Posted by David Kalat on February 16, 2013
Set your timers for this coming Tuesday (or set your time machine in case you’re reading this after Tuesday), because TCM will be showing the movie that gave this blog its name: George Pal’s production of The Time Machine, in which Rod Taylor falls in love with Yvette Mimieux in the distant future while savage Morlocks hunt the passive Eloi.
Unlike the obscure movies I try to focus my attention on here, this one’s a familiar staple, a warm comforting blanket of a movie. But for various reasons I’ve had The Time Machine on my mind lately, so I’m indulging in the happy coincidence.
(And I don’t take offense at being compared to a subterranean ghoul–as comparisons go, it’s not inapt. My friend Richard Roberts, one of the Silent Comedy Mafia, has called film geeks “mushroom people,” because as he notes, they spend a lot of time indoors in the dark, and they’re all soft and squishy.)
Of all the various movies to have been made from the writings of HG Wells, this is one of the more faithful. I say that with full knowledge of the two movies Wells had a direct hand in making: Things to Come and The Man Who Could Work Miracles. Thanks to Wells’ direct involvement, those two pictures stayed very true to his peculiar sensibilities, but at the same time the things that constituted Wells’ view of himself weren’t entirely in accord with how he’s remembered. Things to Come and Man Who Could Work Miracles are at once distinctly and unexpurgatedly Wells while also being out of step with what people think of when they think of Wells.
The Time Machine, however, is a reasonably faithful adaptation of arguably Wells’ most famous and beloved novel, which itself if full of Wells’ recurring motifs: the current world will order will lead inevitably to a world-destroying war, out of whose ashes a new world order will spring.
Mind you, the book The Time Machine was Wells’ first ever novel, written when he was just a science teacher. For a first book, published in 1895, this thing has stayed in print for over a hundred years and counting and is available in almost every conceivable language in every country in the world. If I’d achieved that when I was a dissolute young man trying to find his place in the world, I’d seize on its themes too and never let go.
But let’s pause for a second and consider what it means for this to be Wells’ first book. In fact, all of his most celebrated books were his firsts: The Time Machine, 1895; The Island of Dr. Moreau, 1896; The Invisible Man, 1897; War of the Worlds, 1898; and First Men in the Moon, 1901. These are the works upon which Wells’ reputation is based. That’s an extraordinary legacy by any measure—but consider also that these timeless classics were the first things Wells ever wrote. We’re talking about a roughly five year period at the very very start of Wells’ writing career, which spanned fifty years.
Since visually inventive best sellers have been inspiring movie adaptations since the dawn of movies, it’s no surprise that HG Wells’ books have been fodder for movie adaptations since the beginning. But the first crop of adaptations, in the early silent era, struggled against the primitivity of the medium and the inexperience of their makers. It wasn’t until James Whale got his hands on The Invisible Man that a movie version of a Wells book came along that Wells had any respect for.
In the 1930s Wells started a transition from novelist to filmmaker but never conquered the new medium as thoroughly as he had the old. He was a driving creative force on two films, Things to Come and The Man Who Could Work Miracles, but other projects that were mooted never came to pass, and neither of these films comfortably fit the popular (mis)conception of what Wells was all about.
Pal focuses on eye candy, and the result is a family-friendly dystopian future, an end of the world you could take your kids to.
Rod Taylor doesn’t get a lot to work with here, and for an actor who has to carry almost the entire picture on his charisma alone, we leave the movie with only a sketchy idea of who he is. Don’t blame Taylor, this is all Wells–a writer more interested in the Big Ideas than characterization. And for Wells’ fans, and the hard SF tradition he pioneered, this is a rallying cry: Hard SF is about Big Ideas, that’s the whole point.
One of Wells’ Big Ideas is that a society that turns its back on reading and knowledge is a doomed society. In one of The Time Machine‘s more memorable sequences, Rod Taylor visits the Library of the Future, an abandoned place full of decaying and useless books.
Books! In a library!
For a man who judged the value of his writing first and foremost by the accuracy of his predictions, Wells pitches the idea of a future so far flung from now that humans have evolved into new species, yet there would still be a library full of books for the Eloi to ignore. And here we are not yet 60 years from Wells’ death (let me point out that less time has passed between when George Pal made The Time Machine to now than passed between Wells wrote The Time Machine to the time the movie was made) and already the future of printed books and physical libraries is in doubt.
It’s not that we’ve turned our back on reading, like the Eloi. They’ve just evolved into new forms. My copy of the book The Time Machine is a digital download that resides on a rectangle made of glass I carry in my pocket. That glass rectangle provides me access to more books than would ever fit in the Eloi’s library, but only so long as it has electrical power, and a connection to an infrastructure of other electrical devices. At once vastly more powerful, and infinitely more fragile.
You can forgive Wells for not foreseeing the Information Revolution–practically no one saw this coming (except for maybe Vannevar Bush). But it’s the sort of thing Wells so much wanted to foresee–a simple technological development with massive social consequences.
Inspired to save the future world from its booklessness, Rod Taylor’s time traveller zips back to Victorian England where he started to grab 3 books and take them back to the Eloi. This was a clever embellishment of Wells’ story, unique to the film. And it inspired generations of film fans to speculate which books he–or you–would take.
It’s highly unlikely that the Bible or any religious tract was among them. Wells was a sincere atheist and believed that religion was one of the factors holding back human progress and encouraging wars. Beyond that, it’s anyone’s guess.
A 1986 episode of Doctor Who riffed on this idea, in which the Doctor finds himself in a ruined future Earth in which only three books have survived the apocalypse, and naturally enough those three books are now revered as “sacred texts.” But they aren’t books anyone chose on purpose, they just happen to be the only three that survived: Moby Dick (OK, I guess I can see that), The Water Babies (harder to imagine how that could work as a sacred text), and, “most mysterious of all,” U.K. Habitats of the Canadian Goose by H.M. Stationery Office (now you’re talking!)
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