The news that It director Andy Muschietti will adapt HG Wells’ classic 1895 novel The Time Machine ought to be greeted with delight by any self-respecting fan of classic science fiction. Muschietti is a celebrated up-and-coming film-maker whose vibrant and vivid adaptation of the sinister Stephen King horror novel proved to be a surprise joy last year, and Wells’ ominous critique of social Darwinism is among the most influential in English literature. The only problem is that Wells acolytes hoping to see the futuristic theories of the late 19th century transformed into intelligent big screen sci-fi have ended up being regularly disappointed over the past few decades, and there is little to suggest it will be different this time around.
The biggest issue with Wells’ best-known works is that they are predicated on ideas that were outdated long before he died in 1946. The Martian “canals”, which astronomers had once imagined carrying water from the planet’s frozen poles to an ancient civilisation – the kind that could invade Earth in The War of the Worlds – had long since been proven to be nothing of the kind. The idea that animals could be made more human-like via vivisection (the essential conceit of The Island of Dr Moreau) was overtaken by genetic theories in the early 1900s. The hellish conditions of the industrial working class in Wells’ time led not to the divergence of the human species 800,000 years in the future, but to events such as the Russian revolution a mere two decades after the author published The Time Machine.
Wells clearly believed his readers would accept a dramatic, scientifically inspired leap in logic, if his stories otherwise cleaved to reality. And yet we have experienced so many logic-defying scientific leaps since the 1890s that his tales now seem to demonstrate how dramatically our understanding of the world has changed in little more than a century.
Film-makers have often chosen to take Wells’ ideas and develop them using modern thinking. John Frankenheimer’s infamously troubled 1996 production of The Island of Dr Moreau, like its 1977 predecessor, imagined the titular mad scientist using genetic manipulation to convert beasts into humans. This makes much more sense than vivisection, from a modern perspective (Wells’ story was inspired by fears regarding human societies’ propensity for degeneration, as well as anti-vivisection campaigns). But there is only one problem: it is a much less scary concept, and the movie loses the sense of horror that the novel provides in spades. Instead of creatures wrought into life through the genius of Moreau’s cunning blade alone, we get a bunch of preposterous talking beasties who resemble ThunderCats.
Steven Spielberg’s 2005 War of the Worlds likewise provides little of the awe-inspiring sense of portent provided by the novel or Orson Welles’ classic radio version, instead emerging as a well-filmed, common-or-garden Tom Cruise action-disaster flick. Spielberg skirts over the problem of Martian invasion by leaving the aliens’ origins unclear, but by ignoring the social Darwinistic leanings of Wells’ original tome ends up making the extra-terrestrials far less freakish and frightening. No longer are they giant, tentacle-limbed brains who have evolved through countless centuries beyond the need for conventional bodies Instead they are large-eyed, three-fingered creatures that look like they might be the distant, tripedal cousins of the film-maker’s kindly and curious visitors from another planet in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. At least Spielberg retained the novel’s other mind-boggling suggestion, that the alien invaders would eventually be destroyed by their inability to fend off Earth’s invisible bacteria.
The most recent big-screen take on The Time Machine, the 2002 take by the author’s great-grandson Simon Wells, also suffered from Hollywoodisation and a failure to grasp the importance of contemporary thinking to the story’s conceits. Instead of being mere ape-like monstrosities, who have devolved over the countless millennia from the 19th century industrial working class to prey on and rule over their former elite masters, the Eloi, Wells’ Morlocks are joined by an entirely new sub-class of intelligent, talking “uber-Morlocks”, probably because somebody decided there was not much point hiring Jeremy Irons to play the main baddie if you don’t allow him a few lines of dialogue.
Here then, is the challenge facing Muschietti. The most fascinating aspects of Wells’ best-known novels are those that have long since been swept away by the onward march of either scientific thinking, or societal shifts. And even if the film-maker can concoct a more modern theory for humanity’s split into the Eloi and the Morlocks (perhaps they could be Democrats and Trumpian Republicans, or Brexiters and Corbynites) there are still issues. In the #MeToo era, are we really going to accept a storyline in which a male adventurer encounters a brainless female space babe?
Whether this latest version of the Time Machine chooses to hold true to the Wells’ whimsies that lend the story all its charm, or sacrifice them on the altar of modernity, it’s probable that, like the doomed Martians of War of the Worlds, Muschietti and his team simply cannot win.