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Literature / The Mysterious Island

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The Mysterious Island (or L'Île Mystérieuse, if you want to use the original French title) is a novel by Jules Verne. Originally published in 1874, the book is essentially a castaway story. During the American Civil War, five prisoners, and their dog companion escape a Confederate prison in a balloon. Unfortunately, a storm blows them off course and they end up on a deserted island, which they are forced to make their new home. This being a Verne story, our heroes are far too industrious to merely survive. Over the course of the book, they tame the island and reconstruct the civilization they left behind. They become quite content in their new home, but never enough to abandon their ultimate quest to re-establish contact with the rest of the world.

If this sounds familiar, that's because it's based on Alexander Selkirk, whose life-story had already served as the basis for Robinson Crusoe and The Swiss Family Robinson. Possibly as a way to distinguish itself from the other two books, Verne's yarn adds a mystery sub-plot. Someone or something is watching over the castaways; apparently aiding them at times, but whether their ultimate objective in doing so is for good or ill remains unclear for much of the book.

It was adapted into film as Mysterious Island in 1961, and featured Herbert Lom (Chief Inspector Dreyfus from The Pink Panther films) as Captain Nemo. While (mostly) faithful, there was a lot of Adaptation Expansion with the addition of numerous gigantic creatures on the island, brought to life courtesy of special effects maestro Ray Harryhausen. It was adapted into television by the CBC in 1995. It was adapted again in 2005 by the Hallmark Channel, directed by Russell Mulcahy and starring Kyle Maclachlan, Gabrielle Anwar and Patrick Stewart as Captain Nemo. Yet another adaptation was made by the Scy Fy channel, and featured Lochlyn Munro as Cyrus Harding, Gina Holden as Canon Foreigner Julia Fogg, Pruitt Taylor Vince as Gideon Spilett, and father/son duo Mark Sheppard (who also directed) and William Morgan Sheppard as younger and older versions of Captain Nemo. The telefilm was unique in the fact that the novel and most of the other films' leading character of Gideon Spilett is shot in the balloon and killed off in the first act, before they reach the island.

The novel was adapted twice for French TV 10 years apart: a two-part TV movie in 1963 and 6-episode miniseries in 1973, featuring Omar Sharif as Captain Nemo, and Jess Hahn as Pencroff. The 1973 series was quite faithful to the original novel, after Verne had changed Nemo from a Pole to an Indian exile. Footage from the series was edited into a feature film that was released in French theatres later in 1973.

In 2004, Kheops Studio produced Return to Mysterious Island, a distant sequel about an original character discovering the ruins of the Nautilus.

Fun fact: While this isn't the most famous of Verne's works, it has the distinction of having inspired two major franchises: Myst and Lost. It was also loosely adapted into the sequel to Journey to the Center of the Earth (2008) (itself based on another of Verne's novels), as Journey 2: The Mysterious Island.

Copyright has expired on this book, and it's available on Project Gutenberg here. If you own a Kindle, it's also available as a free download from Amazon.

This book contains examples of:

  • All Animals Are Domesticated: Pretty much any creature the protagonists bother to capture (as opposed to shoot and eat on sight) are quickly and easily put to use as livestock. This is even true of animals like bighorn sheep or onagers, which violently resist human contact in real life, and several kinds of birds that even modern zoos struggle to keep alive in captivity.
  • Artistic License Biology: Five ordinary men dogpile and hogtie a six-foot adult male orangutan without suffering so much as a scratch. Orangutans are about seven times as strong as humans, and Jup is huge for his species, so the cornered, frightened ape should realistically have maimed or killed enough of its attackers to spur them to shoot him. He likewise could have ripped his way loose easily from any cordage the castaways (who hadn't yet manufactured chains or cable) had at their disposal, if they had overwhelmed him.
  • The Atoner: Ayrton. Big time.
  • Back for the Finale: According to a brief line at the end, the surviving characters of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and In Search of the Castaways all become regular guests at the castaway's colony.
  • Badass Bookworm: Cyrus spends most of the novel using his brains to solve problems, but even he's a good shot and even shanks a pirate.
  • Big Damn Heroes: Nemo, near the end.
  • Big Good: Captain Nemo.
  • Canon Welding: Places Verne's earlier books 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and In Search of the Castaways in the same continuity, although that leads to a Series Continuity Error in both.
  • Darkest Hour: the pirates are in the island, Ayrton is missing, and most of the castaways are isolated in the main farm after Herbert was shot.
  • Deserted Island: Played straight with Lincoln Island and subverted by the isle of Tabor.
    • Lincoln Island is actually a subversion too, Captain Nemo lives underneath it.
  • The Determinator: Everyone, although Pencroff is probably the most extreme case. If you were ever trapped on a deserted island in real life with these guys, not only would you be fine, but your morale would be at an all-time high.
  • Deus ex Machina: The whole plot is basically a sequence of those Cyrus and Top being rescued, finding a crate of tools and useful items, tossing down a ladder, lighting a beacon during a storm, blowing up the pirates.... In a surprisingly Tropes Are Not Bad way, they almost always create more suspense than they resolve, until the very end.
  • Diabolus ex Machina: The eruption of the supposedly extinct volcano combined with underlying geology that makes an island-destroying explosion extremely likely.
  • Dropped a Bridge on Him: In the very last chapter, Jup the Orangutan is off-handedly mentioned to have fallen into a crevice and died.
  • Dub Name Change: Some of the character names are changed in the earlier translations into English, e. g. Cyrus Smith being turned into Cyrus Harding, and Pencroff becoming Pencroft. Pretty much all translations changed Harbert to Herbert.
  • Eagle Land: Definitely a Flavor 1 example, although Verne's not nearly as overt here as he was with From the Earth To The Moon.
  • Evil Counterpart: The six pirates that survive the sinking of Speedy to the castaways.
  • Flipping Helpless: It was done by the protagonists to a giant sea turtle, who then left to get a cart. While they were away, the turtle was carried away by a high tide or Captain Nemo helped it get back to its normal position.
  • Foreshadowing: Early on in the book, the narration establishes that such is Cyrus' Science Hero ability that you could tell the heroes the island was an erupting volcano and they'd only point at Cyrus and say he could handle it. Guess what happens at the end.
  • Go Mad from the Isolation: Ayrton. He's in a pretty bad state when they find him, to say the least...
  • Guilt-Free Extermination War: Most of the colonists (save Pencroff) believe the stranded pirates should be shown mercy and allowed to live, after seeing how repentant Ayrton became. Then they shot Herbert.
  • Happy Ending: Verne originally wanted a Bittersweet Ending where the castaways are somewhat depressed at having lost the Island. His editor had him change it to an upbeat one where they buy some territory in the state of Iowa and create a replica of the island to serve as a colony and a tourist attraction.
  • Hard-to-Light Fire: The castaways lose all their matches save one in the balloon crash. Pencroff fails to get the match to light, since he is too nervous; his hands are shaking and he's afraid he will snap it.
  • Island of Mystery: The island they find themselves on is seemingly uninhabited, but it quickly becomes apparent there is some kind of presence there.
  • Is It Something You Eat?: Pencroff. Surrounded by the wonders of nature, his interests are still primarily culinary.
  • Large Ham: Pencroff. When the colonists test out the cannons they recently installed, his hurrahs are as loud as the explosions.
  • MacGyvering: From a couple of watches and a dog's collar to a civilization.
  • Meaningful Name: The reporter is named Gideon Spilett (i.e. "spill it," as in break the news).
  • Misplaced Vegetation / Misplaced Wildlife: Lincoln Island has frankly implausible levels of biodiversity and has species that couldn't realistically exist in the latitude it's supposed to lie in. This was something that even Verne's contemporaries noticed. His answer? A wink, followed by a 19th-century version of the MST3K Mantra slash Rule of Cool argument.
  • Named in the Sequel: The novel delves into Captain Nemo's bacstory and reveals his given name, Dakkar.
  • Narrative Profanity Filter: Pencroff's insults are sometimes described by their severity rather than being listed.
  • Note from Ed.: Verne's creative solution to the Series Continuity Error mentioned above (see the "Canon Welding" entry) was to call attention to it in a couple of footnotes supposedly added by the publisher. Each of which simply refers the reader to the other footnote!
  • The Remnant: Nemo's origin reveals that he is an exiled Indian prince still fighting the Sepoy Rebellion and hating the British.
  • The Reveal
  • Robinsonade: This is played straight with the colonists, but deconstructed with Ayrton. Apparently his loneliness is to blame for the state in which they find him.
  • Running Gag: Herbert and Pencroff continue the identify an animal by its scientific name/edible or not gag from 20,000 Leagues.
  • Series Continuity Error: The book's chronology is flat out incompatible with 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea which takes place in 1866. This book takes place at least a year earlier during the Civil War which ended in 1865, but is supposed to be set well after the events in that book.
  • Science Hero:
    • Cyrus Smith. He's stated to be an "engineer", but seems to be equally at home with physics, botany, chemistry and metallurgy. Between his knowledge and the whole group's determination, they build a plantation, an explosives plant, a smeltery, and a telegraph system out of little more than raw materials (plus a little help from a mysterious benefactor).
    • Herbert studied botany as a hobby, which comes in useful on the island when it comes to identifying plants.
  • Solar-Powered Magnifying Glass: Cyrus Smith McGyvered a water-filled lens from two watch glasses as the castaways initially had no other means of starting the fire.
  • Undying Loyalty: Neb is a former slave (the other main characters are Union POW escaping from a Confederate prison during the American civil war), yet he continues to call his former master 'Master' and is overall submissive and service-minded.
  • Wacky Americans Have Wacky Names: Bonadventure, Gideon, Nebuchadnezzar, Cyrus...
  • What Measure Is a Non-Human?: The animal characters are all quickly killed off in the finale, except for Top, the only one colonists brought with themselves.
  • With This Herring: The characters start out with not much more than the wreckage of a balloon and whatever little is in their pockets, and end up with a working telegraph line, railway, and iron mine. It's basically the 19th century equivalent of Minecraft without the creepers.