Unquestionably one of the most popular authors in literary history, 19th century French writer Jules Verne created a world of scientific wonder and technological discovery in such classic novels as Journey to the Center of the Earth (1864) and Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (1870) that helped give rise to the science fiction genre. Verne's work predicted travel through the air, into space and under the sea at a time when such accomplishments were still the stuff of fantasy, and presented them in thrilling adventures that continued to capture the imagination of readers a century later. His work also proved ideal for film and television adaptations, which strove mightily to translate his scope and vision through elaborate special effects. More significantly, Verne's novels were part of the foundation on which the whole of science fiction was built, inspiring writers and filmmakers to imagine the furthest reaches of human achievement. Jules Verne's body of work placed him among a select number of 19th century authors whose writing had a profound influence on the written and visual entertainment of the centuries that followed.
Born Feb. 8, 1829 in the French harbor city of Nantes, Jules Gabriel Verne was the first of five children by attorney Pierre Verne and his wife, Sophie Allote de la Fuye. The city's busy maritime traffic spurred his interest in ocean vessels and adventure on the sea, so he began penning adventure and science fiction stories as a student at Saint Donatien College. After completing his secondary education, Verne traveled to Paris to study law, but grew more interested in writing libretti for operas by his friend, composer Aristide Hignard. Upon hearing the news, Verne's father immediately cut off financial support, forcing his son to take a job as a stockbroker. But Verne also continued to write, buoyed in part by the support of his wife, Honorine de Viane Morel, and fellow authors like Alexandre Dumas, père and fils, and Victor Hugo. However, he had little success in publishing his efforts, due in part to the amount of scientific and political elements in the stories, until he met Pierre-Jules Hetzel, an editor and publisher who had brought books by Hugo, Honoré de Balzac, Emile Zola and others to the public. Hetzel was instrumental in streamlining Verne's work, eliminating the political aspects and suggesting more positive endings to the stories rather than the author's penchant for downbeat conclusions, but also emphasizing the scientific and geographic details, which Hetzel considered an important educational tool for readers.
The result was an immediate success with Verne's first published work, Five Weeks in a Balloon (1863), which launched the author's Voyages Extraordinaires (Extraordinary Voyages) series, which were serialized biweekly in Hetzel's Magazine d'Education et de Récréation (Education and Entertainment Magazine) before appearing in book form at year's end for purchase at Christmas. Verne soon followed the success of Five Weeks with other popular science fiction adventures, including Journey to the Center of the Earth (1864), From the Earth to the Moon (1865), In Search of the Castaways (1867) and Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (1870), which introduced readers to one of Verne's most famous literary characters, Captain Nemo, creator and commander of the fabulous submarine, theNautilus. Nemo would later return in 1874's The Mysterious Island, shortly before the publication of Around the World in Eighty Days (1863), which featured Verne's other enduring hero, the adventurer Phileas Fogg.
In these and other novels, Verne imagined scientific achievements, including air and space travel, undersea navigation and a variety of technological advancements that would later become reality, including manned spacecraft and high-speed vehicles. In his 1863 novel, Paris in the Twentieth Century, which went unpublished until 1994, Verne predicted glass skyscrapers, gas-powered automobiles and a communication network that could connect users throughout the world. Hetzel's prediction that these elements would help elevate Verne's work beyond the limits of pure fantasy, boosted the appeal of his novels to a wide audience. Verne soon became one of the most successful writers of his time, enjoying widespread fame through translated editions in a variety of languages, as well as theatrical and silent film adaptations of his work. In 1870, he was appointed Knight of the Legion of Honor, the highest honor in France.
Between novels, Verne and his family spent much of their time aboard his ship, the Saint-Michel, which took them to destinations throughout Europe. Upon his return from one trip in 1886, a nephew, Gaston, shot him, leaving Verne with a permanent limp. The event, as well as the deaths of his mother and Hetzel the following year, had a significant impact on the tone of his subsequent work. The sense of wonder and discovery was replaced by a pessimism about mankind's ability to overcome its foibles; in 1904's Master of the World, Verne's airship captain Robur, who sought to bring together the civilized world in his first literary appearance, Robur the Conqueror (1886), used technology to dominate the world. Vern took up politics in 1888, becoming town councilor of the city of Amiens, a position he held for the next 15 years. Verne's health went into decline at the turn of the 20th century, though he continued to write until his death on March 24, 1905.
Verne's son, Michel, oversaw the publication of posthumous works for the next three years, though it was discovered that he had made extensive changes to many of the works. The Jules Verne Society published the original, unedited versions in the late 1980s. Verne would remain extraordinarily popular in the century that followed his death, inspiring not only countless screen, stage, radio and television adaptations of his work, most notably the Oscar-winning "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea" (1954) by Walt Disney Pictures and "Around the World in Eighty Days" (1956), as well as Byron Haskin's "From the Earth to the Moon" (1958) and "The Mysterious Island" (1961), which featured the stop-motion special effects of Ray Harryhausen.
By Paul Gaita