‘Around the World in 80 Days’ and the Erasure of East Asians and Native American in the Wild West

  BBC’s latest “Around the World in 80 Days” is an exercise in re-writing and unlike the French original, is characterized by the absence of Asians. This is particularly noticeable because the original thesis is that the trip is made possible by a new railroad in India where the British have already been exercising their colonial power and in India, the protagonist meets a woman who will travel with him and his valet, Jean Passepartout. 

Jules Verne’s classic had also been made into a 2004 vehicle where two older action stars (Jackie Chan and Arnold Schwarzenegger) were featured. That fiasco amplified the East Asian aspect of the original because Chan’s Passepartout  was in reality Lau Xing, a man who just robbed the Bank of England and fights a Chinese general (Karen Joy Mom as General Fang). Phileas Fogg (Steve Coogan) falls in love with a French impressionist painting student, Monique Laroche (Belgian Cécile de France). 

The Novel

When Jules Verne wrote “Around the World in 80 Days,” he was a French man looking at the English. In particular, he was noting a man who seems to abstain from emotional contact and the irregularities of a well-lived life, strenuously avoiding serendipity by moving his world in accordance with clocks. He is a man bound by his time and by time as measured by clocks.

The mansion in Saville Row, though not sumptuous, was exceedingly comfortable. The habits of its occupant were such as to demand but little from the sole domestic, but Phileas Fogg required him to be almost superhumanly prompt and regular. On this very 2nd of October he had dismissed James Forster, because that luckless youth had brought him shaving-water at eighty-four degrees Fahrenheit instead of eighty-six; and he was awaiting his successor, who was due at the house between eleven and half-past.

Phileas Fogg was seated squarely in his armchair, his feet close together like those of a grenadier on parade, his hands resting on his knees, his body straight, his head erect; he was steadily watching a complicated clock which indicated the hours, the minutes, the seconds, the days, the months, and the years. At exactly half-past eleven Mr. Fogg would, according to his daily habit, quit Saville Row, and repair to the Reform.

The man who comes to replace Forster has lived a precarious life and seeks tranquility.  The new valet introduces himself to Fogg thusly: 

Jean Passepartout, a surname which has clung to me because I have a natural aptness for going out of one business into another. I believe I’m honest, monsieur, but, to be outspoken, I’ve had several trades. I’ve been an itinerant singer, a circus-rider, when I used to vault like Leotard, and dance on a rope like Blondin. Then I got to be a professor of gymnastics, so as to make better use of my talents; and then I was a sergeant fireman at Paris, and assisted at many a big fire. But I quitted France five years ago, and, wishing to taste the sweets of domestic life, took service as a valet here in England. Finding myself out of place, and hearing that Monsieur Phileas Fogg was the most exact and settled gentleman in the United Kingdom, I have come to monsieur in the hope of living with him a tranquil life, and forgetting even the name of Passepartout.”

From the onset, the script depicts Phileas Fogg much differently. He is still a man deep set in his ways, his habits, but he is indulges the lax attention to detail by his valet, Grayson. Grayson is elderly and pours the tea before he totters with the silver serving tray, slopping the tea on to the mail. This, of course, is highly irregular. 

In the novel, Fogg and Passepartout are alone until India. There, Fogg and Passepartout save an Asian Indian woman, Aouda, from sati. According to Merriam-Webster, sati is: “the act or custom of a Hindu widow burning herself to death or being burned to death on the funeral pyre of her husband also : a woman burned to death in this way.”

Fogg and Passepartout take Aouda to Hong Kong in hopes of reuniting her with a distant relative, but that person has moved to Europe. So Aouda continues with them although Passepartout ends up on a different steamer bound for Yokohama than Fogg and Aouda. Once Fogg and Aouda find Passepartout, they continue on to San Francisco where they take the transcontinental train to New York which is delayed by bison, Native Americans (Sioux) and a fallen bridge. There are missed connections, improvisations but finally, Fogg, Aouda and Passepartout arrive in England. 

Throughout, Fogg is pursued by a Scotland Yard inspector named Fix who believes Fogg is a bank robber. Fix can only arrest Fogg while on British territories. Once they all arrive in England, Fix arrests Fogg, but learns that while he’s been away, the real robber has been taken into custody. Fogg barely wins the bet and marries Aouda. 

The TV Series

In the TV series, Aouda as a plot device has been replaced by two White women: intrepid reporter Abigail Fix Fortescue (Leonie Beseech) and the love who Fogg deserted long ago, Estella (Dolly Wells). Estella and Fogg were about to embark on a trip around the world, but Fogg turned back, having been convinced by frenemy Nyle Bellamy (Peter Sullivan)  that  he didn’t have the fortitude for such a journey. Estella went on and Fogg never saw her again. Fogg still meets with his old friends Bellamy and newspaper publisher Bernard Fortescue (Jason Watkins) at the Reform Club.  Fogg makes a bet with Bellamy but Bellamy hires someone to sabotage Fogg’s journey. 

Fogg ends up hiring a travel valet, Jean Passepartout (French actor Ibrahim Koma who is of Soninke descent), who was a waiter at the Reform Club, but has been forced to leave due to a romantic blow up. Determined to make a name for herself, Fortescue’s only child, Abigail Fix (her nom de plume), joins the two men despite the objections of her father and Fogg.

In Episode 4 (written by Ashley Pharoah, Claire Downes, Ian Jarvis and Stuart Lane, and directed by Steve Barron), when the three do make it to India, they do meet an Aouda. She is the mother of the bride whose marriage plans are interrupted when the British Indian Army arrests the groom due to desertion. Fogg convinces the groom’s lieutenant to release him after giving a speech about the power of love. The groom is dishonorably discharged while Fogg tells the lieutenant to go back and marry his fiancée.

In Hong Kong (Episode 5, story by Debbie O’Malley and written by Ashley Pharoah and Jessica Ruston and directed by Brian Kelly), Fogg is honored by the governor and given a party in his honor due to his fame from Abigail’s dispatches. The only Chinese character of note is a shady guy who had dealings with Passepartout in the past and gets Passepartout to steal something from the governor’s wife. As with their desert journey to Aden where they meet a real historic person, the scandalous English aristocrat Jane Digby (Lindsay Duncan), the natives are little more than background characters. We learn little about her husband, Medjuel el Mezrab (Faical Elkihel), except that he isn’t a “camel driver.”

Instead of visiting Yokohama, the threesome find themselves on a deserted island in Episode 6 (written by Peter McKenna and directed by Steve Barron). They are eventually rescued, but we don’t see their transpacific journey, nor their time in San Francisco. Instead in Episode 7 (written by Stephen Greenhorn and directed by Charles Neeson), they now take a private stagecoach from San Francisco to Battle Mountain, Nevada where they will catch the train to New York City. The stagecoach picks up the first Black US Deputy Marshal west of the Mississippi, Bass Reeves (Gary Beadle), who is escorting a KKK leader from Tennessee Ambrose Abernathy (John Light)  to stand trial in Louisiana. There is a confrontation in which Abigail shows she’s more courageous than Phileas. Throughout, there’s the suggestion of romantic attraction between Passepartout and Abigail Fix. 

Diverging from Reality in Support of a Black and White Binary of Diversity

The real transportation developments that made circumnavigation possible in the 19th century were the completion of the First Transcontinental Railroad in the US (1869), the linking of the Indian railways in 1870 and the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869. 

Verne addressed a real problem for women. Sati  continued into the late 20th century. As a result the Indian government passed the Sati (Prevention) Act of 1987 which criminalized the aiding, participating and glorifying of voluntary or forced during alive of widows. By changing the story to one involving the British military in India, the series skirts another real problem for Indian women: military brothels. By 1872, when Fogg’s journey supposedly takes place, the Cantonment Act of 1864 had already structured and regulated prostitution in military sites. The Contagious Diseases Act in 1868 has also allowed women suspected of being prostitues to be arrests and forced to be tested for venereal diseases. If found to be infected, she could then be confined to a hospital. 

The 1865 and 1868 acts were abolished in the 1880s. 

The issues raised by the acquisition of Hong Kong as a British territory, particularly in light of the recent protests in Hong Kong (2019-2020), are totally avoided in favor of displaying British imperialism as a lovely island of civility, even if the artifact, a jade dragon that the wife of Hong Kong’s governor wears,  is referenced as “stolen.”  

In 1872, there was still Chinese immigration to the US and that could be plainly seen in San Francisco, but it would have also been apparent in Nevada on the way to Battle Mountain. The issue of race and prejudice in the West affected Latinos, Native Americans and Asians more than Black citizens and residents. By transplanting Bass Reeves from Arkansas and Oklahoma Territories, this version of Verne’s novel again emphasizes a binary of Black and White in terms of racial issues. Reeves was actually a farmer until 1875 and had been born into slavery. 

Fogg’s fictional journey takes place one year after the Chinese Massacre of 1871 in Los Angeles and three years after the forcible removal of 50 Chinese residents from Unionville, Nevada,  but before the anti-Chinese riot in Tonopah, Nevada,  in 1903. The fictional stage coach would have a choice of stopping in Reno or  in Virginia City, Nevada before going on to Mill City and Battle Mountain. Reno and Virginia City are about 30 miles apart. The original train route went from Sacramento to Reno/Sparks before going on to Battle Mountain. 

Virginia City was a booming city in the mid-1870s with about 25,000 residents due to the discovery of the Comstock Lode of silver. The mine was depleted by 1878, leading a massive migration away from the city which now has a population of less than 800. What’s interesting about Virginia City is the diversity in the occupations of the Chinese residents who came to be about 10 percent of the population. According to a blog entry on ChineseAmericanHistorian, “the 1870 Census shows Chinese were merchants, miners, laborers, laundrymen, cooks, gamblers, and harlots.”

The TV series also chose not to depict Native Americans. The script could have included not only the Native American tribes who were hostile toward the railroad such as the Sioux (as well as the Cheyenne), but those welcomed the Union Pacific, the Pawnee who were enemies to the Sioux. Native Americans did attack the trains and sabotage them. (Butch Cassidy’s career as a train robber came later, beginning in 1899.)

While the Wild West episode refers to the American Civil War as well as Restoration, the territory we see, Nevada, had been part of Mexico until 1821 and achieved statehood during the American Civil War. The Confederacy never presented a serious threat to the state. The Mexican-American War (1846-1848) had left Mexican citizens in a quandary in California and Nevada (as well as other areas). 

This is how the Khan Academy characterizes the aftermath of the Mexican-American War: 
The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which ended the Mexican-American War in 1848, promised US citizenship to the nearly 75,000 Mexicans living in what had just become the American Southwest. Approximately 90 percent of them accepted the offer and chose to stay in the United States.
Despite promises made in the treaty, these Mexican Americans quickly lost their land to white settlers who displaced the rightful landowners—by force if necessary. Mexican Americans in California—or Californios, as they came to be known—found that their demands for legal redress mostly fell upon deaf ears. In some instances, judges and lawyers would permit legal cases to proceed through an expensive legal process only to the point where Mexican American landowners who insisted on holding their ground were rendered penniless for their efforts.
There were a lot of concerns about prejudice in California and Nevada, but these are predominately outside the Black and White paradigm. If Fogg was traveling from Hong Kong and Yokohama, surely, in this time before the Chinese Exclusion Act (1882), he would have rubbed shoulders with Chinese immigrants and Japanese immigrants. 

A trip around the world should present the diversity of the world instead of simplistically reducing it to Black and White. Jules Verne used real incidents with Native Americans and Asian Indians in his plot. Instead of using real incidents or even translating or adapting them in light of a more contemporary understanding, this version of the Jules Verne classic, goes for something easy, something comfortable and something that doesn’t really reflect the numerous rich cultures along the path. East Asians, Latinos and Native Americans were failed by this adaptation. 

“Around the World in 80 Days”  was commissioned by the European Alliance as a co-production alliance of France Télévisions, ZDF of Germany, and RAI of Italy, with additional co-production partners of Masterpiece (US) and Be-Films/RTBF (Belgium). Production took place in the UK, France and South Africa, with filming also taking place in Romania.


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