The world of H.G. Wells and the films he inspired

BY CHRIS HALLAM

FIRST PUBLISHED IN GEEKY MONKEY MAGAZINE IN 2016

Martian invaders who mercilessly destroy everything in their path. A scientist who develops the power to make himself invisible. A machine which can transport the passenger though the fourth dimension: time. Just where here would be without Herbert George Wells? 150 years after his birth it’s impossible to imagine the world of science fiction without the books H.G. Wells wrote and the many films they inspired.

By the time H.G. Wells died in 1946, the world was trembling in awe at the destructive power of the first atomic bombs and reeling from the impact of two devastating world wars. But at the time of his birth in 1866, horses were still everywhere and telephones and motor cars were still the stuff of futuristic science fiction. Even when Wells grew up and wrote the hugely imaginative books which made his name in the 1890s, the first aeroplanes were still yet to fly.

No one had ever seen a film when H.G. Wells was growing up either but this didn’t stop him enjoying them as an adult. According to author Alan Gallop, (author of The Martians Are Coming!):

“Wells loved everything about movies and moviemaking. He liked the company of film directors and producers, screenwriters and pretty actresses.”

This is a good thing as Wells’ books, particularly his most famous early books (which Wells described as “science romances”) always attracted a huge amount of interest from filmmakers and indeed the cinema-going public. Wells himself, of course, would not live to see most of these films, let alone get involved in the production but we can.

And as we shall see in the next few pages, some were better than others…

by George Charles Beresford, black and white glossy print, 1920

The Time Machine

(Book: 1895. Filmed: 1960, 2002)

Some people say it is better to travel than to arrive. This is certainly true in the case of George Pal’s enjoyable 1960 adaptation of Wells’ first novel, The Time Machine. For fun though the movie is, it is never better than during the Oscar-winning scenes where the hero (Rod Taylor, also of Hitchcock’s The Birds) experiences time travel for the first time.

Although generally less political than the book, the film followed the novel reasonably closely despite a few minor changes. The initial events are switched to the New Year period of 1900 (several years after the book was published). The previously unnamed time traveller becomes “George” in the film, presumably in honour of Herbert George Wells, “Herbert” perhaps not being judged a sufficiently heroic name. The personalities of George’s colleagues are also filled out and a later sequence in which the time traveller witnesses the Earth in its final days, suffering beneath a huge pre-supernova sun is wholly omitted from the film version.

But the essence of the book remains. The time traveller invents the machine and travels to the distant and random futuristic year of 802701 (mark this date in your calendars please). He finds the world inhabited by pleasant but intellectually vacuous flower children known as the Eloi who live a Garden of Eden type existence. Blond and pretty, they are not so much Children of the Damned as Children of the Dumb and spend their days swimming, flirting and ignoring all the world’s books which have subsequently turned to dust on their shelves.  Their lives are spoilt only by the blue subterranean albino gorillas known as the Morlocks who despite a commendable work ethic, enjoy eating Eloi on their lunch break.

The time travel scenes are great. Although a bit inconsistent – some of the things George witnesses from the machine, (such as the clothes on the dummy in the nearby shop window) change at a different rate than others – there is truly something magical about the way the days flicker by. Nearby flowers visibly bloom and close and the seasons roll by beautifully in these scenes. In a notable variation on the 1895 novel, George also gets the chance to witness the unhappy consequences of not one, not two but three world wars during the 20th century segment of his journey bumping into his friend’s son (Alan Young) in both 1917 and again, shortly before a nuclear attack in the then still futuristic year of 1966,

One happy consequence of a nuclear war in 1966 had it actually occurred, would have been that no one would have had to see the terrible version of the story made by Wells’ great-grandson, Kung Fu Panda director Simon Wells in 2002. In this version Guy Pearce plays Dr Alexander Hartdegen whose trip to the future from New York this time is inspired by a desire to save his fiancée from a premature death: a very loose adaptation of the book indeed. The human race this time is devastated not by atomic warfare but by an accident in which the moon is accidentally destroyed in 2037 (again, mark this date in your calendars). In the far future, the Eloi Vs Morlock rivalry persists but now includes short-lived singing sensation Samantha Mumba playing one of the Eloi and Jeremy Irons as an intelligent chatty Morlock.

In fairness, the 2002 film isn’t all awful. But the time travel sequences are duller than in the 1960 film and somehow the film robs the story of all its charm.

Even Samantha Mumba can’t save it.

The Island of Doctor Moreau

(Book: 1896. Filmed: 1932, 1977, 1996)

There’s no getting away from it: The Island of Doctor Moreau is a bit of an odd book. Yet more than a century on, it is still widely read because it tackles ethical issues which are still relevant today. It’s also remains a cracking good read despite being one of Wells’ darkest novels.

The story tells of a shipwrecked young man who finds himself marooned on an island inhabited by the notorious doctor of the title, a vivisectionist living in exile after a scandal. But they are not alone. The marooned sailor soon discovers the disturbing results of the mad doctor’s experiments all around him. Unlike Dr Doolittle, Moreau doesn’t talk to the animals. He conducts hideous experiments on them and  tries to turn them into humans.

The book inspired both a Simpsons parody and the name of the hip hop band House of Pain, but cinema has served it less well. Wells himself personally hated the first feature length version of the novel (there had been two earlier silent versions), which was filmed under the title The Island of Lost Souls, as he thought Charles Laughton’s camp  performance as the doctor pushed it too far towards being just a horror movie.

As critic Philip K. Scheuer wrote at the time: “There is no fooling about Island of Lost Souls. It’s a genuine shocker, hard to shake off afterward. As art, it begins and ends with Charles Laughton”.

In fact, this production, which also featured Dracula star Bela Lugosi, is now rated highly, Kim Newman describing it as “the most comprehensively (and admirably) horrid of all the classic horror films from its period”.  It is also considered the best of the three main Moreau films. Although, to be fair, the competition is not exactly very stiff.

If the 1977 version starring Burt Lancaster and Michael York was something of a disappointment, the third version (also called The Island of Dr Moreau) filmed by John Frankenheimer in the centenary year of the book’s publication (1996) was a famous cinematic disaster.

Many were amused by the casting of the by then very obese and somewhat past his best Marlon Brando. A common joke ran, “Have you heard Marlon Brando’s playing the title role in The Island of Dr Moreau? He’s playing the island.” But there were many other problems too as the production ran horrendously over-budget amidst a plague of weather problems and a dramatic falling out between the veteran director Frankenheimer and star Val Kilmer.

Frankenheimer who had directed The Birdman of Alcatraz in his prime was quite vocal about his leading man once stating: “There are two things I will never do in my life. I will never climb Mount Everest, and I will never work with Val Kilmer again. There isn’t enough money in the world.” Frankenheimer was as good as his word and died in 2002 without doing either of these things.

The resulting flop spawned the 2014 documentary Lost Souls: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s Island of Dr Moreau (Stanley had been the original director). Perhaps unsurprisingly, the documentary is much better viewing than the film itself.

The Invisible Man

(Book: 1897. Filmed: many times)

It’s one of the oldest jokes in the world: have you seen the Invisible Man? In fact, the story has been filmed so many times, chances are you probably have seen The Invisible Man in some form or another. Whether it resembled the original source material or was even called The Invisible Man remains to be seen (no pun intended).

The story centres on Griffin, a student whose life is effectively ruined after he discovers the means to make first his cat, then himself invisible. The dream of many, for Griffin, the experience quickly becomes a nightmare as he is forced to cover himself in bandages and turn to a life of crime in order to survive. The methodology behind Griffin’s breakthrough is intriguing: he makes himself invisible through a combination of adjustments to his skin pigmentation and to the refractive index of the light which reflects off him. It would never actually work in reality but is convincing enough in the context of the novel.

The 1933 film version of the story starring Claude Rains and directed by the legendary James Whale with a script by R.C Sherriff is still considered a classic. Rains became a star despite barely appearing on screen. H.G. Wells again wasn’t keen though. In his book H.G. Wells: Another Kind of Life, (published by: Peter Owen), Michael Sherborne relates:

“Wells showed some ambivalence towards the movie when he said of the script, “I am told that Mr Sherriff’s version was the thirteenth prepared. I should be amused to see the other twelve versions.”

But even from then onwards it is difficult to keep track of all the numerous knock offs and sequels which quickly emerged in its wake. The Invisible Man Returns (1940) was one and The Invisible Agent (1942) another and Abbott and Costello Meet the Invisible Man (1951) another still. Yet with the likes of The Invisible Woman (1940) and The Invisible Ghost (1942) and loose adaptations such as TV’s The Invisible Man (1975), John Carpenter’s weak Chevy Chase and Daryl Hannah comedy Memoirs of An Invisible Man (1992) and Paul Verhoeven’s Hollow Man (2001), all we can say with any certainty is that The Invisible Man has been adapted far more loosely than any other Wells’s work.

And most of these are best left unseen.

The War of the Worlds

(Book: 1898. Filmed: 1953, 2005)

Not many science fiction stories are set In Woking.

Much of the epic power of H.G. Wells’ famous story of Martian invasion comes not just from the sheer scale of the tripod-led alien attack, Wells imagined but from the fact he based it in such realistic surroundings, namely around his own home turf of Surrey. It is thus somewhat disappointing that both the big screen versions of the story followed Orson Welles’ lead (see the Mars Attacks! sidebar) in relocating the action to the present day United States.

Perhaps Wells’ book was simply too far ahead of its time for its own good: it is harder to imagine alien heat rays incinerating people on the streets in late Victorian times, simply because we know historically that this didn’t happen.

Seven years before he turned his hand to directing H.G. Wells’ Time Machine, George Pal produced a full colour version of the story set in California starring Gene Barry and Ann Robinson and geared towards a world now familiar with the horrors of world wars and coming to terms with the new atomic age. Indeed, the full force of the US military-industrial complex is unleashed on the Martian invaders and an atomic bomb is, indeed, dropped on them at one point to little avail.

It is true Pal’s film (which was actually directed by Bryon Haskin) bears little resemblance in many respects to Wells’ novel. But this isn’t necessarily a bad thing in itself: great though Wells’ story is, the 1953 film is undeniably a classic science fiction movie in its own right. Unusually, the film itself spawned a sequel in the form of an often surprisingly gory TV series produced and set a full thirty-five years later running from 1988 until 1990.

Like George Pal’s earlier film, Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds (2005) starring Tom Cruise and Dakota Fanning (with narration by Morgan Freeman) was a smash hit vividly bringing to life the struggles of a Californian construction worker as he struggles to protect his family from the Martian foe. But unusually for Spielberg, the characters are fairly uninteresting. It is thus hard to really care about anything that happens. It thus ends up being rather dull, special effects or not.

The story continues to inspire filmmakers, however, with a number of versions being produced in the decade since Spielberg’s film. The most interesting of these have followed the mockumentary route. War of the Worlds – The True Story (2005) cleverly interweaves archive footage with the action to make it appear as if Orson Welles’ 1938 broadcast was actually based on real events. Similarly, The Great Martian War 1913-1917 (2013) was cleverly presented in the form of an episode of a docudrama on the History Channel.

The First Men in the Moon

(Book: 1901. Filmed: 1902, 1919, 1964)

While no one has actually travelled through time, made themselves invisible or fought off invaders from Mars, people have walked on (rather than “in”) the moon, first achieving this in 1969, more than twenty years after Wells’ death. Wells cannot claim to have invented the idea, however, French author Jules Verne for one had in fact written the books From the Earth to the Moon (1865) and Around the Moon (1870). Worse, Verne (an old man by 1901) criticised the science behind Wells’ book which relied upon a fictional element called “cavorite” to get the rocket to the moon. He felt the methodology in his own books which saw a rocket being successfully got to the moon after being blasted out of a huge cannon, seemed far more plausible.

In truth, however quaint either version might now seem, it is worth remembering Wells’ book in which two adventurers travel to the moon and encounter a bizarre subterranean insect-like species dubbed “the Selenites” was published in the same year Queen Victoria died and two years before the Wright brothers achieved the first ever manned flight. Wells had been born, the son of a Kent shopkeeper in 1866. The fact he was imagining moon landings at all is pretty impressive.

The book also inspired a landmark of early cinema, A Trip To The Moon (1902), a legendary work evoked in Martin Scorsese’s Hugo or (if you prefer) the Smashing Pumpkins video Tonight Tonight and essentially a mash up of Verne and Wells’ stories. Another silent film version of Wells’ book appeared in 1919.

Then, just five years before Apollo 11, came another fun version of the story featuring Edward Judd and Lionel Jefferies. An old man in a retirement home watches footage of American astronauts landing on the moon on TV. The astronauts are astonished to find a Union Jack already flying on the moon! This prompts a flood of memories from the man as he recalls how he, his fiancée and an eccentric inventor first travelled to the moon, wearing diving suits in 1899.

The Shape of Things to Come

(Book: 1933. Film: 1936)

This is the odd one out in this selection. For one thing, Wells wrote the book much later in his career than everything else mentioned here. He also was technically involved in the production of the film which had its title shortened to Things to Come. The film was only loosely based on the book, however, and the true extent of the elderly author’s influence on such dynamic figures as producer Alexander Korda is open to question.

H.G. Wells was determined about one thing: the film should in no way resemble Metropolis, up to that point, the leading science fiction film of the era. Wells regarded Fritz Lang’s film as “ignorant old fashioned balderdash” and told the filmmakers that “whatever Lang did in Metropolis is the exact contrary of what we want done here”.

In H.G, Wells: Another Kind of Life, (published by Peter Owen), Michael Sherborne argues:

“…though Wells was credited with masterminding the film, his artistic control was limited. Wells defended the film in public, but was disappointed in private. He complained that the film-makers had side-lined him…had damaged his prestige with the half-educated audience he was trying to influence. However, there is nothing to suggest that the film would have turned out any better if Wells had exercised greater control.”

The novel takes the form of a futuristic history book which looks back on an imagined history starting in 1933 when the book was published and lasting until 2106. Even allowing for the volatile political environment of the 1930s, Wells is uncannily close to near total accuracy in his prediction that a Great War would break out over a crisis in Danzig in January 1940. Such a crisis did indeed spark off World War II in September 1939, only three months earlier than the war Wells envisaged. Thereafter, inevitably, the novel departs from what actually would happen in reality, Wells’s war proving inconclusive and lasting a full decade, before being followed by a plague and a continuation of the 1930s Great Depression. Miserable as these sounds, Wells ultimately envisages a world moving towards a form of utopia under a world government, a prediction which reflects Wells’s socialist outlook.

Things To Come  – which starts the war in December 1940 – remains an impressive spectacle. Audiences at the time were terrified by the images of British cities being subjected to aerial bombardment, scenes which would be replicated in real-life just four years later. It is listed in the book, 1001 Movies You Must See before You Die where Barton Palmer comments, “It captures the anxieties and hopes of 1930s Britain perfectly, chillingly forecasting the blitz that would descend upon London.”

Mars Attacks!: Orson Welles and the big broadcast of 1938

No one would have believed that in the last years of the 1930s, a radio adaptation of H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds published over forty years before, would trigger a widespread panic when broadcast on the radio in the United States. But this is exactly what happened.

Beginning with a series of news reports interspersed between segments of supposedly scheduled classical music performances, listening to it today, it is easy to see why anyone listening to the broadcast in October 1938 would have been fooled, especially if they had tuned in half way through. This was, of course, in an age where audiences had no TV, internet or mobile phones with which to verify the alarming reports they were hearing.

The broadcast had generated a major panic, probably fuelled by the decision to use real US place names, notably Grover’s Mill, New Jersey in the script. Some people bizarrely claimed to have “seen” the alien invaders. Others seemed unclear if Martians, Nazis, Communists or Japanese had been attacking. Heart attacks induced by the panic were reported. Underlying anxiety about a probable imminent European war to some extent explains the whole phenomenon.

But as Orson Welles, the man behind the adaptation was quick to emphasise; the show had not been intended as a hoax. As he delivered the final lines of the live performance, Welles (no relation to H.G. Wells, despite their similar surnames), was concerned to see a number of police entering the studio. He subsequently proved surprisingly disingenuous about the effects of the chillingly convincing broadcast pointing out there had been several assurances that the work was fictional throughout. These were assurances which listeners might easily have missed and indeed, many obviously did.

For a short while, Welles feared that his career as a hugely talented actor, director and writer was over. In fact, the broadcast was the making of him. Soon, he would direct and star in Citizen Kane, the film that would permanently isolate him from the Hollywood establishment but which would in time be regarded as the greatest movie ever made. He delivered numerous great performances in the likes of The Third Man and Touch of Evil, grew to be physically huge and ended his days voicing Unicorn in Transformers: The Movie (1986).

H.G. Wells himself was not impressed. His US agent hinted at legal consequences over both the lack of faithfulness to his original work and also that “Mr H.G. Wells personally is deeply concerned that any of his work should be used  in such a way, and with totally unwarranted liberty, to cause deep distress and alarm throughout the United States”.

Later, Wells met the young man behind the drama and his attitude softened. A surge in sales of The War of the Worlds now advertised as “the book that terrorised the nation over the air!” probably helped.

Source: The Martians Are Coming!: The True Story of Orson Welles’ 1938 Panic Broadcast by Alan Gallop.

All’s well that ends well…

H.G. Wells achieved a lot in his life, advancing attitudes on socialism, universal government and writing many non-fiction or non-science fiction books in addition to the ones mentioned here. But it is his impact on the world of science fiction for which he will always be best remembered.

The 1979 film Time After Time sees Malcolm McDowell playing Wells himself as he travels in his own time machine to present day New York in pursuit of an escaping Jack The Ripper (David Warner). The story, based on a novel by Karl Alexander, is soon to be remade for TV.

In reality, though this is obviously fiction, Wells was certainly the first person to write about a physical machine which goes through time. In short, without Wells it is doubtful we would ever have had the DeLorean of Back to the Future or the Tardis or the grandiose alien invasions of Independence Day.

Science fiction undoubtedly owes H.G. Wells an enormous debt.

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