The Time Machine (1960)

Directed by George Pal

I know I’ve read H.G. Wells’ novel The Time Machine but for the life of me I can’t remember it. As a second year university course I took Science Fiction and part of the syllabus was The Time Machine.

Although I had always loved science fiction (and still do) and though I had read countless novels, all I recall about Wells’ book is that it was Herculean task to plough through it.

The point is I’m not one of those with fond memories of the book or with a reverential approach to the story. When it comes to the movie versions of the film, all I want is a good movie. I don’t care how true they are to Wells’ novel.

The movie version of The Time Machine that is the cinematic standard is George Pal’s 1960 film starring Rod Taylor. This version is based on Wells’ novel. The most recent version, 2002’s The Time Machine, appears to be a step removed. It seems to be based more on David Duncun’s 1960 screenplay than on Wells’ novel. (Admittedly, this is a guess – I don’t remember the novel.) But it also makes some substantial deviations from it.

I would argue each version has its strengths and weaknesses but the real difference between the two is that the earlier film followed Wells’ book more truly whereas the later version is more true to the conventions of cinema. Because it is an earlier film, particularly from the period its from (1960), Pal’s film really attempts to put a novel on screen. The approach is more literal. But it’s a bit like trying to put a square peg in a round hole. The later version tries to round the story to fit the hole; it’s not really interested in truly reflecting the square peg.

The problem with the first film (1960) is it is too narrative based. It keeps imposing Rod Taylor’s voice-over as it tries to reflect Wells’ book. But much of this material is the weakest; it’s the social critic’s assessment of and predictions for society. In this sense, the movie’s more true to Wells but this causes the film to drag and become tedious. There’s a bit of a lecturing tone (which is very Wells) that hurts the first half of the movie. It also makes the mistake of anchoring itself in time (no pun intended). Part of what the film attempts is to impress us with special effects and a vision of “the future.” Great in 1960; a few years later when technology and attitudes change, it becomes anachronistic.

The 1960 film tends to be stage-like and relies on numerous caricatures. It almost has the feel of the original Star Trek series. While there are number of reasonable (and budgetary) excuses for this, in terms of script there are not. Also, rather than give us a new perspective on the subject matter, it tries to reflect the original novel which leaves the question, why see the movie when you can read the book?

Having said all that, it does improve in the second half once we’re in the future and meet the Eloi and Yvette Mimieux’s character (another caricature). This half of the film is better because there is much less exposition and voice over narrative; this half is more visual in terms of showing us the story (action) rather than telling it (narrative).

Speaking generally, the 1960 version of The Time Machine makes the error that a lot of early science fiction use to make which is to be too much in love with its material and not committing itself more solidly to telling a good story regardless of the source.

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