Published in 1864. Approximately 74,000 words. Available for free on Project Gutenberg.
Journey to the Center of the Earthh is one of literature’s earliest works of science fiction. It vividly animates a fantastical subterranean world as an intrepid crew, led by the eccentric Otto Lidenbrock, traverses the planet’s core and its various bizarre obstacles: giant mushrooms and insects, a herd of mastodons, prehistoric humans, a treacherous pit of magma, and more.
"Descend, bold traveller, into the crater of the jokul of Sneffels, which the shadow of Scartaris touches before the kalends of July, and you will attain the centre of the earth; which I have done, Arne Saknussemm."
Jules Verne was the Isaac Asimov of the 19th century: an erudite, polished writer who took great care to imbue his work with scientific plausibility, and very little care to make his characters particularly interesting.
The idea of a hollow Earth, or at least an underground world, was of course not new when Verne wrote his book, but he did his best to make the idea believable, even though by 1864, scientists were already pretty sure that the Earth's core was molten.
As my uncle was now taking his stand upon hypotheses, of course, there was nothing to be said.
"Well, I will tell you that true savants, amongst them Poisson, have demonstrated that if a heat of 360,000 degrees existed in the interior of the globe, the fiery gases arising from the fused matter would acquire an elastic force which the crust of the earth would be unable to resist, and that it would explode like the plates of a bursting boiler."
"That is Poisson's opinion, my uncle, nothing more."
"Granted. But it is likewise the creed adopted by other distinguished geologists, that the interior of the globe is neither gas nor water, nor any of the heaviest minerals known, for in none of these cases would the earth weigh what it does."
"Oh, with figures you may prove anything!"
"But is it the same with facts! Is it not known that the number of volcanoes has diminished since the first days of creation? and if there is central heat may we not thence conclude that it is in process of diminution?"
"My good uncle, if you will enter into the legion of speculation, I can discuss the matter no longer."
"But I have to tell you that the highest names have come to the support of my views. Do you remember a visit paid to me by the celebrated chemist, Humphry Davy, in 1825?"
"Not at all, for I was not born until nineteen years afterwards."
"Well, Humphry Davy did call upon me on his way through Hamburg. We were long engaged in discussing, amongst other problems, the hypothesis of the liquid structure of the terrestrial nucleus. We were agreed that it could not be in a liquid state, for a reason which science has never been able to confute."
"What is that reason?" I said, rather astonished.
"Because this liquid mass would be subject, like the ocean, to the lunar attraction, and therefore twice every day there would be internal tides, which, upheaving the terrestrial crust, would cause periodical earthquakes!"
"Yet it is evident that the surface of the globe has been subject to the action of fire," I replied, "and it is quite reasonable to suppose that the external crust cooled down first, whilst the heat took refuge down to the centre."
"Quite a mistake," my uncle answered. "The earth has been heated by combustion on its surface, that is all. Its surface was composed of a great number of metals, such as potassium and sodium, which have the peculiar property of igniting at the mere contact with air and water; these metals kindled when the atmospheric vapours fell in rain upon the soil; and by and by, when the waters penetrated into the fissures of the crust of the earth, they broke out into fresh combustion with explosions and eruptions. Such was the cause of the numerous volcanoes at the origin of the earth."
"Upon my word, this is a very clever hypothesis," I exclaimed, in spite rather of myself.
Otto Liedenbrock, Professor of Mineralogy, is your basic scientist archetype: arrogant, enthusiastic, a bit single-minded and impractical, and eager to prove his unorthodox theories. His nephew, Axel, is the narrator of this tale, in which Professor Liedenbrock leads him to Iceland following the enciphered writings of a 12th century explorer named Arne Saknussemm. Convinced that Saknussemm found a passage to the center of the Earth, Liedenbrock wants to prove his theory that the Earth is not in fact heated by "internal fires."
The first half of the book consists of their journey to Iceland. Journey to the Center of the Earth follows the pattern of many 19th century travelogues, in which what nowadays is a fairly mundane account of overland travel would have seemed quite exciting to Verne's readers, most of whom were no more likely to see Iceland than the center of the Earth. This is what one must keep in mind while reading Verne's novels: the epicness of his characters' quests and the sense of wonder conveyed by his descriptions are an artifact of a time when for most people, a visit to the country next door was probably the trip of a lifetime.
In Iceland, Professor Liedenbrock hires a native guide named Hans, and the three adventurers descend down Snæfell, an extinct volcano.
To be pedantic, the brave travelers of Journey to the Center of the Earth never actually reach the center of the Earth. But they do descend thousands of miles, and see lots of interesting geological formations, which Verne describes in great detail. They brave mostly darkness, hunger, and thirst, though they do see some giant mushrooms and — finally! — yes, a couple of dinosaurs.
I have really wanted to become a Jules Verne fan, but the fact is, his books are dated and, well, boring. His writing style is precise and descriptive and I admire what he did as an author and as a pioneer of serious science fiction, but it's just not much fun reading him.
"Here's to the Prof of Geology, Master of all natural history!"
Like most well-known classics, there have been many, many movie adaptations of Journey to the Center of the Earth. Verne's style is actually pretty dry, but the stories themselves translate well into over-the-top Hollywood melodramas. Most film versions of Verne's novel emphasize things that were only incidental in the book, like dinosaurs and love interests. Many add a villain, since in the book the only conflict was Man vs. Environment, and usually one of the adventurers is made a woman to add some broader audience appeal.
So let's take a trip through Netflix...
Journey to the Center of the Earth (1959)
This 1950s technicolor classic, starring Pat Boone and James Mason, is pure Lost In Space-era cheese.
"How long will it take to melt?"
"A typical female question. Lava will take as long as it takes!"
Let's see — there are a bunch of college students singing a paean to the esteemed "PROFESSOR OF GEOLOGY, MASTER OF ALL NATURAL HISTORY!" The professor, his nephew, and Arlene Dahl fall "a million fathoms" into the center of the Earth. With a duck.
It's kind of dumb and only slightly faithful to the book, but it's one of those classics you should watch to get the flavor of how Hollywood adaptations were made back then.
The Fabulous Journey to the Center of the Earth (1977)
An underrated, low-budget adaptation that actually captures the mood of the period and is much more faithful than the 1959 James Mason version. Made in Spain but filmed in English, this was probably one of the less exciting but most faithful adaptations. Not a bad movie, and if you want one that closely follows Verne's novel, this is probably the best choice.
Journey to the Center of the Earth (1989)
Why does every classic novel need at least one low-budget teen-oriented adaptation so gag-inducingly stupid that you wonder why the producers hated the author so?
In this version a bunch of teenagers, including an English nanny, fall down a Hawaiian volcano into the center of the Earth. And find Atlantis. It stars Emo Philips and Kathy Ireland, and is 100% shit. One of those movies that makes me angry that I actually Netflixed it. This has made my short list of WORST MOVIES I HAVE EVER SEEN. I would rather watch Transformers again than this movie.
Needless to say, it has absolutely fuck-diddly-doo with Jules Verne's novel.
The scary part? It has a Netflix average rating of 2.9 stars. Which means that since every right-thinking person with a functioning brain gave it 1 star, there are actually thousands of people who watched this POS and gave it 5 stars!
I weep for humanity.
Journey to the Center of the Earth (2008)
So, I thought this version would suck. I mean, it's a kid-friendly summer movie starring Brendan "Googly-eyes" Fraser with a 13-year-old sidekick and a blonde hottie, and Volcanoes! And Dinosaurs!
I actually enjoyed it. The movie is fun in a brainless summer movie way, but it was also a surprisingly faithful modern adaptation of the Jules Verne novel. While the story was updated to the present day, it actually paralleled the book pretty closely: an arrogant, single-minded scientist drags his nephew along to Iceland on a journey no one else believes in, and hires a local guide (the blonde hottie in this version, instead of taciturn hairy Hans) to accompany them into an extinct volcano. It's completely revised with modern touches and gratuitous Hollywoodisms, of course, and Verne purists may not find it very satisfying, but unlike most of the previous adaptations, I got the feeling that the director was actually fond of Verne's novel and was giving it an affectionate tribute.
Journey to the Center of the Earth (2008)
This version, on the other hand, also released in 2008, is a silly, badly-acted movie with an inexplicable cast of expendable hot chicks with guns getting eaten by dinosaurs and giant spiders.
The end credits say "Based on the novel Journey to the Center of the Earth by Jules Verne."
This is a lie.
It is just barely not quite as bad as the 1989 version, but that's kind of like saying sticking your tongue into an electrical outlet is not quite as bad as dropping an anvil on your balls.
Journey to the Center of the Earth (2008)
2008 was the year for Jules Verne adaptations, it seems. This was a made-for-TV movie starring Rick Schroder. It managed to be not entirely awful despite that, but that's not to say it was good. Other than the "Go to Iceland and descend down an extinct volcano" part, it doesn't make any pretense of following Verne's story, replacing it with a more Burroughs-like tale of a Mighty Whitey setting himself up as a god over a primitive tribe that lives in the center of the Earth -- which incidentally looks exactly like a North American deciduous forest.
Verdict: A classic, but really, it's only worth reading because of its status. Some people really enjoy Verne's writing, but I find him dry and his stories not particularly thrilling. The problem with Journey to the Center of the Earth is that it's been imitated too much. I'm glad I read it, but I can't really recommend it as a "fun" read, nor does it really shed much light on the genre. I don't mean to say it's a bad book, it's just that nothing Jules Verne has written is fantastic or novel now, and since his stories were all about fantastic novelty, there isn't much plot or characterization left to engage the modern reader.
Also by Jules Verne: My review of Master of the World.
My complete list of book reviews.