So, by now, you may have gathered I am a bit of a Doctor Who fan. He clearly has the coolest time machine, hands down. Nothing can top the TARDIS. Still, the original is kind of cool. For my summer reading challenge, I chose to kill two birds with one stone and read The Time Machine by H.G. Wells, a book that was also on my year-long reading list of books I should have read by now. I also, just to cover all my bases, watched the 2002 movie version of Wells’ novel last night starring Guy Pearce. Let’s just say, the Doc still reigns supreme as the premier Time Traveller in my book.
Not to say I didn’t enjoy this other time traveler. We’ll start with the book. It was the first book I had read by Wells and I liked his style. Although he included considerably more science jargon in his work than his counterpart, Jules Verne, I was still able to easily follow the logic of his story. I liked the set up of the book, or novella as it is more rightly classified. It’s divided into three main parts. The first section is a dinner party with the Time Traveler (no other name given) and several of his friends where they debate time travel and then the Time Traveler successfully tests a small scale model of his time machine. This section is heavy on the science, with not a lot of plot but it sets the stage for the second, longest section which is when the Time Traveler goes to the year 800,000 AD and successfully comes back and tells his tale to his dinner companions. This sort of retrospective story technique seems to be popular with both Wells and Verne. In a sense, it makes me more comfortable as a reader; if he’s telling the story, he obviously survives the peril of the story. That said, it clearly kills the suspense aspect of the plot. The third, quite short, section is simply the narrator saying that the Time Traveler has been missing, along with his great machine, for the past three years and speculates on whether he will ever return.
The main gist of the story is brilliant; remember, Wells was long before Doc Brown strapped a flux capacitor to a DeLorean and even long before the Doctor started traveling the universe in a Police Box. I love reading the root stories of our great mythologies. The Time Traveler is likable enough if a little bland and he certainly travels to a fantastical place far, far, far into our future. At this point apparently, humans have split into two races. The Eloi, simple childlike creatures, live above ground and the menacing Morlocks inhabit caves miles beneath the surface and only come out at night. The Eloi are likened to sheep for good reason; the Morlocks are meat eaters and the only creatures around to eat apparently are the Eloi. So, the element of cannibalism is a major plot point even if Wells never comes right out and states it as such. Pretty gruesome (and the movie takes it a bit further than I needed to see). Also, the Eloi, childlike to the extreme, makes the Time Traveler’s relationship with Weena somewhat problematic. I don’t think Wells means for the story to have the undertones I was picking up on that relationship but then again, maybe he did. Either way, it was a bit much at times in my opinion. That said, the adventure of the story holds up. The Time Traveler’s war with the Morlocks to get his time machine back is fun to follow and well paced. The novella is definitely plot driven; the characters are rather under developed but again, I’ve noticed this about the early science fiction novels. They are so focused on getting the story out and explaining all the ways it was plausible that the characters sort of fell by the wayside of the bigger agenda of the author.
Now, we move on to the 2002 film. Setting aside the rather cheesy special effects (I was shocked to see the film was made in 2002 when I looked – the budget must have been rather low key), I liked this movie. It in no way resembles the novella it is based on other then there is a time traveler who goes to the year 800,000 where humans have divided into hunters and hunted. However, this didn’t bug me and I’ll tell you why. If they’d filmed a straight version of Wells’ story, most of the time you’d be bored. There are pages of explanation; pages when the Time Traveler is just wandering around aimlessly trying to decide how to act next. The sort of style doesn’t make for the most riveting film. However, and feel free to cry foul on me, how they characterized the Time Traveler, or Alex Hartdegen as he’s now called, seemed a bit much to me.
In the novella, the Time Traveler builds his machine because he can; he is a scientist and he wants to explore new frontiers and break boundaries. This fits the time, the spirit, of the age Wells was writing in and trying to embody through his story. The pursuit of scientific discovery itself was a big enough motivator for his character. In 2002, we had to give Alex Hartdegen some melodramatic loss to make him so obsessed in going back in time to fix a mistake that he builds the time machine. People, in one word, lame. I was not a fan of this new plot point. Other ones they added were necessary I think to make the other characters flesh out enough so you cared about them. The Eloi become a fully developed people with their own culture and society (in the book, they just sort of lazed around all day). The Morlocks have a supreme leader who, kind of Borg-like, controls the rest of the pack via mind control. Rule number 1 in action film, we must have a single bad guy controlling all the minions. I also liked the inclusion of the hologram librarian who follows Alex through time; it was a clever way to get information to the audience without going overboard with monologues from the other characters. Also, we need to give props to the Props department – the Time Machine was awesome and, according to IMDB, the biggest and most expensive prop built for a film at that time. I see where the budget went now.
It was interesting to be able to compare the two works, novella from 1895 and film from 2002. I think in many ways, they are reflections of their time; of the expectations of an ever-changing audience and both are worth checking out if you’re in between seasons of Doctor Who.