For me, this is where it all began. Before I ever tried roleplaying, there were two stories that sparked my interest in adventure—The Hobbit, and Around the World in Eighty Days.
Now, full disclosure, my introduction to this story was the Illustrated Classic version, but I see no shame in that. Illustrated Classics got me interested in stories long before I was in the age range to properly read and appreciate the originals. But I did eventually read the original, and to this day have a tiny hardcopy edition I like to take with me on any adventures I might have.
The story is simple. Phileas Fogg makes a wager at his gentleman’s club that he can travel around the world in eighty days. I could just leave at that, because that’s the hook that sold me on the story, but obviously there’s more to it than that—a detective named Fix is soon after Fogg, mistaking him for a bank robber Scotland Yard is on the lookout for, and who ends up complicating matters for him along the way. And of course there is no end of other complications for Fogg during his travels.
Phileas Fogg, however, is far from an adventurous man. In fact, he’s not even a very likable man to start with. The story starts with him firing his valet for bringing his shaving water one degree too cold. Despite being rich, he lives a simple, even frugal life of mathematical precision and order. He is not terribly friendly or sociable.
Really, he could be seen as a proto-Sheldon from The Big Bang Theory, and his friends at the Reform Club are just as frustrated by him as those on the show. So when Fogg calmly states as fact that it’s now possible to travel around the world in as little as eighty days, an argument takes place and a wager is made—for £20,000, which is over two and a half million dollars today.
But rather than enjoy the adventure, Fogg goes out of his way to expose himself as little as possible to the rest of the world, preferring to seclude himself away playing whist and keeping to his tight schedule. For what’s supposed to be an adventure, this is a maddening feature for our hero. Imagine reading a story about a man travelling to another world, but he spends all his time reading a book in his bunk.
Of course, this frustrating character flaw is also a clever device on Verne’s part, reducing how much he has to describe new places Fogg passes through until they end up in trouble. But it also serves as part of the character growth for Fogg as time goes on.
Fortunately, Fogg is not alone on his quest. His new valet, Jean Passepartout, is also along for the ride. Passepartout isn’t just meant to sound like passport, it means “goes everywhere” in French, which in English means something similar to “skeleton key”. And that is Passepartout’s job—to be the key to get Fogg where he needs to go and keep him out of trouble. Thanks to Passepartout, the journey is made much more interesting, as he is the one who mainly deals with Detective Fix.
Fix is along for the ride through much of the story, either as an obstacle trying to get a warrant and arrest Fogg on British soil (such as in India or Hong Kong), or an asset trying to help Fogg get back to Europe faster (through America)—so he can arrest him. Fogg is oblivious of the man’s intentions, however, leaving Passepartout to play cat and mouse with the detective over and again.
Around the World in Eighty Days was an inspiration for many from the day it was published. Sixteen years later, reporter Nellie Bly would famously make the trip for real, beating Fogg’s time and writing the best-seller Around the World in Seventy-Two Days.
But it still serves as an inspiration today, over a hundred and forty years later. While it can be enjoyed as a simple adventure, there is much more than that to be found. It’s a window on the British Empire shortly before its peak. It’s a story that instills a love of travel in young and old alike—Fogg eventually stops locking himself away, letting his valet take care of all his business, and starts engaging with the world and people. And it’s a story that’s inspired any number of roleplaying adventures I’ve taken part in growing up, not to mention a few real life ones as well.
The story has been adapted many times into movies, musicals, and TV mini-series, yet of the versions I’ve seen none really seem to capture the story quite right—choosing to add more whimsy via more odd modes of transportation (many versions include a balloon flight, which never happened), or even ignoring elements I thought were key to the story’s development (rescuing the Indian woman Aouda who, rather than just being left behind, ends up joining them for the rest of the adventure). So this is most is most definitely a story I would recommend reading rather than watching an adaptation.
Originally Published in KODT #224