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Title Page of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea

In which conclusory (if not conclusive) remarks are made regarding the final episodes in M. Verne’s adventure novel, Vingt mille lieues sous les mers; in which there may be spoilers, so if you haven’t read the book, don’t already know the basic story, and intend to read it for yourself one day — proceed with caution!

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The Orange Monk with a Fin Whale

Catch of the Day: The Orange Monk pictured with the skeleton of a fin whale

I don’t have the energy for paraphrasing, so I’ll just quote the informational placard at the Los Angeles Natural History Museum, where this photo was snapped by that intrepid shutterbug, Hurricane Camile:

Reaching lengths of up to 85 feet and weighing up to 80 tons, the fin whale is the second largest species of whale (the blue whale is the largest, measuring up to 100 feet). Despite their large size, fin whales are surprisingly fast swimmers, earning them the nickname of “greyhounds of the sea.” Fin whales feed on small shrimp-like animals called krill and on small schooling fish, consuming up to one ton of prey per day. Like other large whales, they were hunted for their meat, blubber, and the filtering structure in their mouths called baleen. They are still listed as an Endangered Species, but fin whales have been slowly increasing their number since commercial whaling was suspended in 1986.”

Furthermore, I believe Captain Nemo would classify the fin whale as a “good” whale, and not an “evil” one.

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Admiral Ackbar vs. the Nautilus

Sometimes I just have no words for the pictures. In those cases, The Orange Monk’s Squire comes to the rescue. The Orange Squire is a Tumblr blog I created as a sort of pictorial digest of the considerably wordier things happening here. It was intended to drive additional traffic to this website, but some of you may be coming directly here, and I hate for you to miss out on some of the fun being had at my sidekick blog.

I’ve put a link in the sidebar so you can check things out over there from time to time. If you yourself have a Tumblr blog, I invite you to follow the Squire. He’ll alert you when something is going on here.

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Kraken artwork by TheSeek (theseekproject.wordpress.com)

Courtesy of TheSeek (theseekproject.wordpress.com)

The breath-taking conclusion to a 7-part series of profiles on sea monsters.

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TO: Whomever is making the next 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea film adaptation

RE: The action center-piece of your movie

I know that if I ask you what is the most memorable action sequence from 20,000 Leagues, you’ll instantly say, “The attack of the giant squid!” Yeah, if your cast includes Kirk Douglas and James Mason, maybe. That is so 1954, though.

Listen, forget about the squid. I’ve got something — that is, Jules Verne has something — that will make that giant squid look like a plate of so much calamari.

Before that famous battle with the squid the novel takes us into the frigid waters of the South Pole, where the Nautilus submerges to bask in the few hours of sun afforded by an arctic afternoon. Professor Aronnax and his fellow travelers sight a herd of baleen whales in the distance, and the harpooner, Ned Land, being a hunter, is struck with blood-lust. He begs Capt. Nemo for permission to direct the submarine closer to the baleen whales so he can throw a few harpoons at them.

This may strike modern ears as somewhat ruthless, and the interesting thing is that, through Captain Nemo’s response, Jules Verne here anticipates the green-conscious mentality that so defines our present age. Because the submarine doesn’t use whale oil, and because the pantry is stocked with food, Nemo answers Ned thusly: “Now it would be killing for the sake of killing. I know very well that’s a privilege reserved for humanity, but I don’t allow such murderous pastimes.” He goes on to admonish the harpooner and lecture the reader about the consequences of hunting for sport and fortune:

In killing decent, inoffensive creatures like the southern right whale or the bowhead whale, people like you, Mr. Land, commit a reprehensible crime. Thus, your colleagues have already depopulated all of Baffin Bay, and they’ll wipe out a whole class of useful animals. So just leave those poor cetaceans alone.”

Ah, Nemo! The unexpected voice of modern reason, of geologic awareness. Perhaps we could cast Al Gore as the famous submarine captain (don’t laugh, he wasn’t too bad in that one episode of 30 Rock!). We can co-market the film with World Wildlife Fund, or Green Peace.

Baleen Whale

The innocent baleen whale

But where, you might ask, is the dreaded Captain Nemo we love to fear? Where is that inscrutable personage of obscure intent, that radical freedom-fighter, that monomaniacal terrorist of the Seven Seas? Just wait! This episode is not so cut-and-dried as it seems:

A moment after Nemo has tendered his inflexible verdict on Ned Land’s hunting proposal, the submarine captain studies a second herd of whales approaching the baleen whales, and speaks again: “Those are sperm whales — terrible beasts. I’ve sometimes met them in herds of 200 or 300! As for them, they’re cruel, destructive animals, and people are right to kill them.” Further down the page he says, “We’ll take no pity on those ferocious cetaceans. They’re nothing but mouth and teeth!”

Making use of the ram on the prow of the Nautilus, Captain Nemo proceeds to mercilessly tear through the herd of sperm whales in a scene of carnage to rival those presented in the Odyssey and the Iliad. Verne even describes the scene as “this Homeric massacre”:

What carnage! What a noise over the waves! What sharp hisses and snorts, peculiar to their species, issued from these terrified sperm whales… The sea was covered with mutilated corpses. A powerful explosion could not have cut up, torn, or shredded those masses of flesh with greater violence… The waves were tinted red over an area of several miles—we were floating in a sea of blood.”

The reason I suggest this is the pièce de résistance in any ambitious film adaptation of Verne’s science-fiction masterwork is that not only would Industrial Light and Magic impressively render the battle between those giant whales and that marvel of the Victorian age, Nemo’s submarine (but is it a battle? or is it unabashed slaughter?); but the sequence has moral drama in addition to physical. Our modern interpretation of animal preservationism includes protecting the natural predators of certain animals as a population control, with overbreeding the result of over-sheltering. Certainly we wish to guard against trophy-hunters, but typically we try to maintain the natural perils to which a species has long been subjected, and in spite of which it has developed a way to survive and propagate in the natural world. Does Captain Nemo have any right to interfere with this delicate balance, even under the guise of altruism? Are certain species like the sperm whale naturally “mean-spirited,” or more “evil” than other species? And if so, is Man permitted to slay these creatures for that reason? Sharks, for example, have often been characterized as little more than eating machines, but the thought of systematically destroying them because of this — or even of characterizing them as hateful because of it — seems a bit overboard. Surely all animals just do what it’s in their nature to do to survive, and blackness of heart doesn’t enter into the equation.

Sperm Whale

The villainous sperm whale. (OK, I admit, it does look kind of scary.)

In the moral ambiguity of this sequence, Captain Nemo’s ambiguous character is brought into sharp relief. Almost in the same breath he has expressed a bleeding-heart liberal’s concern for the effects of senseless hunting, and simultaneously advocated vigilante justice being meted out to more “ill-tempered” beasts. This is, in fact, the same schizophrenic approach to justice that motivates everything Nemo does. On one hand, he’ll donate a fabulous pearl to an impoverished nation; on the same day, he may plunge the ram of the Nautilus into the hull of a ship, sinking it and drowning its entire crew. At times he is a compelling symbol of independence. Other times, he is a chilling terrorist.

Friend or foe? Hero or villain? Such is the puzzle of Captain Nemo. Verne has left us numerous classic works of speculative fiction, but he hasn’t left us a wealth of memorable characters. Captain Nemo is clearly an exception, and has endured as a fascinating character precisely because of his enigmatic take on right and wrong, exemplified in the titanic clash between his fearsome Nautilus and those wicked sperm whales.

That’s why my money is on the sperm whale sequence to replace the old “giant squid” routine as the most memorable thing to come out of a new adaptation of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea: audiences won’t know whether to cheer for the savage defeat of the baleen whales’ enemies, or whether to be appalled at such unflinching devastation wreaked upon innocent animals. Likely, they will feel a troubling mixture of gratification and horror. Caught in a moral dead-zone, one thing is certain: their jaws will be hanging open in amazement at the spectacle, as mine was reading this passage in the novel.

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Part 6 in a 7-part series of profiles on sea monsters.

Megalodon

An artist's rendering of the extinct Megalodon, which—to judge from those motion lines—is hurtling inexplicably... backward.

If you think Jaws is scary, you’ll break into a cold sweat when you imagine that predator’s prehistoric predecessor, Megalodon (from the Greek meaning “big tooth”). The first paragraph of the Wikipedia entry on this behemoth shark reads more like a Marvel comic book than like a scientific encyclopedia entry, tossing around such terms as, “mega-tooth shark” and “super-predator.”

Partially-preserved Carcharodon megalodon remains suggest a creature approximately 66 feet long. Paleontologists have consequently deemed the Megalodon the “largest and most powerful macro-predatory fish in vertebrate history” (from Wikipedia).

When Renaissance folks discovered the large fossilized teeth of the Megalodon, they interpreted them as fossilized dragon tongues. Danish naturalist Nicolaus Steno corrected this misinterpretation in 1667, in his book, The Head of a Shark Dissected.

fossilized Megalodon tooth

A fossilized dragon tongue.

Its bite is estimated to be about 10 times greater than that of its modern-day relative, the great white shark; and over 5 times greater than that of Tyrannosaurus rex.

Megalodon jaws - Bashford Dean 1909

Talk about "Jaws." Bashford Dean's reconstructed Megalodon jaws, 1909.

Megalodon jawsFor all of its impressive monster qualifications, Megalodon is curiously lacking in a definitive fictional presence. It features in a host of tacky gore-fests, the sort of DVD titles you see on the “Hot Picks” shelf of your local Blockbusters (remember those?), but have never heard of anywhere else. Perhaps the most high-profile novel dealing with the Megalodon is Steve Alten’s Meg: A Novel of Deep Terror, which I actually read. Apparently the novel is inaccurate in so much as it suggests the Megalodon existed during the time of the dinosaurs, when in fact its fossil record dates it to the late Oligocene epoch and Neogene period. Still, I remember the reading experience as fun and frightening, so if you’re looking for a ripping good “super-predator” yarn, I recommend it. (Best not to hold your breath for the film adaptation, which has apparently been mired in development hell since 1997-ish.)

Mythological/fictional inactivity aside, anything which can gobble up the formidable Jaws like a seal gulping a sardine is worthy of mention among the Orange Monk’s aquarium of deep-sea terrors.

Megalodon scale

Join me next time for the conclusion of this series, in which we examine the chief dread in the minds of sailors across the Seven Seas, and arguably the king of all sea monsters…

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Part 5 in a series of profiles on sea monsters.

Jaws poster

Hopefully no one will be confused by the transition from Moby-Dick to Jaws. To me, it certainly feels like one of the most natural progressions imaginable. Both are about huge, white, underwater monsters. Central to the plots of both is an obsessive search-and-destroy mission undertaken by men to rid the deep of the titular terrors. In both, said search is met with mixed results.

When Steven Spielberg’s Jaws opened in 1975, it transformed cinema. What we now take for granted as the Hollywood business of “blockbusters” was actually a concept birthed that summer. A lot of cinephiles hold a grudge against Spielberg for unleashing his great white monstrosity on the public for just that reason: the summer that Jaws opened is sometimes pointed to as the beginning of the end for patient, intellectual, “serious” filmmaking. It’s easy even for fans of Jaws to dismiss it as an exercise in expertly timed “jump” scares and over-amped tension. If in fact it turns out that Jaws is nothing more than a “popcorn” movie, let’s at least give it its due credit for being one of the best ever. The formula has been reproduced over and over again (“Okay, instead of a shark in the ocean, what if it’s an alligator in a lake? What if, okay, it’s snakes… on a plane?”) even by Spielberg himself (“Ok, what if it’s — track with me here — dinosaurs in a park?”), but rarely with near as much success. (In fact, of the examples I’ve just alluded to, Spielberg’s own knock-off, Jurassic Park, is arguably the best.) In short, to dismiss Jaws as nothing more than the genre of film it inspired is as criminal as dismissing Psycho as nothing more than the host of anemic imitations it has inspired.

Great White Shark

I'm so disturbed by these creatures that I could hardly bring myself to do the Google image search that netted this charming picture. It's from the first page of results... Gulp.

After all, I just compared it to one of our country’s finest literary achievements, and I’m guessing there wasn’t too much surprised blinking.

So, then, bringing our high-minded approach to inquiry to our low-brow penchant for amusement (as is the Monk’s raison d’être), the question seems to be this: Is the shark an instrument of God’s retribution on a corrupt seaside town masquerading as the perfect summer getaway spot? When it tugs Chrissie beneath the ocean’s dark surface in the film’s chilling opener, is it divine punishment for the campfire promiscuity that led her into the ocean that night? When it bites Sam Quint in half, is it a higher power finally claiming a soul it missed when the battleship Indianapolis went down, and most of its crew were devoured by sharks? Is it a mythical man-eating monster deserving of its own special epithet, “Jaws,” to set it apart from its fellow great whites?

Or, is it just a shark? Unusually large, sure. Maybe a little more ravenous than most, but that’s like accusing one certain snail of being slower than its peers. It’s simply one of those variations in a pattern which happens in Nature. The shark isn’t picking on anyone, it’s simply found a source of food, and it will feed until sated. It’s a shark, after all. What is a shark if not an eating machine? To give it an individual name is preposterous. It’s simply a Great White. Carcaradon carcharias.

Yeah. Tell it to Captain Quint.

Jaws from Moonraker

Not the Jaws I'm talking about, but given the theme of this blog, we may get to him one day...

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