Science Fiction as "True-Life Adventure": Disney and the Case of 20,000 Leagues under the Sea

By Telotte, J. P. | Film & History, Fall 2010 | Go to article overview

Science Fiction as "True-Life Adventure": Disney and the Case of 20,000 Leagues under the Sea


Telotte, J. P., Film & History


In 1954 the Walt Disney Company undertook two challenges that could easily have changed the future of what would become the world's leading entertainment corporation: within a period of months, the studio produced its first science fiction film and also broke ranks with the major Hollywood studios to begin making a weekly television series for ABC. Both were risky ventures, in terms of authences as well as economics. The film, an adaptation of Jules Verne's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, was the studio's most expensive production to date, and carried extra risk because, by 1954, science fiction was associated with themes that might put off Disney's traditional family authence. The television series, Disneyland, for its part, was risky because ABC, in return for much-needed financial backing for Walt Disney's pet project - the Disneyland theme park - paid the studio only $2 million (far less than the expected cost) for a full season of episodes. Both singly and together, these projects threatened the studio's financial stability and its very future.

Yet both Disney efforts proved highly successful, in large part, because of the way they looked to the future. The company pointedly linked these risky initiatives, using each to publicize or "sell" the other, and as a source of texts that would condition the other's reception. Following 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea across the screens - from film to television and back again - reveals not only the broad and well-chronicled Disney synergy at work, but also an early effort at exploiting a phenomenon that would become increasingly important in the contemporary media landscape, what Henry Jenkins has dubbed "media convergence." As he explains, that practice of convergence involves "the flow of media across multiple media platforms, the cooperation between multiple media industries, and the migratory behavior of media authences." With 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea we glimpse not only Disney's fairly common effort at allying its works with their literary forebears, but also its new concern with bringing those earlier media into a profitable collaboration with the new form of television - and even the theme park. In effect, we see its recognition and move to capitalize on a cultural climate in which, as Jenkins offers, "every important story gets told, every brand gets sold, and every consumer gets courted across multiple media platforms."

20, 000 Leagues Under the Sea appealed to Disney in part because it provided the studio with another opportunity for an elaborate live -action adventure film in the style of such successes as Treasure Island (1950) and Rob Roy, the Highland Rogue (1954). Adapted to the screen, it would provide action, exotic location scenery, and even some spectacular violence, thanks to its scenes of ship rammings, cannibal attacks, a fight with a giant squid, and an apocalyptic, explosive conclusion. These elements clearly aligned the film with the wave of science fiction films marked by what Susan Sontag famously termed "the imagination of disaster" and "an aesthetics of destruction." As she would explain, the science fiction film, at least in this period, seemed fundamentally "about disaster, which is one of the oldest subjects of art," and she suggested that the genre's elaboration of an imagery that inevitably evoked the destructive potentials of modern culture provided both one of its key "satisfactions" and one of its more disconcerting consequences. Those different elements posed a challenge for Disney's marketing, since they could well scare off the studio's core family authence, and, as well, they would prove costly to film. Moreover, they represented something of a distortion of the Verne novel, a book far more focused on providing scientific details and deploying a naturalist's eye - an emphasis that has led many critics to describe Verne as a writer of scient fie fiction rather than science fiction.

Verne's novel is grounded in a sense of place and facti city - or rather, many places and many facts - information that it sought to convey about the natural world. …

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