*. You can argue over who “invented” science fiction, whether it was Jules Verne, Edgar Allan Poe, Mary Shelley, or some even earlier nominee, but there’s no doubt in my mind that H. G. Wells was the real father of the genre. He established the archetypal forms of what would become the staples of science fiction up to the present day. Alien invasion (The War of the Worlds). Mad scientist (The Island of Dr. Moreau). And of course time travel (The Time Machine).
*. In fact, in his 1895 novel Wells gave us what would become two genre staples: the time machine itself and the vision of a dystopic future where social inequality has progressed to a point where Upperworld and Underworld are now two distinct species. This is a vision of society that has gone on to have a long life, perhaps not surprisingly given our current era of growing inequality. From the residents in High-Rise dividing along socioeconomic lines to the front vs. the back of the train in Snowpiercer it’s still everywhere in today’s SF. Though it’s notable that Wells presented things in a more complicated manner.
*. I mention all this back story because George Pal’s The Time Machine diverges from Wells’ story in some important ways. In the first place, it’s not interested at all in the paradoxes thrown up by any time travel narrative. There’s not a lot of that in Wells either, but at least there’s a bit. But here there’s just the machine itself — a whimsical piece of Victoriana that’s more sled than bicycle — which toboggans back and forth without causing any timequakes or temporal disruptions.
*. Then there is the matter of politics. It’s not that this movie isn’t political as that it has different politics than the novel. To simplify, the movie is more American. For Wells, the division between Upperworld and Underworld was the natural extension of an upstairs-downstairs class system. In the film, however, the division between Eloi and Morlock is only the result of a “quirk of fate” that had different sides choosing where to live after an exterminationist war.
*. What’s more, the Time Traveler (who is “H. G. Wells” or “George” in the movie) is an American revolutionary. Not leading a red brigade to take over the means of production but a freedom fighter overthrowing a tyrranical form of government. It all felt a little bit like Kevin Costner in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, with Rod Taylor leading a proto-War of Independence against slave-driving masters (who are drawn more from The Mole People than anything in Wells’s story).
*. I think it’s fair to say that the two aspects of the novel that did so much to shape the future of the genre (the complexities of time travel with regard to how it plays out in narrative form and the politics of the future), were of little interest to George Pal. I don’t mean this as a criticism, but he seems to have been more interested in effects, like the destruction of London by some kind of nuclear attack. There is nothing at all like that in the book and it’s an episode that’s wholly made up just to show off.
*. Other changes are more Hollywood. In the book the Eloi are around four feet tall and don’t speak English. So obviously there wasn’t going to be any love interest for Mr. Taylor. In fact, in the novel Weena is presumably killed in a forest fire the Traveler accidentally starts.
*. At the time, Rod Taylor was considered to be quite the stud. At least he keeps his shirt on here, even if it does get torn up a bit. He was only 30 but he looks like he’s at least 50, as was the custom at that time. Yvette Mimieux, in the meantime, wasn’t 18 yet.
*. The horrors are also played down. In the book the Traveler sees tables of some unspecified meat, but here we only see Eloi skeletons that have been picked clean. I’ve always wondered how fair the charge of cannibalism is against the Morlocks though. Surely by this point in time their diverging evolutionary lines have made the Eloi and Morlocks into two distinct species so it wouldn’t be right to call them cannibals.
*. The upshot of all this is to make The Time Machine a less adult entertainment and more just good silly fun. I think most people today of a certain age have fond memories of seeing it on TV when they were kids. Such was my experience, anyway. I’d forgotten just how long the movie takes to get us to the year 802701, and all of the intervening “world at war” stuff. The Morlocks with their Christmas-tree lights for eyes and mangy albino-gorilla make-up have always stuck in my head though. And of course the time machine itself, a contraption that I don’t think we’ve ever seen anything like, before or since. Unless you count the pimped out version that appears in the 2002 remake. But that’s another story.