology was progress at the time.
      H.G. Wells is a lot more subtle according to the 69 pages I’ve read…I think I’ll try it again at another time. There’s no reason why I shouldn’t enjoy it if I liked Fahrenheit 451.

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  2. September 30, 2011 at 4:04 pm

    On the style issue, I’m wondering how much is the translator–the state of Nevada made me wonder. Did you read this in French or English?

    There’s a marvellous Australian comedy called Around the World in 80 Ways in which a son (who needs money) springs his geriatric dad from a rest home in order to follow the wife who’s on a round-the-world trip with the lascivious neighbour. The kicker is that the son stages all the stops, which include Hawaii and Vegas and never leaves Australia. He thinks he can pull this off as the dad is blind and a bit dotty.

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    • September 30, 2011 at 4:09 pm

      I’ve read it in French. But I think Amateur Reader noticed strange things in the English version too. I don’t know why he used so many English words. To be cool? (Parisians LOVE English words when they speak) To make it more British? To make the reader believe that the Narrator was British?

      That Australian book just sounds funny. But the device has been used several times now.

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  3. September 30, 2011 at 5:42 pm

    The English version I was read was the first one, from 1873, so who knows what sorts of horrible hasty decisions were made by the translator. He just throws out any hint of the use of English words for the purpose of chicness or atmosphere or whatever (which is fascinating to read about). But his odd bits of translation may well reflect odd bits of Verne. He kept the currency in francs!

    I agree that Wells was a much more skilled writer, which does not necessarily make him less dull.

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    • September 30, 2011 at 7:05 pm

      Strange that you had no hint at the English words in the translation. Usually they are highlighted or with a *
      The word bank-notes instead of “billet” is so odd that they kept it in the play.

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  4. September 30, 2011 at 7:04 pm

    I’ve been rereading Verne recently; I loved him as a kid, and wanted to read him in the original. I find him a mixed bag: lively, with a fun imagination, but also a bit trite and long-winded. I read that someone once compared him to an old funny uncle, who is endearing, sometimes annoying, and tells great stories. But his books were, after all, written for children, and were probably never meant to be read by adults over a century later…

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    • September 30, 2011 at 7:09 pm

      I like the comparison to a great uncle. It’s spot on. The problem is that it’s aimed at children but today’s children would struggle with the language.

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  5. September 30, 2011 at 8:07 pm

    That’s true. I guess kids back then had larger vocabularies.

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    • September 30, 2011 at 8:33 pm

      I’m not sure they had a larger vocabulary in general. Most of them spoke patois and school wasn’t mandatory in 1873. But it was the language of their time, it has changed since.

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  6. September 30, 2011 at 10:40 pm

    Oh, I think it was both, and that Verne’s target audience was the educated class. But that’s hard to test, eh? At any rate, the fact that he’s still read today is a testament to his skill. He was kind of a hack, but he was a good one.

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  7. October 1, 2011 at 12:35 am

    I haven’t read any Verne either, despite having two on the shelf. I don’t even know which two they are. Admittedly the V-Z section of our alphabetised bookshelf is hard to access, being in the far bottom corner and totally obscured by assorted clutter, but it’s a poor excuse…

    Having said that, I have little tolerance for excessive use of the exclamation mark.

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    • October 1, 2011 at 8:09 am

      I hope the organization of the shelved doesn’t put Zola and Voltaire in quatantine too. I hoped to give the Verne to my daughter but she’s too young for that kind of style.

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  8. October 1, 2011 at 12:47 pm

    I don’t have any Voltaire (and haven’t read any either 😦 ) but my recently acquired Zola hasn’t been shelved because I couldn’t get down there. I suspect there may be an unread Richard Yates lurking…

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    • October 1, 2011 at 1:15 pm

      Zola is great. You can find all the reviews on Guy’s blog

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  9. October 1, 2011 at 2:57 pm

    As a fan of Jules Verne from my childhood, its fascinating to hear that the play is actually better than the novel itself considering that all the recent Hollywood renditions of Verne are pathetic flops in all senses of the word.

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    • October 1, 2011 at 3:34 pm

      At least that play was better than the novel. The style bothered me, I guess. I haven’t seen the movies. There was a cartoon when I was a child but I wasn’t a fan either.

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  10. October 1, 2011 at 9:02 pm

    Nice post – it’s interesting to compare the book with the play! I can see how the actors would have had real fun with all the endless travelling, which might become repetitive in the book. Haven’t read this since childhood so my memories are a little hazy. Thanks for the suggested reason for Inspector Fix’s name – that certainly makes sense. We sometimes use “idée fixe” in English, not having such a good equivalent of our own.

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    • October 1, 2011 at 9:27 pm

      That play was marvellous, we’ve been laughing out loud the whole evening.
      I suspect that Fogg is named after London’s famous fog. (well in the 19thC) It’s a real cliché here, for London.
      I didn’t know you could use idée fixe in English. Good to know.

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  11. leroyhunter
    October 3, 2011 at 12:34 pm

    What a touching piece of sympathy for “finance guys” to start off!

    Like a few others, I was a fan of Verne when I was a kid, but I’m not sure if I’d be keen on a re-read now. Interesting idea to turn it into a play.

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    • October 3, 2011 at 12:37 pm

      Actually, I’m one of those finance guys 🙂 I’ve just read another book with a caricatural CPA. Again. I should write an essay, I’m getting pissed off by the clichés.

      I think it was already turned into a play when it was published in the 19thC

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