How long has it been since I promised to review this work? Well, it’s better to be late than never, and I find myself motivated by my move to college tomorrow. Who knows how long it may take to set up the internet service or how much time I’ll have to write these little articles? So, I’ll try to post one more article up today after this one, and may that, my dear readers, tide you over until the next one.
The Adventures of Captain Hatteras has been relegated to obscurity among Jules Verne’s works. After reading this page-turner again, I find myself at a loss as to why this novel has been ignored by so many. According to the introduction, Verne had a great love for northern climes, which comes out in the exquisite detail and liveliness with which Verne describes the towering mountains of ice and the snowy vasts of the Arctic. In addition to the beautiful setting, the characters suffer through a never ending torrent of conflicts, which prevents the reader from becoming bored. Rather, if the reader does begin to tire from the tale, it is through having his empathetic soul infected with the exhaustion constantly plaguing our heroes. Verne also keeps the reader in his chair by filling the story with mysteries and the ever present doubt that our heroes will ever succeed in their venture of reaching the North Pole.
The first of these mysteries lies in the Captain’s refusal to reveal himself. No one doubts that the captain is also funding the voyage, but he allows Richard Shandon, his second in command, to be in charge of building the ship and assembling the crew. Yet, Richard does not know either the captain or the destination towards which the captain intends to sail! In focusing on a few gossiping sailors, they confirm for us the arctic destination of this vessel, the Forward, and describe how the design would help in navigating those waters–such as the reinforced steel bow, the fact that it runs on both sail and coal, the extraneous wooden deck and other structures which may be cannibalized in a pinch, and that it can carry enough food for five or six years. The choice of crewmen is also precisely gears to those men of sanguine humor who could more easily weather cold climes. Meanwhile, Shandon received instructions for a mysterious dog to remain on the ship, which the crewmen take to referring to as the captain.
The most interesting members of this crew consist in the ship’s doctor, Dr. Clawbonny, and the bosun, Johnson. The former is a simple doctor with a thirst for all forms of knowledge, and the latter is a middle aged mariner with a wealth of experience including polar expeditions. The two become fast friends. Dr. Clawbonny’s wisdom and cheerfulness make him the life of the crew, especially in bad situations. Verne seems to delight in having likeable polymaths in his works, and Dr. Clawbonny makes an excellent mouthpiece for imparting many pieces of scientific knowledge and information pertaining to other expeditions–though, most of the crewmen are conversant with the latter. Johnson makes for an interesting character due to his aforementioned experience, his loyalty to the captain, and hardihood.
Captain Hatteras refuses to reveal himself until the crew is about to mutiny against Richard Shandon, who had brought the expedition all the way through Lancaster Strait and passed the Devil’s Thumb before this. Somehow the captain had managed to direct the entire expedition by letter thus far, and Shandon was beginning to fancy himself the captain. The abruptness of the Captain’s appearance, the force of his authority, and the dog recognizing Hatteras as his master bring the crew back to order. He also adds an enticing bonus for each line of latitude closer to the pole. Captain Hatteras may be described as very nationalistic–a flaw which Jules Verne exploits to create more conflict when they discover an American expedition, very resolute, rather silent, and usually impassive. But his stony countenance conceals strong emotions within that reveal themselves through the extremes of violent fits of anger (he almost buries an ax in someone’s brain at one point) and even tears on a few occasions. All this makes for a multifaceted character who must stand as one of Verne’s most memorable.
Verne very aptly employs conflict among the crew, danger from the elements, mystery, and suspense to keep the reader’s full attention. One finds it difficult to put the work down. Very few pages have the characters not facing some kind of danger or suffering in some manner. During this second reading of the work, I was struck by how good of a movie it would make. Though, this work has not been adapted into a movie since Georges Méliès’s Conquest of the Pole, which was filmed in 1912. As a piece of trivia, that’s the same Georges Méliès featured in Martin Scorsese’s Hugo. As you can see from the picture below, it must have been a truly amazing spectacle, which modern audiences and people of good taste would not be able to stand. If someone doesn’t do a modern adaptation soon, I’ll write that screenplay–but I don’t mind someone beating me to it.
The other reason this book would make for a great movie is how beautiful and fantastic Verne renders the Arctic. (Though, not as fantastic as what you just saw. There were no man-eating frost giants in the novel! Just man-eating polar bears.) Verne really outdoes himself in describing the flora, fauna, landscape, and other characteristics; yet, he spreads these facts so evenly throughout the work and makes them so varied that not only does he not bore the reader, but the reader is eager to know more. The most amusing thing he writes about is how the refraction of the light in this area constantly messes with the sailors. One sailor shoots and kills a polar bear, only to discover upon closer inspection that the animal was an arctic fox! Dr. Clawbonny, in stepping over what he thinks is a small hole one foot wide, finds himself falling into a large ditch over ten feet wide!
Well, I hope that you enjoyed my little review of The Adventures of Captain Hatteras, and it will find itself on your shelves, kindle, or iPhone sometime in the future. (Project Gutenberg is a wonderful thing!)