Monday, June 27, 2005

Wells seemed to have appreciated differences in the film medium, perhaps with some help from his son, Frank, who was beginning a career in film. HG personally selected the composer for the film's music, and insisted (over the producer's objections) that the music be written first, so the film's final sequence was edited to the musical score. Wells wanted to make sure the film had the emotional power that the medium could deliver.

HG was often on the set of "'>Things to Come" and may have participated in further changes that were made during filming. At first the experience made him enthusiastic about the film medium, and he rashly announced he would write only movie scenarios from then on. But later he regretted how the film oversimplified elements of the novel, and even gave the wrong impression by making the artists into the villains of the future. He was so disillusioned that he participated in just one more film venture, and returned to writing books and articles.

"Things to Come" tried to tell an immense story spanning many decades. But it's three parts should be familiar to Star Trek fans: the first section depicts the final world war, the second section the post-apocalyptic horror, and the third, the "utopian" society that arises, and sends humans to explore the stars.

The first section remains mesmerizing. Made years before any European city had been bombed from the air, its depiction of the bombing of London is such a visually accurate prediction that to post World War II audiences, some of it might seem like newsreel footage of the London Blitz.

But this war in Wells' story, which begins in 1940 (almost exactly when World War II actually did reach England) lasts well into the 1950s. The second section depicts a kind of criminal war lord, called "Boss," who suggests characters we've seen in subsequent post-apocalyptic movies, such as the '>Mad Max trilogy and '>The Postman. But he is less a caricature than many, mostly because of the wonderful performance of Ralph Richardson, in his first movie.

The second section ends when a heroic pilot arrives to announce the revolution of scientists and "airmen" who have stopped the war, using a "peace gas" which makes people see the light and become cooperative. The third section is in the far future of the 22nd century, in which a descendant of this heroic pilot (played in both cases by Raymond Massey) presides over a new society that has brought prosperity and progress for all.

But there is trouble in paradise, as conservatives rally against the "rocket gun" that is about to send the first explorers into space. The d├ęcor of this section is striking, as a kind of art deco vision of the future it was influential on the look of later futuristic films. But the conflict between those who oppose the space shot and those who argue that it is essential to human progress is simplistic and unconvincing. This part of the film demonstrates the danger of losing meaningful ambiguities to the either/or tendency of depending so much on the visual in filmmaking, and oversimplifying the story to sharpen the conflict.

There is no time in this film for the elaborate and often subtle explanations of how society gets to this point in Wells' novel (with even more of this cut from his scenario during filming), or the more valid arguments of the artists. There is something of a Star Trek-like vision in statements like, "Our revolution didn't abolish danger or death, it simply made danger and death worthwhile!" But the oversimplified arguments in favor of a technocratic society, which often could support fascism as well as a democracy, always make me uncomfortable.

So even when Wells wrote the scenario and showed up on the set, his story didn't make it to the screen with complete integrity. So it shouldn't be too surprising that film versions of his novels made without his participation, many after his death, vary considerably from their sources.

Here's a brief rundown of Wells' major science fiction novels and some of the movies made from them.

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