Audio & Podcasts

20,000 Leagues Under The Sea – Audio Drama Review

In a speech made by Mark Twain in 1900, he had described a classic piece of literature as “something that everybody wants to have read and nobody wants to read”. For so many people, their only exposure to a lot of these great works would be in literary adaptations for the small or big screens. Think just how many people saw Colin Firth’s sodden emergence out of a lake as Mr Darcy in 1995’s BBC Pride And Prejudice, but have never read the actual novel.

Over the years, there have been so many versions of books which have been bastardised and bowdlerised when given a live action take, some of which have spun so far away from the original work as to be virtually unrecognisable. Take the case of A Christmas Carol: the source material could not be farther removed from the all-singing, all-dancing Muppet-starring movie (as undeniably great as it is), in terms of the tone and content. But these are the renderings which end up being imprinted on our collective psyche.

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Another prime example of this would be Jules Verne’s 1870 novel 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea. Disney’s 1954 film casts a long shadow, so the public consciousness possibly defines it in terms of Kirk Douglas grappling with a rubber tentacle, James Mason doing his finest James Mason-ing, and a theme park ride. Whilst the names of ‘Nautilus’ and ‘Captain Nemo’ are so widely known, the actual plot of the book is probably much less so; arguably, 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea is largely an unknown quantity.

Barnaby Eaton-Jones, the man behind a great many audio projects in recent times – from a special 50th anniversary revival of the sitcom Up Pompeii!, to an officially-licenced continuation of Robin Of Sherwood, and the return of The Goodies – has turned his attentions to Verne’s work for his latest release. Converting 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea from the printed page to a different medium poses rather more of a challenge than usual, due to various translations having been made, as well as different adaptations having made additions or changes.

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Despite such an apparent uphill struggle, writer Tony Lee certainly has done his share of hard graft, going through these various iterations, and managing to put together a cohesive and entertaining script. One of the challenges in producing any audio drama comes with the obvious loss of the visual element, meaning the script inevitably has to do such a lot of heavy lifting in selling a story, without falling into the potential trap of going into exposition overkill by describing everything through some unnaturally detailed and overloaded dialogue.

Thankfully, Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea has a huge advantage in that it has a narrator, in the form of one Professor Pierre Arronax. By using first-person narration, it means that Aronnax can act as the conduit for all necessary explanations and verbal illustrations of what is happening, without needing to find a method for trying to shoehorn it into the script in other ways, thereby making it feel far less clunky and forced in the process. Splitting the tale into five chapters does make it easily digestible, as well as ensuring plenty of cliffhangers to keep listeners hooked.

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Lee has also made a few tweaks of his own here and there, with one of the most significant being the replacement of Arronax’s manservant, Conseil, with a new addition – the Office of US Naval Intelligence’s agent Constance Boyd. In adding more of a central female presence to the story, the move helps reduce the gender imbalance which inevitably stems from the novel being a product of its time; a further move in this direction seems to come with the character of Juanita, Nemo’s trusted right hand.

Eaton-Jones has managed to assemble an impressive cast, with Clive Mantle as harpoonist Ned Land, Carla Mendonca as Constance Boyd, Michael Brandon as J.D. Hobson, Terry Molloy portraying Professor Arronax, and Adrian Lester in the lead role of Captain Nemo. Acting for audios is second nature for them, it seems, with Molloy having substantial experience playing Mike Tucker in The Archers since 1973, along with reprising the role of Davros in Big Finish’s range of Doctor Who adventures. He does a great job keeping the story moving along, having the lion’s share by virtue of the role as narrator.

It would be very easy for Nemo to be played as just a raving madman or a fanatic, based upon how he is depicted in the original novel. Here, however, he comes over as being a man possessed of great passion, but with much of it hidden – like his beloved Nautilus – beneath the surface. Lester is great in everything he does, and here plays against the character of Nemo, by keeping him calm and contained, making it all the more powerful when he is required to show some true steel and resolve, in addition to his quiet dignity.

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20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, out of necessity, had to be recorded remotely due to the ongoing pandemic, and such a situation does pose its own challenges, as all the parts were recorded in isolation, rather than having the other actors to bounce off during a taping. As director and producer, Eaton-Jones has done such an accomplished job of stitching all the constituent parts together that unless you know this detail, there would be no way of easily telling the actors were not all present together; certainly, the performances do not suffer for this, with Mendonca and Mantle more than holding their own against Lester and Molloy.

If you have three-and-a-half hours to spare, and are eager to take a deep dive into a classic fantasy story without all of that reading lark, then you should most definitely submerge yourself in Audible’s 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea.

20,000 Leagues Under The Sea is out now from Audible.

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