Monday, June 27, 2005

H.G. Wells Goes to the Movies
by William S. Kowinski

When George Melies made what is regarded as the first real movie in 1902, a black and white silent short called "Trip to the Moon," he was in a way also making the first film version of a story by H.G. Wells. About the only element from Wells' novel, '>The First Men in the Moon, that he included were the Selenites, the moon creatures. Wells' hadn't written anything about Folies-Bergere acrobats or Theatre du Chatelet ballerinas, the stars of Melies movie.

But that became pretty much of a pattern for the translation of Wells' writings to the silver screen. Several of his stories, including "'>Empire of the Ants" (a kind of Joseph Conrad meets Mark Twain tale of evolved ants about to conquer humanity, which is likely to accumulate resonance for us as global climate change produces better conditions for insects and arachnids than humans in places where people have ruled) and "'>Food of the Gods" (an evocative Jonathan Swiftian novella of superfood creating a race of subsequently persecuted giants) had their titles stolen and tacked onto terrible movies that had no other resemblance to Wells' originals.

Even the better films made from his novels generally stripped his stories of everything but the more sensational elements--- that first level of story that probably makes them so enduring: the premise that captures the imagination, and the excitement and terror in the plot's unfolding that (like Swift's tales of Gulliver) appeals to children while it remains fascinating to adults.

Inevitably, filmmakers fill in these plots with their own concerns, and consciously or unconsciously match the story's emotions to the fears and aspirations, the hopes and dreads of their own time.

In some ways, that's the nature of film adaptation, as Wells himself learned when he adapted for film his long "future history" novel, '>The Shape of Things to Come." The resulting movie, now considered a classic of science fiction cinema, was the 1936 release of "'>Things to Come," produced by Alexander Korda and directed by William Cameron Menzies.

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