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Never Mind The Morlocks: Visiting HG Well’s ‘The Time Machine’

The War of the Worlds, The Invisible Man, and The Time Machine. These three books resoundingly make the case for Herbert George Wells to be crowned the Father of Science Fiction (Jules Verne can take a hike). The invention Wells poured into his stories at the end of the Nineteenth Century made them all ripe for screen adaptations as soon as the medium caught up with his imagination.

Wells sold the rights to the War of the Worlds to Paramount in 1925 when the early master of epics Cecil B DeMille himself planned on directing. Sadly did not come to pass. Eisenstein, Hitchcock, and Harryhausen were all illustrious names attached at one time or another, before George Pal got his hands on the property. By 1953 Martians had changed from a metaphor about British imperialism to the Red Scare.

The transmutable power of Well’s alien invaders is for another day, however. This article is concerned with the various adaptations of the 1895 novella, The Time Machine.

There have been four adaptations so far of this tale: a 1949 teleplay the BBC was the first. George Pal appeared again with the most memorable effort in 1960, whilst there was a flared-collared version made by Sunn Classic Pictures as part of their “Classics Illustrated” TV movie series in 1978. Finally, a direly-reviewed 2002 film (29% on Rotten Tomatoes!) starring Guy Pearce and directed by Wells’s great-grandson, Simon.

The Time Machine (1978)

The Time Machine is given the smooth, glimmering veneer of the 1970s

The story is simple yet intriguing: an unnamed inventor builds the titular machine and visits the year 802,701. With a short detour to the twilight days of the Earth, he returns to his present to recount his adventure to his friends.

Not only does this plot lay out ample opportunities for special effects (stop motion and miniatures in 1960, of course, to be eventually superseded by boring old CGI), other pit-stops in time can be made, the only limitations being the screenwriter’s imagination. Pal has his inventor dismayed by the world wars that plague the twentieth century; John Beck’s moustachioed adventurer goes back in time to recycle some Wild West sets, whilst Pearce roots around the year 2030 for the answer to why he can’t save his murdered lover (The Grandfather Paradox, duh! You can invent a time machine but you can’t figure out the implications?).

The Time Machine 2002

I’d like to go back before I bought a ticket for this film, thanks

Their ultimate destination is the same, though; the final fate of our race. Eight hundred thousand years of class division has separated humanity into two different species entirely: the elites are the bovine-brained Eloi and the workers, the subterranean Morlocks. The inventor exclaims his disgust at the latter even before he discovers (spoilers for a 125 year old book) that they farm the Eloi for meat; describing them as “nauseatingly inhuman” with “pale, chinless faces and great, lidless, pinkish-grey eyes.”

But before we peep the different interpretations of the shape of humanity to come, let’s tackle the cattle first.

The Time Machine 1949

The Eloi of 1949 BBC teleplay

Unfortunately, there’s not much of anything to be gleaned from the BBC’s rendition. Apart from a few synopses clipped from newspapers and a couple of screenshots, little else seems to have survived. Prior to the introduction of commercial videotape in 1956, the only way to record live television was kinescoping, which basically meant pointing a film camera at a TV monitor. It wasn’t done at all for this teleplay and in any case, the BBC weren’t all that great at preserving their early programs, as Doctor Who fans can attest.

The Eloi do seem to have looked very similar to Wells’ description in his novella – no larger than children, doll-like, with barely any cosmetic differences between the sexes. This fidelity won’t survive into the theatrical versions, sadly. Because why have a strapping man adventure to the future if he’s not going to find a beautiful woman with the mind of a child to claim for his own?

And so we come to Weena. In the book she’s four feet tall and is treated more like a pet by the narrator before his blunderings get her killed. In the films, she’s a little more pneumatic.

Where's Weena?

Weenas.

In 1960, the character was Yvette Mimieux in her first film, alongside that dependable Australian workhorse Rod Taylor. The 1978 Weena was Priscilla Barnes – She also played Felix Leiter’s fiancée in License to Kill, and starred in Lords of the Deep, one of the films featured in Mystery Science Theatre 3000’s season 12 Gauntlet. Guy Pearce was to find Irish singer-songwriter Samantha Mumba in his future; she plays Mara, Weena in all but name. Like Mimieux, this was her first feature role. But enough of the love interest!

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Hippie Morlock. Cut your hair, you lousy bum!

The literary Morlocks have “abnormally large and sensitive eyes” with the “pupils of the abysmal fishes.” Sure, these Morlocks are practically the opposite, but they sure are memorable! I love this costume design. Blue skin, little pot bellies, the “flaxen hair” of their book counterparts a shaggy mane flowing down their backs and arms. This was the Technicolor Sixties and these memorable monsters really help to keep George Pal’s film a classic, and the best screen version of the story so far.

Unfortunately Rod Taylor completely obliterates the Morlocks’ dank underground lair, sentencing the Eloi to death, as completely reliant as they are on their subterranean counterparts for everything from food to clothing. The blithering, imperialistic ignorance of the inventor in his every incarnation is a nicely acidic touch left over from the avowedly Socialist Wells’ original. Hollywood does try to end each version on a hopeful spin, which inevitably falls apart if inspected at all closely.

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Rubbery Morlock.

The Morlocks of 1978 are sadly the worst version imaginable. Just as the producers were clearly saving money by reusing sets from other productions for their detours into the past, they didn’t seem to concerned about stretching their budget for creature designs. Pale rubber masks and gloves (seams visible) are tucked into the boiler suits of burly men wielding laser sticks. Still, the matchsticks of the time-traveller deter them just as in the book, and at least their eyes were large? That’s a single point in their favour, even if it’s inadvertent when it comes to accuracy. Let’s move on!

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“We are the fighting Uruk-Hai Morlocks!”

Not here are the Morlocks the stooping, lemur-like things of the novel. The influence of the Lord of the Rings is painfully obvious in their design, this film coming out smack-dab in the middle of Peter Jackson’s trilogy. How ironic that a time-travel film can be so easily dated.

The film’s budget was apparently $80 million, and you know what they say: Mo’ Money, Mo’ Morlocks. These are some hefty dudes! They run and jump and beat the living crap of the Traveller in rufty-tufty fights, with muscles and weapons and a good height difference over even the regular-sized Eloi. Still, the actual physical costumes were created by the Stan Winston Studio and are very good looking in close-up; the let-down of course, is when they’re digitally rendered.

Jeremy Irons appears as an additional character: the Über-Morlock, telepathic ruler of the underworld. He’s anaemic in both looks and character in a pointless role. Sadly, the ill reviews of the time are well-merited.

We’re probably due – in fact you might say it’s time, hyuk, hyuk – for another reworking of this classic. Gotta keep those intellectual property rights, baby, in particular since Wells’ novels entered the public domain in 2017. We might be waiting a while for some fresh, hot, Morlock action, though. Hollywood Reporter did announce back in 2018 that Argentine Andy Muschietti, director of the IT remake, was attached to a new version along with Leonardo DiCaprio’s production company.

That looks to have evaporated into the wistful air once Muschietti was tapped to direct The Flash for Warner Brothers, which won’t be released until the improbably distant year of 2022, by which time we all might just be living underground in dank, subterranean bunkers ourselves.

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