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“Ah, the Shape of Things to Come” OR, How the 1960 Movie of The Time Machine Started With Good Intentions but Became Creepy and Flawed

“Ah, the Shape of Things to Come” OR, How the 1960 Movie of The Time Machine Started With Good Intentions but Became Creepy and Flawed

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The Time Machine, one of the original “Steampunk” novels by H.G. Wells, has a special place in my heart. It was a major stylistic influence for Rescue OR, Royer Goldhawk’s Remarkable Journal, in that it is a frame story that begins with a nameless narrator and quickly delves into another narrator’s story– the main event of the novel. Today I watched the 1960 film adaptation and I have a bone to pick with it. I will warn that this comparison is going to be spoiler-tastic. This is all the warning you get. You’ve had a hundred and eighteen years to read the novel and fifty-three years to see the movie. At this point, if you complain, you’ll be like all of the people last month who got mad when people spoiled The Great Gatsby. Didn’t you read it in eleventh grade?

Time Machine (1960) 6

Rod Taylor looking like a 1960s Sci-Fi hero with his anachronistic haircut.

The novel of The Time Machine is essentially about the stratification of classes. The future that the inventor sees is the result of the working classes and the wealthy evolving separately. The wealthy never have to work or struggle to live, and– as a result– they devolve into complacent children– the Eloi. They are small, strange people with a simple language who do not read and do not even find their own food. The only sign that they are anything but happy little Boohbah dolls is the fear they have at night. Meanwhile, the working class has evolved into the Morlocks, a pasty  light-sensitive race of people that live in factories underground and continue their function of feeding and clothing the upper (literally) class. The only change is that they come out at night and kidnap Eloi to cannibalize. The poor are feeding on the rich for once.

The 1960 film adaptation of The Time Machine takes a very different turn on the themes of H.G. Wells’ speculative novel. The theme changes from class warfare to general warfare. It’s fascinating, early on, when a diversion is added to the inventor’s initial time travel; he stops off in World War I and World War II and finds himself horrified at how much worse the war-like nature of his countrymen has become. Despite the fact that the story seems to still be set in England (as evidenced by the blimps in World War II) yet nobody but the ginger has an appropriate accent, I really enjoyed this diversion. Of course, Wells couldn’t have written it as he wasn’t a prophet. It was a nice modern update. Then things got a little heavy-handed on the war side and soon the theme of the original source was completely thrown out.

Weena, the Eloi girl that the inventor befriends, is now a woman. The writers of the film make a major mistake in developing a romantic relationship between “George” and Weena, while still keeping a childlike casting and even having the inventor call her “just a child.” If she’s just a child, George, then you are a pedophile. Great job, MGM.

The writers of the 1960 film adaptation take it one step further, and in doing so, break the plot. Instead of the excursion into the tunnel being an attempt to find the time machine, the film has Weena kidnapped by Morlocks, damsel-ing her and changing the motivation for the journey itself. The way in which she is kidnapped is what breaks the conventions of the novel, which the writers still use without consideration for why they worked. You see, in the novel, the Morlocks live underground without light and come out during the night to kidnap their food source. In the novel, they are so light-sensitive that they are hurt by as little as a match-worth of light. This creates a truly horrific scene in the tunnel when the inventor is engulfed in pitch black, able to feel the hands of the Morlocks on him, but unable to keep a match lit for more than a few seconds. And he’s running out. The movie, however, has the Morlocks using an air-raid siren to hypnotize the Eloi into walking to their deaths, removing the need for the Eloi to fear the night. The Morlocks are shown in full light with their glowing red eyes that now don’t make sense (because glowing eyes would indicate the need for night vision), yet they are still repelled by a lit match. Things just don’t add up!

And then the movie makes its biggest misstep. George saves the Eloi, enlightening them, when he teaches a man how to punch. George, fraught with anguish that the world has been destroyed by nuclear war and violence, saves them by teaching them the lost concept of violence. *facepalm*

They flee the cave, and all of the Eloi, who have never before had to work or climb or even try to save someone from drowning, climb out of the tunnel without a second thought. Meanwhile, Weena, the prettiest woman, needs George to drag and push her up the tunnel. This, combined with the trope of the older, experienced man teaching the simple, helpless woman the ways of life and love,  made this movie actually more sexist than a Victorian novel.

From here the movie returns to the plot of the book. The Morlocks open the door to the time machine to trap him. He fights them off long enough to take off into the fourth dimension. He goes forward before going back to his own time. Nobody believes him. He leaves again. Roll credits.

A film adaptation that starts off with good intentions devolves into a contradictory mess with plot-holes and creepy romantic moments. While it is understandable that the film makers of 1960, one year into the early stages of the Vietnam War, might want to change the theme, they essentially broke the source material and made what started as an interesting piece of speculative fiction into a silly action movie.

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  • Sarah

    1) I had a lot of issues with the book. I had to suspend belief and disbelief. I realize it’s science fiction, but it just seemed to go against human nature in so many ways. 2) Let’s be realistic….the 60s were a time of sexist behavior, and not only was it normal, it was totally acceptable. We cannot change that, it is what it is and should probably not figure into a review. I’m just sayin’. Make a note of it and move on. 3) I watched the movie when I was 13 or 14 in junior high school, so I don’t remember much about it. 4) I am reminded of Robert Heinlein who I have always adored, but as I have gotten older, have realized what a sexist and dirty old man he was! My perspective on him totally changed as I re-read novels I loved as an 18 year old. I didn’t love them as much as an older woman, because I saw through them more, saw the sexism, etc. Though they are STILL a huge influence on me. I am something of a traditionalist, so go figure.

    • Thanks for replying, Sarah. I don’t think I was so much surprised in the sexism from a ’60s movie, but rather surprised that they took a book that was not really that sexist and made it overtly so.