Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Here at the End of All Things: Hope and Fear in The Time Machine

The two versions of The Time Machine that we looked at this week present very different perspectives on the same dark future: the movie version is ultimately based on optimism, while the original novels seems to present a fatalistic pessimism.

At first glance, the movie version of The Time Machine may appear to present a bleak outlook. Instead of exploring for the sake of exploration, as the Time Traveller does in H.G. Well's novel, the movie's George explicitly leaves turn-of-the-century England in an attempt to escape what he considers to be the growing corruption and violence in the people around him. However, he then stops his time machine in 1917 during WWI, and in 1940, in the middle of the Blitz. His third stop in 1966, just before a nuclear bombing attack hits the city, both reflects the fears of the imminent outbreak of war experienced by the film-makers and audiences in 1960, and seems to confirm to George the inevitability of war in humanity's future. The wars can only escalate, never cease, and indeed the film decides to make the separation of the Eloi and Morlocks an explicit result of the devastation caused by centuries of war that left the planet's surface almost unusable. Yet although the this chain of events may seem bleak at best, the film ends on a hopeful note, with the Morlocks destroyed, and the Eloi rediscovering their desire to fight and protect (and so, the film implies, to live). The film therefore presents the possibility of renewal, of recovery after even the most horrific of wars. Even if the human race almost destroys itself, there will eventually always be at least one rebel fighting for life.

However, this ultimately optimistic presentation of the future is a complete reversal of the original novel, which accepts, rather than fights, the idea that "all things must end." Since H.G. Wells wrote The Time Machine during the Fin de Siecle period, it is not surprising that it contains both an initial great hope for the continued progress and spendour of the (European) human race, but also a confirmation of the anxiety that this greatness will all fade to nothing. Therefore, not only does the time traveller fail to resolve (or even attempt to resolve) the problems of the Eloi or the terror created by the Morlocks, but he travels beyond even this, to the very end of the earth. As he watches "the life of the old world ebb away" (106) and comes to a silent, black world, he becomes overwhelmed with terror: "A horror of this great darkness came on me" (108). It is as though the Time Traveller is faced with the reality of the world, one that is not saved by the Eloi but ruled by the Morlocks, in darkness and shadow and despair. Ultimately, no matter how hard anyone resists, everything will become empty and dark.

Perhaps this difference is linked to the immediacy and clarity of the problems which caused anxiety and fear in writers in 1895 and 1960. During the Cold War, people lived under a constant fear of nuclear war, and so are perhaps in greater need of a resolution to the problems of war, however distant that resolution might be. The 1960s version of The Time Machine therefore offers the hope that, however dark things might get, and no matter how much the world changes, humanity will eventually be able to fight back and rebuild. The evil aspects of war (represented by the Morlocks) will eventually be eradicated, and the more positive aspects, like self-defense and fighting for what is right, will always remain lurking, to create a civilization that will fight on. The original novel, meanwhile, explores more general anxieties about the long-term consequences of the structure of society itself, industrialization, and the way that the growth and successes of the 19th century must eventually fade. With this "all shall fade" attitude, the novel explores cannot offer any hope for the future, cannot touch on the possibility of growth or renewal among the Eloi's, because even this would only be temporary compared to the "great darkness" that must eventually come. The fears of 1960 are resolved by a concrete, definite end-of-the-world scenario, which can then hint at the possibility of life recovering and continuing on - a known fear needing a clear sense of possible survival. The vague unsettling feeling of the fin de siecle, however, cannot be resolved or made concrete, beyond the idea that an indefinite, speculative "something" caused humanity to change and divide. It is not the fear that each individual, that society, will be ended by a nuclear war, but that one has reached the sunset on the great 19th century, and that everything, no matter how great, must eventually end.


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