The 20,000 Leagues Remake That Almost Was

There have been two or three attempts to reboot Jules Verne's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea since Disney's classic 1954 version, none of them very successful. In 1984 Dino DeLaurentiis briefly considered filming an adaptation of the Verne novel. I was commissioned to create concept art meant to help sell the project.

George MacDonald Fraser, author of the Flashman series of novels and screenwriter for Octopussy, The Three Musketeers and Red Sonja, was commissioned to write the screenplay. As a life-long Verne fan, I received the script with both excitement and trepidation. I was thrilled to discover that Fraser had treated the novel with both respect and understanding...sticking much more closely to the novel than the Disney film...while at the same time making it a wholly original adaptation that stood entirely on its own.

Fraser followed Verne's description of the squid attack on the Nautilus almost verbatim, with not just the lone animal as depicted in the Disney film but with more than twenty of the monsters. One of Fraser's ideas that I thought most brilliant was that of combining Nemo's visit to the sunken treasure ship with the visit to Atlantis. Fraser's imagery of the ancient sunken city littered with the shipwrecks of centuries was a compelling one. And just to up the ante, Nemo's mortal enemy has tracked him to this point and begins depth-charging the ruins!

The first thing I did was to sit down and try to come up with a design for the submarine that looked reasonable, fulfilled the requirements of the script and paid no homage to Harper Goff's inimitable design for Disney. This latter condition was an important one: no one admires the Disney Nautilus more than I do, but so the Disney submarine is so iconic that it's what everyone expects the Nautilus to look like—and just about every Nautilus since 1954 has borne some degree of resemblance, usually in the form of the serrated arch that is probably the most distinguishing feature of the Goff Nautilus. By the same token, I couldn't follow the design described by Verne in the novel. He was too good at doing his homework: the fictional Nautilus looked like a modern submarine.

Fortunately, I had a huge file of materials relating to 19th century submarine design that had been provided me by the late Thomas O. Paine, who had a 3500-volume library devoted entirely to submarine warfare. This helped me come up with features that were in keeping with mid-19th century submarine technology.

The 20,000 Leagues Remake That Almost Was

I decided against the giant portholes in the sides and opted instead for an underslung salon, somewhat resembling the gondola of a zeppelin. This allowed me to have a foreward-facing set of windows that I thought could provide some dramatic views. Nemo's organ sat in the midst of this giant window, flanked by glass on either side. I also put some thought into the salon interior, since most of the action aboard the Nautilus took place there. I wanted to give it an Indian motif, to reflect Nemo's origins. And I had to include the fireplace(!) that Fraser had described in the script. A goofy notion the extravagance of which kind of appealed to me.

The 20,000 Leagues Remake That Almost Was

The 20,000 Leagues Remake That Almost Was

Sadly, most of the paintings I did for DeLaurentiis have disappeared. I have only a snapshot or two (one of which heads this article; the other is of the interior of the salon/library). Some of the art, however, was adapted for a few of the illustrations I did for an edition of 20,000 Leagues that I both illustrated and translated four years later. They give some idea of what the DeLaurentiis 20,000 Leagues might have been like.

The 20,000 Leagues Remake That Almost Was

The 20,000 Leagues Remake That Almost Was

The 20,000 Leagues Remake That Almost Was

The 20,000 Leagues Remake That Almost Was

Though this movie was never made, there were two movie versions released in 1997, both made for television and both pretty much execrable. Most recently, rumors have had David Fincher developing a big-budget theatrical remake. This may turn out to be one of those movies that's impossible to reboot.