A particularly useful byproduct of Hollywood’s tendency to remake popular old movies is the opportunities they provide for tracking changes in social attitudes. The current Disney remake of Around the World in 80 Days, featuring Jackie Chan, is a definite case in point.
The 1872 novel by Jules Verne presented a fondly satirical portrait of an English gentleman, in the person of Phileas Fogg, a calm, frank, taciturn, orderly man of comfortable wealth and extremely regular habits. On a bet, Fogg sets off on a trip around the world, which he must complete within 80 days, accompanied by his servant, Jean Passepartout. On the journey, Fogg undergoes several adventures that test his character and resolve. He passes all the tests, of course, proves his worth as a true English gentleman, wins the bet, and finds true love.
A large part of the charm of Verne’s novel is the portrait of Fogg, a classic English eccentric whose idiosyncrasy is his particularly thorough acceptance of the code of the gentleman. Verne titles one chapter “In Which Phileas Fogg Simply Does His Duty,” an ironic statement in that it shows Fogg willingly putting his life at risk for another person. In Fogg’s steadfast adherence to the code of the gentleman and his eventual triumph, Verne shows the great value of the moral assumptions to which Fogg pays unwavering obeisance.
It was inevitable that there should eventually be a big-budget movie based on Around the World in 80 Days, and producer Michael Todd’s 1956 film adaptation was a huge success, winning five Academy Awards, including Best Picture. (it was recently released on DVD, in a superb two-disc set with many bonus features.) Todd sent his crew to several exotic locations for sumptuous widescreen visuals. He also peppered the cast with an astonishing number of cameo performances by stars such as Noel Coward, Marlene Dietrich, Charles Boyer, Peter Lorre, Frank Sinatra, Buster Keaton, and Beatrice Lillie.
The center of the film, however, is David Niven’s portrayal of Phileas Fogg. Niven’s innate good manners and personal charm bring great warmth to a character whose statements and actions might otherwise suggest a lack of passion rather than heroic self-restraint. Whereas Verne depicts Fogg as a fairly uncomplicated man–one who “simply” does his duty–Niven’s version of Fogg is rather more nuanced. The screenplay by James Poe, John Farrow, and S. J. Perelman actually improves on Verne’s story by changing the emphasis from duty to honor, and Niven’s performance catches this refinement perfectly.
For example, in the book Fogg’s very odd wager is explained as merely another instance of the English passion for betting: “A true Englishman doesn’t joke when he is talking about so serious a thing as a wager,” says Fogg, and he is quiet, solemn, and equable during the discussion. In the film, however, Niven seems rather perturbed, though quietly so, when his companions challenge his statement that the deed can be achieved, and his sense of annoyance at the questioning of his veracity makes it clear that he feels his honor has been questioned.
Throughout the film, Niven and the screenwriters keep this theme alive; the appealing portrayal of Fogg’s fealty to a sense of honor that was becoming increasingly old-fashioned at the time the movie was made gives Todd’s version of the story a good deal of emotional resonance.
The newly released remake produced by Disney (there was also a TV miniseries starring Pierce Brosnan in 1989, as well as some animated versions) moves an entirely different theme to the forefront, and it is not, alas, an improvement. In this version of the story, Fogg is an eccentric and benevolent inventor, although a largely unsuccessful one. The bet–which Fogg is forced into–is that the hidebound director of the Royal Academy of Science, Lord Kelvin (Jim Broadbent), will step down and be replaced by Fogg if he completes his trip in the allotted time, and if Fogg fails, he will never invent again.
Why the latter prospect should be much of a loss to the world is never explained, given that the film has shown this Fogg to be a rather impractical fellow (although he eventually manages to construct a working airplane out of pieces stripped off a steamship). Nonetheless, that is what is at risk, and it is interesting how this apparent raising of the stakes actually lowers them greatly.
For what is really at stake here, and is clearly the central concern of the film, is self-actualization. The great tragedy if Fogg fails is that he will not be able to be the person that he really wants to be: an inventor. Similarly, his love interest is a perky French artist who cannot get her paintings displayed. Her problem, like Fogg’s, is that the people in power refuse to recognize the value of her work, and hence she cannot fulfill her self-appointed role as a painter. Monique summarizes their aspirations late in the film when she says, “I traveled the world to find inspiration, and found it in a man who lives his dreams.”
Passepartout does have a truly selfless motive for his travels, but to achieve it he lies, cheats, steals, and uses Fogg as a patsy–not much honor there, either. In fact, betrayals abound in the film, even among the characters we are supposed to like. Although the film is funny and often charming, the thematic change from Verne’s novel and Todd’s film–from living by a code of honor to living one’s dreams–is anything but. The power of a romance, after all, is in its aspirations.
–S. T. Karnick is senior editor of the Heartland Institute, a fellow of the Sagamore Institute, and an NRO contributor.