I’m a nerd. When I learned PBS planned to air a new version of Around the World in 80 Days it caught my attention. I read Jules Verne as a young boy and loved his novels. Journey to the Center of the Earth, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, and, of course, Around the World in 80 Day. They fired my youthful imagination and the idea of a new series, with David Tennant of Doctor Who fame as the lead, brought a big smile to my face.
I watched the first episode on Sunday and came away sadly disappointed. Hopefully things will improve but my problems are many. Let me explain.
Series versus Movie
One of the great things about a television series based on a book is simply the amount time afforded to explore ideas. Books are rich, complex, long. It is often incredibly difficult, if not impossible, to bring a book to the big screen with any success. It requires the screenwriter to pick and choose what to show in the limited time available.
A television series largely does not have that limitation. If you’d like to see a great series adaptation of a book, I must direct you to His Dark Material. The books are complex and eight episodes per novel give the story time to develop.
That is why I eagerly anticipated Sunday night.
Rush, Rush, Rush, and More Rush
In my opinion the entire episode of Around the World in 80 days rushed things at every step. We are introduced in short order to Phileas Fogg, Passepartout, and added character Abigail Fortescue, quickly and given fast snippets into their nature. Little time is spent showing the audience the quiet, boring, routine life of Fogg which is crucial to understanding what is to come.
Why not spend some languorous time developing Fogg in particular but also the other main characters? An entire episode getting to know all three, particularly the revolutionary Frenchman Passepartout and his past. Taking a little time here sets things up for later. It gives us an emotional investment in the characters.
Madness in Paris
Instead, we are immediately rushed into the main plot where our adventurers find themselves without a train in Paris thanks to a citizen uprising. If we knew about Passepartout’s brother, about his past, then everything that happens in this episode touches the viewer emotionally.
Frankly, the entire episode in France is added and not in the book at all. I don’t mind that, well and good, but this is all happening in one episode. The Paris excursion needed an entire episode on its own. We need to understand Passepartout, his brother, their cause, their grievances, the establishment’s position but it’s shoved down our throats like a spotted dick pudding at the Reform Club.
The destruction in Paris, the assassination attempt, the death of Passepartout’s brother which I’m guessing was meant to be heart-wrenching, the ridiculous chase scene played more for laughs than anything else, it all took me out of immersion. What is going on? Why is this happening?
The balloon scene in Around the World in 80 Days is iconic and we got it here but it made no sense. The great inventor whose wife died is awaiting with the fully inflated and ready to go balloon? Come on. Does anyone believe that?
What’s sad is the story of the inventor is touching. It’s a great little addition but it comes and goes so quickly it is meaningless to me. I don’t care about him or his wife.
Then the balloon flying the direction they want, over the Alps apparently, it’s all happening so fast, what’s happening? I can’t keep track? Who is flying the balloon? Why does Fogg know how to do it?
It’s my opinion the first episode of Around the World in 80 Days could easily be three episodes. The first in London getting to know all the characters including foreshadowing of trouble in France. It might end with the group getting off the train in Paris amidst the mayhem.
The second then spending the entire time in Paris with Passepartout, his brother, Abigail, getting into and out of trouble but at a reasonable pace. And finally, the third focusing on the balloon, the inventor, the death of his wife and the eventual escape from Paris.
Everything happened far too fast with little explanation and I felt lost, confused, and mainly disappointed.
A Quick Note about Abigail
I have no trouble with the addition of a plucky, female reporter added to the team. It’s a nice modern addition to the structure of the story. That being said, she seems to do little except show how darn plucky she is. The character deserves more.