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Jules in the Networks' Crowns

March 23, 1997|SUSAN KING | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Baby boomers and their offspring have grown up delighting in Disney's movie version of Jules Verne's 1870 sci-fi novel "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea." That popular Oscar-winning adaptation from 1954 stars Kirk Douglas, James Mason, Peter Lorre, Paul Lukas, an adorable seal and a voracious giant squid.

But both CBS and ABC are betting that TV audiences are eager to submerge themselves in new versions of Verne's fanciful underwater adventure.

CBS' "20,000 Leagues" sets sail Sunday. The two-hour adaptation, shot in England and in the Red Sea, stars Richard Crenna as Professor Aronnax, a world-famous curator of marine biology assigned to help identify an evil underwater "creature." His scientist daughter Sophie (Julie Cox) accompanies him on his mission aboard a frigate.

After the ship is rammed, Aronnax, Sophie and handsome harpooner Ned Land (Paul Gross) are rescued by the "creature," which is actually a submarine called the Nautilus. The high-tech sub is commanded by the complex Captain Nemo (Ben Cross), who, besides exploring the mysteries of the sea, is plotting his revenge on society for the death of his family.

ABC's adventure follows on May 11. Filmed in Australia, the four-hour thriller stars Michael Caine as Nemo, Patrick Dempsey as Aronnax, Bryan Brown as Land and Mia Sara as Nemo's daughter, who falls for Aronnax.

So why the sudden network interest in "20,000 Leagues"?

"Somehow, there's a herd mentality that comes into play every once in a while," says Joe Wiesenfeld, who penned the CBS adaptation. "You may recall there were two Robin Hood movies and [three] Amy Fisher movies. People tend to get the same idea at the same time. I am not sure why, but that's the way it is."

"It might be a coincidence," says executive producer Robert Halmi Sr., whose credits include "Gulliver's Travels," "Scarlett" and the upcoming NBC miniseries, "The Odyssey." "I am doing 'Moby Dick' [for USA] too and there are all kinds of 'Moby Dick' scripts floating around."

Halmi maintains that "20,000 Leagues"' is an obvious choice for television because it's "visual and it's sci-fi and it's Jules Verne. It has all kinds of aspects to it. Everything he dreamed up, especially in this particular book, came true. Nobody even dreamed of a submarine when he wrote it and nobody even dreamed you could utilize the sea for food. It's a very appropriate book to do and it's entertaining."

CBS' "20,000 Leagues" also is the first movie to shoot in the Red Sea. Halmi chose the location to film the underwater sequences because it has "the richest underwater life in the world. We wanted to have unique kind of fish in [the movie]."

He's also producing a one-hour "20,000 Leagues," using this film's computerized special effects, geared for children. That version is one of three "The Crayola Kids Adventures Specials" set to air on CBS in August.

Halmi says he doesn't know how ABC's movie differs from his. "I don't want to know," he says, adding that he doesn't believe there's enough story in Verne's novel to flesh out four hours. (The producers of ABC's "20,000 Leagues" declined to discuss their approach for this article.)

"I just know the story itself is a rather simple story of Captain Nemo's character and his [desire] to revenge wrongdoings to him and his family and [to] take on the world. It's a good two-hour movie, but I don't think it's worth two hours and 10 minutes."

Wiesenfeld hopes his adaptation conveys the fact that Verne's book is "full of the very idea of scientific accomplishments and penetration of the unknown universe. What I wanted to do was to rid ourselves of the kind of 20th century irony and perspective that we have and make it all absolutely fresh, the way the book was for his audience."

Though Wiesenfeld is a fan of Verne's, he acknowledges that "20,000 Leagues" is a tough read. "It is very, very pedantic," he says. "He was far less interested in telling a dramatic story than he was in just exemplifying science. The stories were never really strong dramatically."

Wiesenfeld says CBS' "20,000 Leagues' is much more serious than the light-hearted Disney film.

The Disney movie, Wiesenfeld says, "had almost no points of contact with the novel. If your notion of what '20,000 Leagues' is about is derived from the Disney film, you'd be amazed. It takes liberties that have no connection to the book at all. You may recall Kirk Douglas playing the clamshell ukulele? There is nothing like that [in the book]."

Of course, there are no women in Verne's novel, either. Both CBS and ABC have taken the liberty of adding a female character.

"In order to reach a wide audience in prime time," explains Wiesenfeld, "you have to make the story of interest to a female audience. There's no simple way around that."

Besides, Wiesenfeld says, "you have to tell a story, and essentially we are dealing with four main characters in a tin can. Relationships become paramount in a story like that, and the conflict within relationships. Nothing adds that ability to create conflict in a story more than sexual relationships."

"20,000 Leagues Under the Sea" airs Sunday at 9 p.m. on CBS.

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