Film Studies: Science vs imagination: the cinematic vision of H G Wells

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If Herbert George Wells had ever faltered in life as a producer of words, ideas and books - and there is no evidence that he did - then he had an enormous gift in that, when he was just 29, in 1895, the world invented moving pictures.

If Herbert George Wells had ever faltered in life as a producer of words, ideas and books - and there is no evidence that he did - then he had an enormous gift in that, when he was just 29, in 1895, the world invented moving pictures. "Moving pictures!" cries Wells, electrified at his desk. "What a terrific thing!" If you want to give life to this scene, you can cast Malcolm McDowell as Wells - just as he was in Time After Time (1979), with a fierce shrub of moustache, spectacles and Edwardian clothes. That film, made by Nicholas Meyer, was a version of The Time Machine in which H G's pursuit of Jack the Ripper ended up in modern-day San Francisco.

If you doubt the sudden power-surge in Wells, just remember that in 1896 he published The Island of Dr Moreau, then a year later, he delivered The Invisible Man, and in 1898 The War of the Worlds. Talk about stimulated! But the true measure of Wells's genius may be The Invisible Man: demonstrate one astonishing invention to him, and his mind races ahead to its opposite - a tableau of living beings in a scene where this invisible person moves across the frame, like a current in water. It was nearly 40 years later when Claude Rains brought The Invisible Man (1933) to the screen, but already we know that the two authors essential to the cinema of special effects and sci-fi marvels were Jules Verne and H G Wells. But Verne died in 1905, and Wells lived long enough to see the beautiful, ambivalent footage of nuclear explosions. In a way it suited Wells's lifelong urge to debate the struggle between science and the imagination (he felt they were polar opposites - a very Victorian attitude) that he lived long enough to witness the fulfilment of many of the ominous predictions he had ever made as to where unhindered science could lead. Wells always believed in progress (he was for free love and contraception as well as socialism), but he had learned both as novelist and popular historian that "progress" was a cry that put fear into many hearts.

I find it hard to believe that too many people still read Wells, but the season of films that show his links to film history at the National Film Theatre may be a stunner in revealing just how many situations and ideas in science fiction come from Wells. The season is also plainly meant as a lead-in to this summer's release of the Steven Spielberg version of The War of the Worlds, where Tom Cruise and a little boy will be pursued by devastating special effects. The trailers look good - but if the trailers for this kind of computer-generated movie don't look good, we have reached a sorry plight. And it's not exactly that our great fear these days is an invasion from outer space. Threats from far closer at hand are much more urgent. But, of course, the really interesting thing about Wells is that he wasn't just a visionary fixed on outer space. Some of his best books are about a revolution within, and the shock of the new when a humble little man (another Victorian concept) runs amok.

So the two pictures at the NFT that I'd most want to see again are The History of Mr Polly and Kipps. Kipps (1941) was published in 1905, and it is the story of a decent but unexciting draper's assistant who inherits a great deal of money and is made into a chump in his attempts to become a society figure. From Wells's point of view, the novel was a lecture against class distinctions, even if it harbours a secret sense that everyone should know and keep his place. Director Carol Reed took it on in the first year of the war, using a script by Frank Launder and Sidney Gilliat.

Michael Redgrave is very good as Kipps, and he and Reed both testified to seeing the film as a necessary blow in breaking down the British class system at the very moment when they anticipated being called up. The Edwardian decor is very good, and Diana Wynyard and Phyllis Calvert are the two women in Kipps' life. Reed tried to persuade Wells himself to appear on camera to deliver an introductory lecture, but the old boy was wary of that - and he may well have been right. The story speaks for itself, and it shows Wells as an observer of his own class, the lower-middle, to say nothing of his very mixed feelings about it.

The History of Mr Polly (1949) was published in 1910, and the theme is similar to Kipps. Alfred Polly is a small shopkeeper who is oppressed and depressed by his status in life, and who burns down his own shop and goes on the road. In America, I daresay, he would have found a beautiful woman, a brief career in crime and a violent end. In the world of H G Wells's England his destiny is more ordinary and a lot happier, and in Anthony Pelissier's film the late John Mills does a fine job as the rather timid hero. Famously, Mills was cast as officer material in many movies (he was Scott of the Antarctic, after all), but he was at his best in the lower orders and as men in danger of being crushed by their own troubled circumstances. Mr Polly was a great hit as a novel, and the movie retains a lot of its entertainment value.

So I stress those "realist" pictures and I regret that there does not seem to be a film of Tono-Bungay (1909), in which Wells sees Edwardian England coming apart so that a patent-medicine salesman may creep through the cracks. There are hints there of Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene and the far darker novels of the 1920s and 1930s.

Still, we have to end with future worlds. It's very telling that when Fritz Lang's Metropolis opened in 1927, H G Wells saw the cockamamie social theorising, and was blind to the vision of a great city that Lang had made on German sound-stages. And so, a few years later, when the Kordas hired Wells to do the script for the 1936 film Things to Come (based on Wells's 1933 prognostication, The Shape of Things to Come) they found that H G had a very poor sense of dialogue and dramatics, and they had to entrust the actual decor to William Cameron Menzies. Still, Wells lived up to the "great man" image - he told the Kordas that he really could not write without having sex a couple of times a day.

So what is left? Well, several versions of The Island of Dr Moreau, all of which suggest that the first version, with Charles Laughton, was the best and the latest, with Marlon Brando, the most grotesque. There is an earlier version of The War of the Worlds, and several attempts at The Time Machine. Just one thing more: I trust that the NFT will have playing in its lobbies the still exciting version of The War of the Worlds broadcast on 30 October, 1938 by that other Mr Welles.

H G Wells season: NFT, London SE1 (020 7928 3232/ www.bfi.org.uk/showing/nft), to 31 May

d.thomson@independent.co.uk

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