I got the idea for writing this post after accepting that Facebook challenge going around, to name 10 books that have stuck with you over the years. Man! That was a tough challenge — restricting the list to 10. And like a list of my favorite songs or favorite movies, a list of my favorite books would change on an hourly basis anyway.
One of the books I chose was “The Time Machine.” I was about 10 when I got that out of the school library, and it blew my mind. It was a big influence on me for several reasons. First of all, it sparked a life-long love of speculative fiction. I like to think it even led to me becoming a speculative fiction writer myself.
But more than that, it was the book that first taught me how a story can convey a message without sacrificing any of the elements that make it cool and engaging.
I’m not going to pretend that I was capable of comprehending all the social commentary in “The Time Machine” at the age of 10. But I went back and read it as a teenager, and was surprised to discover nuances that escaped me the first time.
In my Facebook post about the book, I included this commentary: “One of these days, somebody’s going to make a film version that doesn’t TOTALLY MISS THE FREAKIN POINT!” I really hope that’s the case.
I caught the 1960 version on TV when I was a kid. Not bad, but kinda missed the point. I saw another made-for-TV version that aired in 1978, also when I was a kid. Missed the point and royally sucked. Then I saw the 2002 version starring Guy Pearce. “Sucked” barely covers it. God Almighty, did that movie bite the big one! And not incidentally, it missed the point too.
Spoiler alerts are coming up, in case you’ve never read the book.
But here’s the basic plot. The unnamed Time Traveler who relates most of the story journeys to a distant future. There, he discovers an apparent paradise of child-like humans called “Eloi” living an idyllic and trouble-free existence. He befriends one, a woman named Weena.
He’s puzzled by the logistics of this world, though. The simple-minded Eloi seem to lack any means of sustaining themselves. Then he discovers the existence of brutish creatures living underground called the “Morlocks.” He pieces together that humanity has evolved into two branches — the Eloi from the upper classes, and the Morlocks from the lower classes. Now the Morlocks are maintaining the Eloi as livestock.
The story progresses from there. Through a chain of circumstances, the Time Traveler comes into conflict with the Morlocks. He also tries to defend Weena, because of their personal connection.
But here’s what the movie versions always get wrong. With varying degrees, it always comes down to the Eloi being the good guys, and the Morlocks being the bad guys. Beautiful people = good. Ugly monsters = bad. That’s a grossly simplistic interpretation of the book, and the total opposite of what Wells was going for.
Wells, a socialist, was appalled at the stark class divisions at the tail end of the 19th Century, when he wrote the book. “The Time Machine” was intended as a commentary on those divisions.
Wells defines the Eloi’s character in the episode where the Time Traveler meets Weena by saving her from drowning. The other Eloi make no effort to save her — reflecting the indifference to others’ suffering that disgusted Wells about the upper classes. By the future era in which The Time Machine takes place, that indifference is so ingrained in their descendents that it’s become a defining trait of the subspecies into which they’ve evolved.
The Morlocks aren’t the good guys. They’ve become so degraded by the lower status into which their ancestors were forced that they’ve turned into monsters. But the Eloi aren’t the good guys either. By their status as food animals, they’re paying a kind of karmic penance for the decadence and complacency of their forebears.
It’s an eviscerating take on the class system, and on humanity in general.
I guess that’s another important early lesson that “The Time Machine” taught me when I was a kid. If a movie version of a book you like is coming out, prepare to be disappointed.
(Though that’s not always true, as I discuss here.)