In which the Orange Monk meets the captain of the Nautilus, attempting to scrutinize the inscrutable Captain “No-one.”
Captain’s blog 031310
At the heart of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea — beneath its thick hull of scientific trivia, measurements and latitudes and longitudes — is the enigmatic “Captain Nemo.” Like Kurz in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, or even a little like Sherlock Holmes, Nemo’s are not the eyes through which we see the story: he is the mystery at which we peer, rather uselessly, through another’s eyes.
In this case our Marlowe, our Watson, comes in the form of Professor Aronnax, of Paris, who — along with his servant, Conseil, and the harpooner from the Abraham Lincoln, Ned Land — is taken aboard the Nautilus under awkward circumstances, somewhere between those of a prisoner and those of a refugee. Their host/captor, Captain Nemo, treats them with reserved civility. He wines them, dines them, and confines them.
Nemo is Latin for “no one,” or “nobody.” It’s an elusive pseudonym with a tradition of use ranging back into the ancient world. “Nemo” is the name Odysseus gave the cyclops in Homer’s epic. Younger audiences will more rapidly associate the name with a cute clown-fish that needs finding in a Pixar movie from 2003. Still others may be familiar with one of the granddaddies of comic strips, Winsor McCay’s Little Nemo in Slumberland, from 1905. Popular culture is strewn with a proliferation of Nemos! None of them really seem to have very much to do with the others; the enigma continues.
In addition to a tradition of Nemos, the captain of the Nautilus continues a revered tradition of nameless antiheroes, such as Clint Eastwood’s recurring character from The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, the Man With No Name.
Getting to know Nemo will be an ongoing process, as I am only about halfway through the novel (or, roughly, ten thousand leagues under the sea). This won’t be the definitive entry on him at AOM, not by a long-shot. His identity won’t fully be fleshed out until the sequel to 20,000 Leagues, Jules Verne’s The Mysterious Island, which supposedly delves more explicitly into the origins of Captain Nemo. Until then, and here are some interesting tidbits to start out with:
- Verne originally intended Nemo to be a Polish nobleman seeking revenge for the murder of his family at the hands of Russians. Verne’s editor, Pierre-Jules Hetzel, feared offending the French-friendly Russians, and consequent bad sales of the book, so Nemo’s nationality (and motivation) was obscured. His revised ancestry is Indian, subtly inferred in 20,000 Leagues and made more explicit in The Mysterious Island.
- “Nemo” is Latin for “no one,” but in Greek it means, “I give what is due,” which is where we get the word nemesis.
- “Nemo” is also omen in reverse.
- Verne may also have been referencing the Scottish motto, “Nemo me impune lacessit,” meaning “No-one provokes me unpunished.” When Nemo is taken as a name, the same motto reads, “Nemo provokes me unpunished.”
- Captain Nemo has been portrayed on film by a variety of actors, among them Lionel Barrymore, James Mason (in the most famous production to date, Disney’s 1954 adaptation of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea), Herbert Lom (perhaps better known as “Chief Inspector Dreyfuss” in the Pink Panther movies), Robert Ryan, Omar Sharif, Michael Caine, Patrick Stewart (notable for playing a number of other famous ship captains, such as Jean-Luc Picard of the Starship Enterprise, and Captain Ahab of the whaling ship, Pequod.) Note the many “white dudes.”
I haven’t seen most of the films in which these actors portrayed Nemo. The two interpretations of Captain Nemo with which I’m most familiar are James Mason’s, in the Disney movie, and Naseeruddin Shah’s in the adaptation of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (which came out the same year as Finding Nemo, incidentally).
Which do you prefer?
There was a rumor going around that director McG (Charlie’s Angels, Terminator: Salvation) would be helming a remake of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea for Walt Disney Pictures. Having just Googled that fact, I see various reports of screenplay rewrites, halts, and a suggestion that Disney and McG have broken their alliance. I’m not sure what the status of the remake is now. Honestly, I’d kind of like to see it re-envisioned, but I’m also a little thankful to hear McG might not be associated with it anymore. Since the director’s chair seems to be vacant at the moment, I turn it over to those among my readers who may be cinema buffs: who would be the ideal director to remake 20,000 Leagues? The one that leaps to my mind is Terry Gilliam.
And what of Nemo? Who could play him? I see McG wanted Will Smith (!). Surely there are better suggestions than that, and I don’t mean more “white dudes.” Myself, I favor Naveen Andrews, better known to most as Sayid Jarrah on ABC’s Lost.