‘The Time Machine’ by H.G.Wells and the Film Adaptations in 1960 and 2002
Herbert George Wells (1866–1946) began work on what would eventually evolve into The Time Machine nearly eight years before its publication in 1895. The original story was called The Chronic Argonauts (1888) and became the first English language narrative to use an inventor-built machine to travel in time. It had been serialised in three parts in The Science Schools Journal (Wells was founder and editor) in 1888, when Wells was just 22. After two drafts using similar concepts (now lost) and a bulk of new writing, the idea developed into the famous story that people read today and was published in five installments in the New Review from January to May 1895 under the title The Time Machine. This is the story published by William Heinemann, although there is a slightly different version known as the Holt text after Henry Holt who had been negotiating with Wells to publish his story in America.
H.G. Well’s masterpiece The Time Machine is undoubtedly a work of art that created a modern aesthetic — an entire canon of time travel literature and film — that not only permeated popular culture but even influenced some of the greatest scientific minds of the past century. The late Stephen Hawking once hosted a party for time travelers, and when no one turned up to his very inviting table, he declared that this proved time travel was impossible. H.G. Wells was not the first to invent the notion of time travel (which Hawking so mischievously has fun with) but he undoubtedly established the genre of time travel using a machine invented by the human hand and the human brain on the literary map and established it as worthy of serious philosophical and literary discussion.
It was no coincidence that this genesis took place at the fin de siècle of the nineteenth century. With that century fast heading towards the twentieth, new technologies and new ideas were reinforcing each other, such as the electric telegraph, the steam railroad, the earth science of Lyell, the life science of Darwin. Most importantly for this discussion, this period also brought the perfection of clocks, which drove scientists and philosophers to understand time in an altogether different way. It was the greatness of Wells’s imagination to synthesise all this profound change in the zeitgeist into the invention of a fictional but scientifically plausible machine that can travel through time. Of course, Wells wrote his masterpiece only a decade before Einstein remodeled our understanding of time with relativity. And not forgetting Hermann Minkowski, Einstein’s teacher, whose mathematical model used four numbers (x, y, z and t) to denote a “world point”- which we now refer to as space-time, yet this very new geometry with four dimensional space-time takes us to the beginning of Wells’s novella and the very essence of this story: one intrepid man’s journey along the inexorable arrow of time before the way humanity understood time (and Euclidean space) would change our Universe, forever.
In the opening pages of The Time Machine, our Time Traveler asks of his assembled middle-class companions (an Argumentative Person (Filby), a Psychologist, a Very Young Man, a Mayor, a Medical Man and the “I” that narrates the story): “Can a cube that does not last for any length of time, have any real existence?” The cube in question is meant to represent something that exists in the 3 spatial dimensions of length, breadth and height (a three-dimensional Euclidean spatial manifold), but without t (time) asks the Time Traveler of his guests: how can the cube be acknowledged as having existed in the real world? Furthermore, Wells the author asks an even bigger scientific and philosophical question: given the enormous expanse of time upon which evolutionary thought relies, can it be said that humanity ever had a “real existence?” We know the Universe has existed for billions of years before life as we know it arose upon the Earth by pure random chance and it will continue to exist long after we are gone. Then how can we define our being here as significant or meaningful? In The Time Machine, Wells critiques and satirises the inconsistency in those who promulgate Darwin’s naturalistic explanation of origins whilst at the same time reveling in mankind’s special status and position at the pinnacle of evolution due to his intellect.
Along with presenting the human animal as nothing special in the evolving Universe, the other aspect of evolution that Wells incorporates is that the process never ends. In the evolutionary explanation, slow and gradual changes have led to where we are today and will continue to operate even if we were not here. The transient nature of evolutionary “progress” is demonstrated throughout The Time Machine with images representing extinction or the vanishing vestiges of once great civilizations. The most important of which is The White Sphinx, inside which the cannibalistic Morlocks have hidden his time machine (the Time Traveller has no name) and his lifeline home. We are in the year 802,701 and the human species has evolved (social Darwinism) into two distinct subspecies: the bestial Morlocks and the enfeebled Eloi. The first toiling underground, partly blind and grayish-white due to lack of sunlight and the other, fragile, childish, pretty creatures who are looked after by the Morlocks and have become their source of food. The dystopian nightmare of the bestial Morlocks working underground for eons becoming blind as they adapt to this hellish environment, vividly conjure up passages straight from agitprop tracts by Friedrich Engels, with the pleasure-loving Eloi, possible descendants of that spoiled and selfish contemporary literary creation Dorian Gray, but now depleted over time of his sinful and diabolical temptations.
It is revealing to see how the film adaptations in 1960 and 2002 dealt with this undoubtedly pessimistic view that Wells portrays about the future of humanity. (He did predict both WW2 and atomic weapons and of course had there been another nuclear war as shown in the 1st screen adaptation then civilisation would have been reduced to vestiges and remnants). Although both mostly keep to the story in the main there are significant differences, particularly in the endings.
In the book, the TT literally disappears into the future after Weena (the Eloi woman he has become attracted to) is killed by the Morlocks. In 1960 and 2002 films she survives. In 1960 he returns to his home to collect some items (three books — I have always wondered what three they might be) to help rebuild civilization after he has saved Weena and the Elois, by uniting and fighting back against the monstrous Morlock way of life. In 2002 it is a full-on genocide of the Morlock race, who now have a leader with telepathic powers. Wells struggle to find any significance or meaning in the Cosmos is answered in each film by the actions of both George (1960 TT) and Alexander Hartdegen (2002 TT) through acts of individual heroism against the evil Morlocks, yet their respective solutions to the problem of the Morlock threat are products of their own time.
In 1960, George manages to galvanise the subjugated Eloi to rebel (revolt?) against the Morlock masters using fire as a weapon. I am reminded of the legend of Prometheus who gave fire to humanity and was punished by the Gods. Giving mankind this fire in the Greek legend is analogous to an act of rebellion. The Moorlocks are afraid of fire (the light) and it is the application of fire which allows the Eloi to gain their freedom from their overlords by an act of rebellion. In Simon Well’s version (2002), Hartdegen turns the time machine itself into a weapon of mass destruction; a time bomb destroying the Uber-Morlock and the whole Morlock race in a deliberate act of genocide.
Obviously the Cold War does infuse the 1960 film as it had in much of the output of 1950’s and 1960’s science-fiction, particularly in film, and it was only three years later that the world witnessed in horror the Cuban Missile Crisis unfold. But I personally find a more subtle resonance at work with the on-going struggle in America for freedom and civil rights and the world-wide militant struggle against Colonial Rule. The Cuban Revolution under Fidel Castro was only a year old (1959) and The Bay of Pigs (1961) debacle was about to take place a year after the release of the film. Vietnam was next of course. The fire of Prometheus was lighting up the world.
In the 2002 film the dark, deathly shadow of the attack on September 11th hovers across the whole film with its toxicity. Although the film was made just before the terrorist attack upon America, crucially, the editing took place at around the same time and Simon Wells has stated that 9/11 was on his mind when editing the 2002 film. The genocide of the Morlock race at the end is clearly a manifestation of the anxiety prevalent in many after the attack. In the film’s story-line, Hartdegen creates the time machine to prevent his beloved from dying, but he discovers that his attempts to change the past are a causal loop in a past that cannot be changed. I would suggest that the genocide of the Morlocks is an artistic manifestation of the psychic anxiety and distress of the 9/11 tragedy — to stop it from ever taking place and saving those who perished.
In the first film we have become tremendously optimistic about humanity but in the second there is a resurgence of the very deep aggressive death instinct that Wells examines in his novella. An instinct that civilisation is meant to curb. We have now come full circle back to the pessimistic futurism of Wells’s original story.
George Pal’s 1960 film has become a cult classic partly because of the time machine itself and its brilliant visual portrayal of time elapsing, which is the most obvious point of the story by Wells. The 2002 film has moved the portrayal of time on to its most modern of iterations: time loops, but none of this is in Wells’ original The Time Machine of course. Only when time has the character of a spatial dimension can you get local variations or “warps”, as the next generation of time travelling and science fiction stories would imaginatively explore. Wells was a great futurist and I think would have loved the idea of time loops and the quantum world. But in the end, like in much of what Wells wrote, the book is a warning to humanity. Man believes himself to be the measure of all things, but time is, as I believe H.G. Wells makes very clear in The Time Machine, the measure of both a man — the Time Traveler — and mankind.