Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The Time Machine: A Product of its Times?

Although the creators of works of fiction pride themselves on originality, they do not work in a cultural vacuum, as their works are inevitably influenced by the literary paradigm within which they operate. In particular, the historical context surrounding a work of fiction has a significant influence on the content its creators choose to present, as the different versions of the Time Machine show. Wells’ original text was published in 1895, at a time when England’s accelerating industrialization had led to its emergence as an global economic power, and consequently allowing capitalism to gain acceptance as an economic and political ideology. Being an avowed socialist, Wells uses his text to draw out the potential negative consequences of capitalism, namely that segregation based on economic class might eventually lead to the evolution of two different types of humans and the dysfunctional society he describes – social commentary which Wells’ contemporary audience, surrounded by the ongoing debate between opposing political ideologies, would surely have been able to recognize.

By contrast, the adapters of the 1960 Time Machine film were working under the spectre of the looming Vietnam war and the Cuban missile crisis, so it is hardly surprising that themes such as the inevitability of human conflict and the appropriating of advancing technology for military purposes are raised in the film. Leaving behind the present in which George’s friends urge him to use his talent for inventing to serve the country in the ongoing Boer Wars, George travels into the future, only to find war whenever he stops: in 1917 during World War I, in 1940 during a World War II bombing of his neighborhood, and in a futuristic 1966, suggesting that conflict will always exist in human societies. The instruments of war depicted in the film also reflect our tendencies to use advanced technology to destroy rather than to create, as George finds that the war in 1940 is fought with zeppelins and bombers, while nuclear missiles and “atomic satellites” are used in 1966. Such themes would certainly have resonated with the audience of 1960, when the US and the Soviet Union were pursuing nuclear rearmament and there was a very real possibility that their hostile relations might erupt into war.

One other theme which the Time Machine films appear to address is that there will always exist human desires which our scientific advancements and technology simply cannot fulfill. In the 1960 film adaptation, George travels into the future in search of information about advanced technology to carry back to his time, which he hopes will help him to spread the message of peace; in the 2002 remake, Alexander invents his time machine to travel back in time and prevent his girlfriend from dying. Neither of the time travelers find what they are looking for through the use of their inventions, although for different narrative reasons. While George’s arrival in middle of the various wars could conceivably be attributed to mere chance (at least from his perspective, and not that of the film director’s), Alexander learns near the end of the film that as the death of his girlfriend was what drove him to invent the time machine, saving her would cause a time paradox, and thus would never be possible. Expressed as a necessary consequence of a physical law, this paradox simply serves to drives home the point that there will always be desires scientific advancements cannot fulfill, given the limitless nature of human wants.


Scot said...

"By contrast, the adapters of the 1960 Time Machine film were working under the spectre of the looming Vietnam war and the Cuban missile crisis . . . "

1960 was a year before JFK would send the first American military advisors to Vietnam. Most Americans had never heard of the place.

As for zeppelins, Germany used them in World War I. What we see when the Time Traveler stops in 1940 are tethered barrage balloons, used to defend against ground attack by low-flying aircraft.

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