Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Classic Character profile - Ned Land from 20,000 Leagues Under the Seas

“Complaining doesn’t have to do good, it just feels good! And if these pirates--I say pirates out of consideration for the professor’s feelings, since he doesn’t want us to call them cannibals-- if these pirates think they’re going to smother me in this cage without hearing what cusswords spice up my outbursts, they’ve got another think coming! Look here, Professor Aronnax, speak frankly. How long do you figure they’ll keep us in this iron box?” -- Ned Land the Harpooner

Characters are the foundation of any good novel. No matter how spirited the story or compelling the plot, without good characters that connect with readers the novel will fall flat.

The masterpiece by Jules Verne 20,000 Leagues Under the Seas is famous for Captain Nemo, the brilliant madman in charge of the Nautilus, but he is not the only great character in the novel. Ned Land offers readers an endearing man with whom many people can identify. Ned's working class attitude is entertaining. He tends to be the voice of true reason among intellectuals. He gets to deliver many good lines. He provides an anchor on reality for his comrades Professor Aronnax and Conseil, who are too easily beguiled by the scientific wonders included with their imprisonment on the Nautilus.

In the story, Ned Land is a Canadian whale harpooner who is recruited on the expedition to hunt whatever mystery is sinking ships on the high seas. Of course it turns out to be Captain Nemo's Nautilus, and Ned Land, Aronnax, and Conseil are made prisoners on the extraordinary vessel. Although Ned is grateful to avoid drowning, he finds the prospect of permanent imprisonment on the Nautilus repellent. His devotion to escape is unflagging. He is an honest working man of the seas. He loves to hunt and explore, but is hardly willing to give up niceties likes freedom, getting paid, and shore leave. Because opportunities to escape from the Nautilus are generally nonexistent, Ned is forced, often at the insistence of Aronnax, to wait in docile captivity. Trapped, Ned's temper focuses on complaining about the food. He tires of seafood and longs for terrestrial fare. Captain Nemo even lets him go hunting on shore, and Ned happily harvests meat of the land variety. Thoughts of escape are naturally on his mind, but hordes of native cannibals drive Ned back to the Nautilus.

In the Disney movie version of 20,000 Leagues Under the Seas, Ned Land is played by Kirk Douglas, one of my all time favorite actors. Douglas did a splendid job as Ned Land. Although the movie portrays Ned in some significantly different ways than the novel, he still provides a character who grounds the viewer in reality. I expect that is why his name is Ned Land. Authors can be so blatantly obvious sometimes and still get away with it.

Yes, the Nautilus is amazing and can enter the wondrous realms beneath the waves, but Ned reminds us that, despite the wonders of underwater exploration, the desire to give up life on land entirely is insanely counter to the needs of our species. Ned is the sanity by which the unhinged Captain Nemo and his strange crew of followers are measured.