What makes a good adaptation? Certainly, there has to be some level of fidelity — keeping the elements of what made a story so wonderful when it was first told. But then, there needs to be a splash of originality — some new creative bent discovered that fuels an urge to tell the story again and anew.
But too much “originality”, and the story becomes another creature entirely. Too much fidelity, and the adaptation will be dismissed as a lazy attempt to ride on the coattails of the original story.
Thus, it is no surprise that the history of adaptations often looks like one long line of disappointments.
Though every now and then, there are some truly brilliant adaptations. One of the adaptations that has left the deepest impression on me is 80 Days by Inkle.
It’s an adaptation of Jules Verne’s classic Around the World in Eighty Days. Faithfully, it follows the book’s iconic premise. Phileas Fogg, an English gentleman, stakes his entire fortune on a bet with his friends that he can journey around the entire world in eighty days. He drags his bumbling French butler with him on a globe-trotting extravaganza, touching the lives of many along the way, as his own life changes forever.
Back in 1871 when the book was first published, this premise spoke to the hopes and faiths of all those living in the Victorian era: that technology would reshape the world for the better. Since time immemorial, people have always known that the world was vast and varied, holding more secrets and wonders than one could hope to experience in a lifetime. And now technology was lurching forward, throwing up modern marvels everywhere. In particular, new and ingenious forms of transportation such as steamboats and transcontinental trains empowered individuals to circumnavigate the globe, and thus to seize a greater slice of the world for themselves in their travels and in their own memories.
Of course, the year now is 2019. The magic has very much worn off, especially for populations in the middle class and above. Plane tickets are now a relatively common good in the global economy. Herein lies the challenge for anyone aspiring to make a worthy adaptation to Around the World in Eighty Days. How can one recapture the thrill and awe of discovering and claiming the span of the entire globe for humanity?
Inkle’s Eighty Days solves this puzzle with aplomb. On a smaller note, Eighty Days is not a traditional paper-bound novel. Instead, it is an interactive fiction game that can be purchased on Steam, the App Store, or Google Play. Like many other games in this genre, players can make their own choices that determine the storyline. In particular, the player gets to choose what route Phileas Fogg and Passepartout take whilst travelling around the world, as well as how to deal with the challenges that they encounter along the way. In this interactive fiction game, there are paragraphs galore to relish for its wit and deftnesss at describing the wonders of the world (in fact the developers estimate that on one complete circumnavigation of the globe, players will see approximately 2% of the game's 750,000 words of textual content). But as a game rather than a novel, 80 Days can give its players the power to the route they would want to take around the world. This plays a part in reigniting the sense of risk and adventure that forms part of the allure of the original Around the World in Eighty Days.
Now admittedly, this by itself is not a big deal — just what is expected when adapting classic novels into games. Thus, I would venture that the true ingenuity of 80 days lies in the subtle but revolutionary change that it has made to the setting of the game. While the basic premises of the Around the World in Eighty Days remains the same, instead of it being set in an industrialising world, it is set in a steampunk age.
For those unfamiliar with what Steampunk is, it is a a genre of science fiction that features not advanced technology as we envision it today, but the steam-powered machinery that was abandoned over the course of the industrial revolution. Steampunk revels in the aesthetics of clockwork machinery, zeppelins, the sheen of bronze over steel and so on. Even as it explores the boundless potential of technology, it does so while dwelling on a bygone but more colourful aesthetic of the past.
And then (bear with me), 80 Days delves further into a subgenre of Steampunk — Postcolonialist Steampunk. For some context, steampunk has always been a genre fixated on the Victorian era, and thus almost exclusively on white countries. Postcolonialist steampunk thus emerged as a counternarrative, where the vices of the Victorian era would be laid bare and criticised. Issues such as colonialism, exploitation, and the costs of industrialization are explored. At the same time, the agency of other non-white countries in resisting imperialism is explored. Sometimes, such countries’ successful resistance is explored, and the wild fantasy of their rising to greatness is indulged.
This new setting, when applied to the classic tale of Around the World in Eighty Days, breathes new life into it. Now, Phileas Fogg and his butler Passerpartout travel in a world standing upon the cusp of the First World War. Intrigue amongst the nations threatens to upend their journey. The Austrio-Hungarian Empire and the Ottoman Empire prepares to go to battle. But in this story, there is also another force is gathering its strength off the Eurasian continent. In this post-colonialist steampunk world, Africa is proud and uncolonised. The Zulu Empire — historically the last pre-industrial people to defeat a colonial power in battle — continues its string of victories. It’s sovereignty safeguarded, it leverages upon the rich resources of the continent to become a superpower — creating its own animistic yet futuristic style of technology. In India, the Taj Mahal is reimagined to be but the crowning jewel of the roving city of Agra, which traverses the subcontinent upon massive metallic feet. Meanwhile, the only successful slave rebellion in to form an independent country in history grows from strength to strength. Haiti successfully builds a canal, diverting trade routes away from North America and taking the wealth of the region for itself . It is within this different balance of power that Fogg and Passepartout embark on their journey — animated by the advice and the endeavors of women, gay couples, and people of colour — who all have their own voice in this make-believe world.
To me, this was a powerful and much needed tweak to the original tale of Around the World in Eighty Days. Sure, when Verne first published the novel, he gave the world a precious sense of wonder — at our own thirst for adventure, at the speed of human progress and at what a large and spectacular world there was out there to be grasped if only we tried. Each page of his novel turned on the cutting edge of technology and imagination.
Yet as the years have gone by, Verne has been left behind — a dead white man trapped by the assumptions of his times. Phineas Fogg unfortunately falls into the White Saviour trope. In the story, he influence the lives of the non-white people more than they influence him. The technology explored in the book is far too tame to make up for what has become the book’s own cultural backwardness.
But 80 Days reaches back, captures the spark of ingenuity found in the original novel, and carries the flame. If the original novel Around the World in Eighty Days revised the way the Victorians thought of the world they lived in, then 80 Days gives a new vision of the world — this time based on the lost possibilities of the past.
And oh so much was lost. The economic engine that generated Phineas Fogg’s globe trotting technology broke the backs and minds of colonised people, who were denied their own culture and personhood. Women were trapped in households to do menial work, their dreams crushed to free men up for loftier pursuits like the arts and science.
So perhaps, in this day and age, the sense of wonder from Phileas Fogg’s travels need not come from technological progress. Instead, it can come from recognising what those living under imperialism could see but not acknowledge — the clever and awe-inspiring histories and cultures of other peoples. Even today, the stories of historical figures like General Toussaint Louverture or Emperor Cetshwayo — who mounted valiant challenges against imperialist international order of their times — are not known by many. Even though arguably the feats they accomplished are worthy of myths and legends.
Perhaps, it is rediscovering these forgotten histories, these paths that were left behind in the pursuit of modernity, that we can begin to understand new ways that we can move forward in the future. Or on a lighter note, maybe its interesting to learn about other cultures and hear their stories. What I know for sure is that for me, it was exhilarating to play as Phileas Fogg and his butler Passepartout, bumping into and interacting with these colourful characters, who spoke of their visions of the world with hope, and the cultures of their people with pride.
Moving back to my original point about what a good adaptation should be like. I believe that one role of an adaptation is to breathe new life into a classic tale, that it may live again in a new era. These days our admiration of many classic novels has been tarnished. We recognise now that they perpetuated harmful stereotypes and further entrenched cruel power structures in minds and in the world. But instead of abandoning these stories altogether, perhaps a better alternative is to hand it over to a skilful storyteller, who can weave in new threads that can right the wrongs. And so, these adaptations help such great novels more fully realise their mission — to explore the true nature of the human condition, unencumbered by old prejudices. Then they too become great literary works in their own right.