Faithful adaptations of literature are hard to come by. Usually, it is because the director has a vision of their own. It happened in The Shining. Sometimes it is to bring the message of the text to the modern age, like with Trainspotting. Other times, it is because the director simply does not care, such as Bonfire of the Vanities. These are all varied pieces of literature, but the link between them is that the adaptations begin to detach themselves from the books they are based on in the hopes of fashioning out some new level of notoriety and renewability. 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea is, by all means, wholly faithful to the original text. It is a blessing and a curse for Kirk Douglas and this nautical crew.
Mystery in the murky depths of the sea is a slight fascination of mine. Cthulu seems to be a lingering issue for vessels bound for oceanic ventures, but no such luck for this Disney-helmed project. They have done well to drag Richard Fleischer into the directing chair, and as he works his magic, it soon becomes clear that 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea has a considerable charm to it. Douglas enters the scene, a lady on either arm, and that is all we need to build up who he is. Cocky, charismatic and controlling the screen whenever he appears, he is a force to be reckoned with, and few really can. This is his show. He runs it as best he can, and the results are clear-cut entertainment.
But that is the real surprise. When we think of Douglas, we do not think, perhaps, of chirpy family comedies under the Disney branch. We think of his work with Kubrick on Paths of Glory or his dastardly ways with Ace in the Hole. He is surprisingly suitable to the calming effects found in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Its effective setting and display of the deep blue sea add mystery and intrigue to the already established workings of gunships and cadets firing shots at unidentified floating objects. That is one way of seeking out the dangers of the deep, and while they may be commandeered by Captain Nemo (James Mason) it is, of course, Douglas who steps up and steals the show. Should we be all that surprised? No.
Douglas’ command of the screen, it seems, would advance far beyond his finest works. His pairing with Fleischer is an amicable one. They do not make stunning works of genius, but a formidable, fun bit of film that offers up strong performances and some marvellous set design. There is that Disney charm lingering underneath, something the live-action films of the modern era has failed to capture. That is the crucial difference, though. 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea wasn’t animated first. Audiences latched onto the live-action piece first, created memories with it, and don’t have to slog through a Guy Ritchie adaptation. It’ll happen. Mark my words. It’s only a matter of time. For now, though, we can enjoy the reasonable qualities of this Douglas-led deep-diving adventure.