Monday, June 27, 2005

But Wells was writing about more than effects of class warfare: he was warning of the consequences of division. Wells told an interviewer that The Time Machine was about "the responsibility of men to mankind. Unless humanity hangs together, unless all strive for the species as a whole, we shall end in disaster."

Though the Eloi and Morlocks may be acting out of instinct at the time the Traveller visits them, they are the descendants of conscious humans who must have chosen to separate, and in a sense collaborated to divide. The winners and losers of their common world divided into different environments which they each reinforced with their own creations, and then they each adapted to the environments they created and accepted.

Each species is separate, and both are incomplete. This is the key to Wells' portrayal of them, as simplified and unattractive opposites. Locked in the eternal dark and clanging of machine hell, the morbid, moronic Morlocks are the sketch of death. The Eloi, the cloying elite, are parodies of life and light. The Morlocks are pure evil, the Eloi pure innocence, but neither has the power of demons or angels, or gods of the future. They are satires of parts of humanity and segments of society. And in a sense those parts are interchangeable.

If the Morlocks are satired satans and the Eloi are travesties of angels, the two species define each other. Symbolically as well as symbiotically, without each other they don't exist. And this may be the most savage point Wells makes-the Eloi and Morlock devolved as separate species because humanity divided. On what basis they divided is a secondary point-it might be class, or race, religion or gender. It is all based finally on the dualism of the superior and inferior, of Us and Them.

In Wells' time, social Darwinists seized on evolution as an excuse for cruelty, assuming that in "survival of the fittest," the fittest were the most heartless and brutal. The future that Wells' portrays takes that theory to its ultimate conclusion, by making the Eloi the literal lunchmeat of the Morlocks.

But while Wells (and his mentor Huxley) agreed that natural selection was heartless (which is no longer considered by all evolutionists as true), they both believed that what distinguished human beings was what we call their humanity. Human feeling and ethics repudiate what Huxley called "the gladiatorial theory of existence."

Wells' illustrates this when the Traveller is attacked by Morlocks, and feels great pleasure in killing them. Wells even uses the word "succulent" to describe the sensation of the Morlocks' destruction. But then when the Traveller realizes the Morlocks are helpless, he says "I struck no more of them." And again, when he is mourning the death of Weena (the young Eloi woman who was his companion) and considers revenge ("a massacre of the helpless abominations") he "contains" himself.

Literary critic John Huntington cites these as key examples of how the Traveller's humanity is different from these species: he can exert self-control. "It is his ability-a distinctly human ability-to bridge distinctions, to recognize an area of identity within a difference, that sets him apart...The Time Traveller is able to assert an ethical view in the face of the evolutionary competition that rules the future."

The first of Wells' famous novels, this was the last to be filmed. '>The Time Machine first reached the screen in 1960, produced and directed by George Pal, starring Rod Taylor and Yvette Mimieux. The film story is true to the place and period of Wells' novel: late Victorian England. (The time traveler acquires a name---George---which is the G in HG, as well as Pal's first name.) The film won an Oscar for special effects, and the time travel sequence remains entertaining. The Morlocks are no longer very convincing, but fortunately they aren't around much. Rod Taylor has the looks and bearing to represent the civilized scientist with human values, but he's too American to give the role the very English nuances of Wells' protagonist.

There's also not much left of the social implications. There is the sense of humankind screwing up the future (including nuclear war in the time travel sequence) and Pal's focus on the wonder of time travel, and the disbelief of George's contemporaries, adds at least a little resonance to a kind of living comic book version of the story.

Perhaps ironically, Wells' suggestion of a future in which the workers live as well as work underground, separated from an effete elite who live above, was dramatized very effectively not in this or any version of The Time Machine but in Fritz Lang's masterpiece, "'>Metropolis," which fortunately has been restored and remastered so viewers of the DVD can see the movie that Lang actually made. But even in the older, incomplete versions, the horror of the workers, trudging on and off the elevators, is more effective in the exaggerated Expressionism of Lang's style, than anything in the more realistic treatment of The Time Machine.

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