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Feature: The Worlds of HG Wells

HG Wells: Time Traveller

Guy Pearce pilots the Time Machine in the 2002 film

He predicted World War II, atomic power and much much more; and film-makers have been plundering his imagination for a hundred years

A story that had its origins in an 1888 issue of the Science Schools Journal is soon to reach cinema screens as an $85 million collaboration between Warner Bros and Steven Spielberg's Dreamworks. That may seem pretty incredible, but for the story's author, Herbert George Wells, it's little more than posthumous par-for-the-course. Unquestionably the father of modern Science Fiction, Wells provided, in works like The Time Machine, The Island of Dr Moreau, The Invisible Man, The War of the Worlds and The First Men in the Moon, a blueprint for virtually everything that has developed in the genre since.

Born in Bromley on 21 September 1866, Wells gained a scholarship to the Normal School of Science in South Kensington, where he studied under the leading research scientist of the day, T H Huxley. The Time Machine (1895) was adapted from an 1888 student fragment called The Chronic Argonauts, and the groundbreaking ’scientific romances' that followed were all issued between 1896 and 1901. They not only exemplified the genre's preoccupation with time travel, ’mad' science, extraterrestrial invasion and space exploration, but were also the allegorical vehicle for Wells' evolutionary and Utopian preoccupations. Elsewhere, he coined or refined future SF standbys like the revolt of nature (in, for example, The Food of the Gods ), the regression to prehistory (A Story of the Stone Age), the lost civilization (In the Country of the Blind), and cosmic apocalypse (narrowly averted in In the Days of the Comet, not averted at all in The Star).

The translation of Wells' fantastic scenarios to the cinema, itself a fantastic innovation in the final years of the 19th Century, was a surprisingly slow process. On first publication of The Time Machine, Wells and British film pioneer Robert Paul made an amazingly prescient attempt to create an audiovisual equivalent, complete with wind machines, screens on every side, sliding walls and a multi-seat replica of the ’glittering metallic framework' itself. The idea got no further than being patented.

Wells' fantasies only got into their cinematic stride with the coming of talkies, film makers having been deterred, perhaps, by his sweeping 1923 claim that ’cinema people… [are] utterly damned fools, beneath the level of a decent man's discussion'. In 1925, however, Cecil B De Mille purchased the screen rights to The War of the Worlds, allowing the project to languish until 1930, when émigré director Sergei Eisenstein briefly considered it. Two years later, it nearly became a ’go' project at Paramount (with a script by Wells' son Frank and British cinéaste Ivor Montagu) before foundering a third time. But in October of 1932, Paramount started work on an entirely different Wells adaptation: Erle C Kenton's Island of Lost Souls, which came out the following January and gained the distinction of being banned in the UK for 25 years...

by Jonathan Rigby

Just part of the 8-page cover feature surveying HG Wells' screen history, preparing for the March 2002 release of a new version of The Time Machine, in Starburst #282.

Images © Warner Brothers / Dreamworks
Feature © Visual Imagination 2002. Not for reproduction

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Starburst #282, see below for ordering options
Starburst issue 282
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