Georges Méliès

It’s one thing to say that Georges MélièsLe Voyage dans la lune is “probably the first film actually based, however loosely, on the work of an sf writer.”[1] But it’s another thing altogether to say that it’s “probably the first example of sf film,” even if by “sf film” one means “the attempt to re-create in visual terms the effects of an imagined situation.”[2] It does no harm to accept the first proposition, but the definition supporting the second is so broad that the proposition is no longer very useful: it seems more like a determined effort to find a common denominator between the terms “sf film” and “Méliès film” than an effort to define what an “sf film” is. Indeed, it seems to suggest that, regardless of his subject matter in any film, Méliès’ approach to cinematic spectacle showed the way toward “sf film”—indeed, toward the treatment of fiction itself on film. And that is (probably) too grand a claim.

The “Ludicrous Expedition”: Genres of the Imaginative Journey

See the moving picture


If it can be categorized by genre, Le Voyage, like its more ambitious “remake,” Le Voyage à travers l’impossible (An Impossible Voyage, 1904—Figure R3.13 [3]), and the 1912 fantastic journey of exploration, À la Conquête du Pole (The Conquest of the PoleFigure R3.13), should probably be placed in one of the idiosyncratic genres that Méliès was making up as he went along. British critic Paul Hammond suggests that we call the genre which includes these three films the “ludicrous expedition” and then place that genre in the larger generic category of the “journey.” In turn, the “journey” also includes the genre of “dreamed travel,” in which the principal themes of the “ludicrous expedition”—namely, wish-fulfillment and frustration or anxiety—are clearly expressed. Thus in Jack le ramoneur (The Chimney Sweep, 1906—Figure R3.14), the title character dreams that he travels to Utopia and is crowned king. Conversely, in Deux cent milles lieues sous les mers (Under the Seas, 1907—Figure R3.15), a Jules Verne-esque hero—for so he is identified by the title—is pursued along the seabed by a leviathan. But this journey beneath the sea—subtitled ou le cauchemar d’un pecheur (Or, the Fisherman’s Nightmare)—is only an anxiety dream: the protagonist wakes to the realization that he could use a drink.[4] (Note, by the way, that the titular pêcheur could be a sinner as well as a fisherman.)

SF and Pop-Cultural Fantasy


               Jules Verne

Science fiction, writes one commentator, is “pragmatic, idealistic, sustained by the mystique of technology and a belief in the desirability of mathematical order in human affairs.”[5] Likewise, it’s typically didactic—designed to be instructive—and turn-of-the-century sf writers like Jules Verne and H.G. Wells were serious in the predictions they made about things to come; their dreams were calculated. The popular culture, however—including the fairground showmen to whom Méliès catered and who catered in turn to lower-middle-class audiences—had long recognized dreams as vehicles for more fugitive enterprises: for comic depictions of what happens to people when their lives are suddenly disrupted by upsurges of the impossible, the forbidden, or the repressed.To this tradition the cinema brought the necessary apparatus for added spectacle and realism, and with Le Voyage dans la lune, Méliès was no doubt in the forefront of this general appeal to pop-cultural fantasies, if not necessarily at the head of any more dedicated effort to apply cinematic spectacle to tales of scientific fancy (see Figure R3.16).[6]

[1] John Brosnan, Future Tense: The Cinema of Science Fiction (New York: St. Martin’s, 1978), p. 16. See Matthew Solomon, ed., Fantastic Voyages of the Cinematic Imagination: Georges Méliès’ “A Trip to the Moon” (Albany, NY: State Univ. of New York Press, 2011).

The following essays deal with Méliès’ inspiration in Verne, Wells, and other sf writers of the time: Thierry Lefebvre, “A Trip to the Moon: A Composite Film,” Chapter 3; Ian Christie, “First-Footing on the Moon: Méliès’s Debt to Verne and Wells and His Influence in Great Britain,” Chapter 4; and Antonio Costa, “Impossible Voyages and Extraordinary Adventures in Early Science Fiction Cinema: From Robida to Marcel Fabre,” Chapter 11. See also Harry M. Geduld, “Return to Méliès: Reflections on the Science Fiction Film,” in Focus on the Science Fiction Film, ed. William Johnson (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1972), pp. 142-47; and Barbara Creed, Darwin’s Screens: Evolutionary Aesthetics, Time and Sexual Display in the Cinema (Melbourne, Australia: MUP Academic Monographs, 2009), pp. 58-65, at (accessed June 9, 2016). For information on the restoration of Le Voyage dans la lune, see Biographical Sketch 3.1.

[2] John Baxter, Science Fiction in the Cinema (New York: Paperback Library, 1970), p. 15. See also Garrett Stewart, “Close Encounters of the Fourth Kind,” Sight and Sound 47:3 (1978), pp. 167-74.

[3] For Figure R3.13: See Richard Abel, The Ciné Goes to Town: French Cinema 1896-1914, rev. ed. (Berkeley and Los Angeles: Univ. of California Press, 1994), pp. 71-73 and 77-78. For brief analyses of both Le Voyage dans la lune and Le Voyage à travers l’impossible, see Northwest Film Forum, Georges Méliès: Impossible Voyager: Special Effects Epics, 1902-1912 (May 15, 2008), at (accessed June 9, 20164). On Le Voyage à travers l’impossible as a "sequel" to Le Voyage dans la lune, see Carolyn Jess-Cooke, Film Sequels: Theory and Practice from Hollywood to Bollywood (Edinburgh: Edinburgh Univ. Press, 2009), pp. 25-28, at (accessed June 9, 2016). On Le Voyage à travers l’impossible as a reflection on contemporary ideas about technology and transport, see James Walters, Fantasy Film: A Critical Introduction (Oxford, UK: Berg Publishers, 2011), pp. 41-46, at (accessed June 9, 2016). For Le Voyage à travers l’impossible, see Figure 7.21.

[4] Marvellous Méliès (New York: St. Martin’s, 1975), pp. 114-25. On Jack le ramoneur, see Abel, The Ciné Goes to Town, pp. 161-62.

[5] Baxter, Science Fiction in the Cinema, p. 7.

[6] See Ian Christie, The Last Machine: Early Cinema and the Birth of the Modern World (London: British Film Institute, 1994), pp. 34-36.

Back to top

Back to CHAPTER 3/Part 2