H.G.Wells: "The Time Machine"

A Comparison of the Book and the Film, in terms of the Social and Cultural Background of the Time



All novels are influenced by the social and cultural background of their authors, and clearly 'The Time Machine' is no exception.

Similarly, film adaptations of books also reflect the social and cultural setting of their time, despite the period they purport to represent.

In view of this, there is a great deal which can be concluded from the respective ways in which the tale is presented.

Wells and 19th Century Britain

Wells was writing in 1894-95, and his fantasy reflects the concerns of his day. As a socialist sympathiser, and later a Fabian and reformer, Wells saw all around him the exploitation of the working class in the factories and mills of his time. They worked long hours, for starvation wages, living in appalling housing conditions. At the same time, the wealthy industrialists and leisured classes lived a life of pleasure and ease.

It is to expose this division in society which forms the satirical purpose of his novel, 'The Time Machine'. He extrapolates this situation of social injustice into the far future, the world of 802,000 AD.

In the world of the Eloi and Morlocks, society has divided into two new races, both degenerate and sub-human. The Eloi, the descendants of the leisured classes, have become child-like androgynous creatures, weak and unable to fend for themselves. Their lives of leisure are enjoyed only at the cost of premature death, at the hands of the cannibalistic Morlocks. The Morlocks, the descendants of the working classes long-ago driven into subterranean factories, have degenerated into troglodytes, still with some intellectual capacity, but emerging at night to prey on the hapless Eloi,

Wells's time traveller is filled with despair and a sense of futility. Is it for this that he has striven so long to build his time machine? Instead of wonderful advances in human knowledge and intellect, he finds instead decay and degeneration.

These feelings are reinforced towards the end of the novel. Leaving the world of the Eloi behind him, with Weena dead, he finds himself standing on the shore of a dead sea, even further in the future....

The scene is one of complete desolation and hopelessness....

"I cannot convey the sense of absolute desolation that hung over the world. The red eastern sky, the northward blackness, the salt Dead Sea, the stony beach crawling with these foul, slow-stirring monsters, the uniform poisonous-looking green of the lichenous plants, the thin air that hurt one's lungs; all contributed to an appalling effect."

This then is the future of the human race... decline, followed by extinction, on a dying planet.

Clearly Wells' purpose is to give an implicit warning that without major social reform, there will be little future for humanity. Conversely, he suggests that with such reform, the bleak future may be replaced with something far more desirable.

The Film... 60s Angstposter of the film

The film takes a completely different approach in its satirical purpose, if it can be said to have one! As a film, it must generate far more audience interest, hence the elements of romantic interest, with a beautiful fully human 'Weena', and much more action and violence. The film ends happily, with the traveller returning to the future to be reunited with the Weena whose life he has saved, and with a race of Eloi who have new hope, in a world without the Morlocks, destroyed in the subterranean fires.

Nevertheless, despite these weaknesses, the film sticks fairly faithfully to the original novel in many respects. Furthermore, it also won an Oscar for its overall presentation and special effects.

The film was made in the early 1960s, at the height of the 'Cold War', and shortly after the Cuban Missile Crisis which had the world on the edge of its seat, fearing nuclear Armageddon.

Although its prediction of a nuclear war starting in 1966 may seem risible to us, living in the 1990s, at the time the film was made this would not have seemed so incredible!

Instead of division between the classes, the film takes as its hypothesis, a division between survivors of nuclear war: those who choose to hide in the subterranean nuclear shelters, and those who take their chance on the surface of the earth. War is introduced early in the film as a theme, with references to the Boer War and its futility, and the additions of scenes in the First World War, and Second World War. Filby is shown to have died in the First World War.

Hence, the Morlocks now prey on the Eloi, but use the nuclear sirens to draw them into the shelters for slaughter.

Weaknesses

film posterpic

The film fails to justify how and why this division of society takes place. How and why are the Eloi drawn by the sirens into the shelters? Is it merely some kind of racial memory?

Clearly the English language would be unrecognisable after 800,000 years of change, yet the Eloi seem to speak perfect 20th century English, complete with idioms! Yet we are supposed to believe they have forgotten about fire!

Why should the Morlocks have degenerated into beasts, through evolution, when the Eloi have changed not one jot, according to the film?

The underground scenes of the battle between Morlocks and Eloi, lead by the time traveller also stretch credulity to its limits. Are we expected to believe that the caves are full of high explosive, given the way they disappear in a massive conflagration? Would the Eloi really suddenly discover their 'manhood' again, and learn to fight after generations of dependency? How can it be that the Morlocks are totally destroyed, when only one part of their domain has been demolished? Surely, this is supposed to be a world-wide phenomenon!

Obviously, such criticisms are difficult to justify as in the conventions of any fantasy film, we suspend our disbelief in such matters: in the same way that we expect all alien races in 'Star Trek' to speak American English!

But the cultural and social background of the film is reflected not simply in the theme of nuclear war, but also in the styles of clothing, and dress. The men have 60s style long hair; the women wear calf-length dresses, with blond bouffoned hair.

Social Satire: Book vs Film

Above all, the effectiveness of the film as a social satire is undermined because it offers us hope. Despite the fact that the human race has almost been annihilated, along comes the 19th century time traveller and restores it to its rightful path of progress and science. The intrinsic human spirit lives on.

This is completely opposed to Wells's purpose, which was to give a grim warning that what we do in the here and now is of vital importance to the future of our world and humanity. In his view, there would be no 'second chances'.

Obviously, the book has more philosophical basis, as one would expect. The central theme is best outlined on pages 47 -48.

"It seemed as clear as daylight to me that the gradual widening of the present social difference between the Capitalist and the Labourer was the key to the whole position. This tendency had increased till Industry had gone deeper and deeper into larger and ever larger underground factories, spending a still-increasing amount of time therein.... So in the end, above ground you must have the Haves, pursing pleasures and comfort, and beauty, and below ground, the Have-nots.......(But)...the too perfect security of the Upper Worlders had led them to a slow movement of degeneration, to a general dwindling in size, strength and intelligence.."

In the 'Palace of Green Porcelain', a derelict museum, the traveller with Weena discovers the secrets of the past. But these are merely ruined and devastated machines, and the decaying vestiges of books. He does obtain camphor and matches, which enable him to set fire to the wood, which drives the Morlocks away. Yet Weena is captured and taken to her death.

In the film, the museum reveals the 'talking rings' which tell about the past. If we see these as some kind of 'CDROM', then we could claim the film was making an enlightened prediction, since such technology was only developed in the 1970s/1980s.

In conclusion, we must not forget that the film and the novel are two distinct types of media. The novel was pioneering in its presentation of the concept of time travel, something which has become commonplace in modern science fiction and fantasy. The film, for its time, was a successful and imaginative rendition of the novel.

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