Why Aren't We Getting David Fincher's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea?

The year: 1954, the movies: awesome. Seriously, so many of my favorite films came out in that year, it’s not even funny. While Disney’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea may not make my top ten list, it was still one of my favorite movies to watch as a kid. Before I was old enough to appreciate the characters or the themes, I had the giant squid scene – and boy did I have fun with that.

I used to fast forward my VHS copy to just watch this scene. I think I saw the giant squid sequence at least 50 times before I ever watched the full movie.
I used to fast forward my VHS copy to just watch this scene. I think I saw the giant squid sequence at least 50 times before I ever watched the full movie.

Anyway, as time passed, I began to appreciate the more mature values of Richard Fleischer’s film. The bitter determination of Captain Nemo stuck out to me and I found a fascination with the character that encouraged me to read Verne’s novels (20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and its quasi-sequel, Mysterious Island). Captain Nemo is still one of my favorite literary figures of all time. However, when I read the novel, one thing became clear to me: there are big differences between the page and the film treatment. Verne’s novel reads more like a fantastical scientific journal while the Walt Disney production is an action-adventure epic with anti nuclear war undertones. It makes sense, as with any good adaptation the film version was adapted to fit its time (things change between 1870 and 1954).

Still, that version was 70 years ago and I for one am ready to see Disney try again… too bad it doesn’t look like that is going to happen.

The original is a classic in its own right but time has taken it out of the public perception.
The original is a classic in its own right but time has taken it out of the public perception.

Well, scratch that. We’ll probably get one soon but I don’t know what kind of quality we can expect. After months of trying, an update came today that none other than David Fincher (Se7en, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Fight Club, Alien  3 (can’t resist putting that one in there)) has left the project. As a movie fan, that sucks to hear.

Fincher is a filmmaker known for creating dark, moving atmosphere with smart scripts and talented actors... pretty good fit for 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.
Fincher is a filmmaker known for creating dark, moving atmosphere with smart scripts and talented actors… pretty good fit for 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.

While I can’t say I’m the biggest fan of Fincher’s work – I personally would rate Se7en as one of the most overrated films I’ve ever seen – I cannot deny his ability. He’s just a good fit for the project, anyone familiar with the original source material would attest to that. There’s certain combinations that just sound like a good fit. Remember when Gore Verbinski (The Ring, Pirates of the Caribbean) was going to do a Bioshock movie? Well, that was also a good fit that didn’t happen.

Anyway, the question then becomes: why? David Fincher is a critically successful director who produces commercial success. Even a big budget (and apparently he planned a big budget) shouldn’t frighten Disney away from the idea of a remake. It didn’t, it was a casting problem.

I know what you’re thinking: Nemo. Of course, the iconic character. One of the greatest creations ever given birth by the pen. Yes, who would play Nemo? Clearly Disney and Fincher must have had some debate over which way to go with the most important piece of the puzzle. Well, fact is they never got to Nemo. Couldn’t get past replacing this guy:

Kirk Douglas as Ned Land.
Kirk Douglas as Ned Land.

Ned Land marked the biggest change between the book and the original Disney movie. In the novel, he’s a fairly minor character who doesn’t make much of an splash (I’ll stop) on the plot. In the movie… well, he was Kirk Douglas. The fact that the casting of Ned Land was the first priority is telling. Clearly this remake intended to follow closer to the film original than to the book. This was not necessarily a bad thing.

Here’s what happened: initially David Fincher intended Brad Pitt to play the role. Again this fits as Pitt has a similar acting style to Douglas. However, Pitt wasn’t interested (for some reason or other) and the role went to both Daniel Craig and Matt Damon for consideration. While both were interested in the part, neither wanted to abandon their families for a 140 day shoot in Australia (the proposed location for the film). Good news about approaching veteran actors – they’re mostly good. Bad news – they mostly have families they don’t want to leave for long periods of time. So three great ideas for a replacement Ned Land, come and gone. Fincher decided to change tactics and proposed the much longer Channing Tatum for the role. Disney was… not on board with this.

Remember that big budget I mentioned? Well, David Fincher may be a good director name but Disney felt it needed a dynamite actor name to guarantee big box office money. They were fine with Pitt, Craig or Damon, but Tatum? In his (much shorter) career, he has not had the commercial success of the other three. So they said no and instead offered the idea of Chris Hemsworth (Thor) for the role. It was at this point that David Fincher left the project.

Personally I don't see much difference in acting ability between the two actors but Fincher evidently does.
Personally I don’t see much difference in acting ability between the two actors but Fincher evidently does.

So that’s it. Forget Nemo, the studio couldn’t even agree on a Ned Land. This marks yet another dismal chapter in the 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea remake development. Oh yeah, Disney’s been trying to make this film for a while. Several directors have been either rumored (Sam Raimi) or attached (McG… thank god that one didn’t happen) to the project. Will 20,000 Leagues ever see the light of day? Of course, there is money to be made. However, it might not be good. Films that exist for long stretches in the dubbed “developmental hell” stage of production rarely turn out to be gems (other films on the list include The Wolfman, Prometheus and Alien vs Predator).

Regardless, the film will one day see the light of day. Who knows, Fincher may even return to the project in the future (unlikely but possible). But whether it is Fincher or (shudder) McG, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea is too good a story to remain dead in the water for long.

 

Sources: 1, 2, 3

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