If you’re like me, chances are that you have a list of films in a certain favourite genre that came out long before you were born, which left a benign scar engraved in your grey matter the first time you saw them. For me, there are plenty, but there is one that is particularly unique in that it was not only highly influential in a genre that I have loved since childhood, but was also adapted by the author of its source novel. This author, a personal favourite of mine, is an icon and thematic trendsetter: spun off, parodied, and just plain ripped off in other mediums of entertainment for over a century. He was also a huge fan of cinema when the motion picture was still in its infancy.
There have been many novelists over the years who have adapted their own work for cinema, notably Vladimir Nabokov (Lolita), Graham Greene (The Third Man), William Peter Blatty (The Exorcist), and most recently, Bret Easton Ellis (The Informers) and Gillian Flynn (Gone Girl). But as undeniably terrific as those books and films are, somehow their global impact combined hasn’t had as much effect on me as one adapted by the father of modern science fiction himself, Herbert George Wells.
The film I’m referring to, of course, is Things to Come (1936), which H.G. adapted – rather loosely – from his 1933 futurist volume The Shape of Things to Come, which reached the screen 80 years ago. The film would not have come about without the work of two men who became legends in their own right. One was producer Alexander Korda, who was in charge of financing and overseeing many of Britain’s cinematic rivals to Golden Age Hollywood, including his Private Life historical biopic/costume drama films and The Thief of Bagdad (1940), and who later co-produced Green’s The Third Man with Hollywood rival David O’Selznick. The other was William Cameron Menzies, the Academy-Award winning production designer of films like the John Barrymore version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1920, for which he was uncredited); the original 1924 American silent version of The Thief of Bagdad with Douglas Fairbanks; The Bat (1926) which largely inspired Bob Kane to create DC Comics icon Batman; and Selznick’s Gone With the Wind (1939). Menzies directed several films of his own before and since, including Chandu the Magician (1932) starring the one and only Bela Lugosi, and the original Invaders from Mars (1953), remade by Tobe Hooper in 1986. But his collaboration with Wells and Korda on Things to Come is, in my mind, arguably his greatest achievement as a director. And the history behind this vintage international treasure – including the creative differences between Wells, Korda and Menzies – happens to be just as compelling.
I first fell in love with the early bestselling “scientific romances” of Wells starting back at age 10 in South Carolina, with a lavishly-drawn Boy’s Life comic-strip version of my favorite novel and Wells masterpiece, The War of the Worlds (1898) when I was in the fourth grade. This continued with watching the classic George Pal film adaptations of that novel and 1895’s The Time Machine (1953 and 1960), and since then I have become well informed on the subject of the author’s legacy. So you can only imagine my surprise when I first learned, from watching the Foxstar Television documentary special Hollywood Aliens and Monsters (hosted by Mark Hamill) later in my early teens on A&E, that there was at least one film in which Wells played a more-than-substantial role as a screenwriter, released nearly half a century before I first came into the world.
At the time of the publication of The Shape of Things to Come, Wells, formerly a fantasist, and already by the 1920’s and 30’s a prominent political commentator, Zionist and futurist, remained deeply affected by the devastation of World War I. Following his fin de siècle period of fame, he devoted years of his time to predicting where civilization was headed. But while earlier novels like The Time Machine, The Island of Dr. Moreau (1896), The Invisible Man (1897), The War of the Worlds and The First Men in the Moon (1901) broke ground by establishing many trademarks of the genre, later works like The Shape of Things to Come would take a more serious (but no less fantastic) approach to humanity’s progress, pitfalls, and the establishment of a kind of Utopia.
The Shape of Things to Come uses a literary device that begins with the death of an intellectual member of the League of Nations, who leaves behind a written account of prophetic dreams recounted to the reader via the narrator. In reality, Wells was attempting a calculated prediction of what would occur during the years from late 1933 to New Year’s Eve of 2106, which included, disturbingly and accurately enough, a second World War breaking out in Europe, the creation and continuing use of chemical warfare, a disastrous plague similar to the Black Death, and two wars in the Middle East. Following all these chaotic disturbances, the human race moves towards the creation of a “World State”, an ultimate utopia formed by supranational union, maintained through updated technology (including space travel), and governed by an elite composed of “self-appointed, self-disciplined” forward-thinking men of reason (patterned after Wells himself, no doubt).
Needless to say, for anything given, something must be lost, and Wells’ work is no exception in depicting the practiced institutions that must vanish for a World State to work. Religion would be suppressed, particularly those groups with extremist fundamentalist factions; capitalism in all its forms (including “usury and monetary speculation”) would be abolished; hatred would be reinterpreted and treated as a “controllable mental disease”; and rational sexual happiness accomplished by “ruthlessly eliminating sexual incitation from the lives of the immature.” Scarily enough, the book also foresees the Jewish Holocaust in Europe, albeit not by the actual “systematic murder” of Nazi Germany (which Wells described as being impossible) but rather by “unorganized” persecution and anti-Jewish pogroms in the 1950’s. And if that wasn’t enough, Wells went on to discuss how individualism itself would have to be banned to maintain the fluid order of the World State he cherished: “We have learnt how to catch and domesticate the ego at an early stage and domesticate it for purposes greater than itself.” While a number of Wells’ predictions are somewhat antiquated and rudimentary – and thereby prone to both contemporary and future ridicule by a number of critics and readers – this novel, along with his other post-“scientific-romance period” works (including The World Set Free, which anticipated nuclear warfare), helped to establish Wells as possibly the world’s greatest prophet.
During the Pre-Code 1930’s, a number of Wells’ works were adapted to the cinema. The first was Island of Lost Souls (1932) by Paramount from The Island of Dr. Moreau with Charles Laughton as Dr. Moreau and Bela Lugosi as the goat humanoid Sayer of the Law, followed by The Invisible Man (1933) from Universal and Frankenstein director James Whale, which launched Claude Rains to superstardom. Although Wells notoriously despised Island of Lost Souls for diluting the science of his novel and portraying Moreau as a sadist rather than would-be benefactor to civilization with his experiments (not to mention the introduction of a Hollywood love interest, the incredibly sexy “Panther Woman”), the critical and commercial successes of these works convinced producer Alexander Korda that an adaptation of a Wells novel – this time by the author himself – would yield similar (and perhaps greater) returns. He selected The Shape of Things to Come for adaptation by London Films and put all his resources at Wells’ disposal: a budget higher than any of his previous productions; an all-star cast headed by Raymond Massey, with Sir Ralph Richardson and Sir Cedric Hardwicke in memorable supporting roles; production designer Menzies coming on board as director and to oversee the visuals, etc. Wells did have to create a new screenplay that kept some of the fundamental philosophical attributes of his work intact while following a plot along the lines of legitimate cinematic storytelling at the time – and so he did, the original screenplay following a timeline from 1940 to 2054 which kept some characters and invented new ones. Then the problems began.
During production, Wells ended up becoming involved in pretty much every aspect of shooting, with Menzies –his hands full overseeing the massive sets and Laurence Butler’s special effects – giving in whenever the author had “a good idea.” Massey, playing the film’s two main protagonists John Cabal and his descendant Oswald – two of the new characters Wells invented not featured in the original novel – had a few fits over the excessively preachy and long lines Wells penned for his roles. When the production costs began to soar, Korda began cutting scenes to save money, much to the dismay of the cast and crew who had invested time in the project, and especially Wells, who had his original unadulterated screenplay draft published separately in the end.
The original print of the film ran to 130 min, and ended up being cut back more, a process that would continue in the years following the film’s initial release – the current version out on DVD and Blu-Ray from the Criterion Collection runs 97 minutes. Upon its initial release to audiences in 1936, critics praised the visuals but savaged Wells’ philosophical concepts, and like Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927), and Ridley Scott’s later film Blade Runner (1982), Things to Come failed commercially. And it did so on a level that anticipated the massive losses suffered by big studio productions like Cleopatra (1963) and Heaven’s Gate (1980).
So much for the film’s contentious production history and ill-fated release… now on to the subject proper. Things to Come is divided into three main parts, its central focus being the aforementioned characters of John and Oswald Cabal. The first part opens in “Everytown” of 1940 (standing in for London) which is plunged into World War II during Christmastime. John Cabal, horrified by the damage caused by the Great War (“If we don’t end war, war will end us” he declares at one point), reluctantly joins the RAF just prior to Everytown being blitzed by bombers from an unknown nation. As the years pass, and the war dissipates into small skirmishes, a disease – aptly titled “The Wandering Sickness” – hits the region, allowing for the rise of dictators and warlords who come to power by neutralizing all infected.
In the second segment, one such warlord, simply called “The Boss” (Ralph Richardson), rules Everytown, intending to use his power and resources to carry on the practice of imperialism. But his rule – and the war – comes to an end in 1970 when John Cabal, now an old veteran, returns as a member of Wings Over The World, a pacifist organization that has salvaged all existing knowledge and technological practices from the war. Their aim is to build a new international civilization uniting all nations and following a unanimous principle based on progress via technological expansion.
Following a montage sequence depicting technological reconstruction and the development of a vast white underground metropolis (which uncannily if unintentionally predicts George Lucas’ debut feature THX-1138, 1971), we arrive at the third and final segment, set in 2036. John’s descendant Oswald, ruler of the gleaming subterranean utopia of Everytown – complete with devices like tunnel monorails, radio watches, and gigantic telescreens – is planning to carry the tradition of the New Age into space, starting with Everytown’s first attempt via the “Space Gun”, a launching pad designed as a vertical cannon firing a rocket-finned projectile piloted by two astronauts, a new “Adam and Eve.” However, there is also a new wave of Luddites – led by hot-blooded sculptor Theotocopulos (Cedric Hardwicke) – who believe that all this progress has been at the expense of enjoying life on simpler terms, and rush in a mob to destroy the Space Gun, seeing it as a symbol of technological tyranny, all resulting in a suspenseful climax peaking with the inevitable launch.
Very few words can express how powerful this movie remains, despite its most obvious flaws, which I will address first. Menzies’ rather flat direction – he was, of course, a hired gun, and more successful in supervising set designs – and the rather static approach taken by Wells in screenwriting. The authors’ concepts take center stage over standard character development, as most or all of the characters featured – some whose scenes were left on the cutting floor – happen to be symbols rather than fully-colored individuals, spouting dialogue that seems to have been lifted from philosophy textbooks and thereby detracting from whatever dramatic tension and entertainment value that the film has or could have had (I wonder if the original uncut two-hour-plus version would have been more emotionally arresting). The most dramatic of these scenes involves a downed pilot who in his last moments of life gives up his gas mask to save a child whose family and town have been claimed by the gas weapons he has dropped on them. Apart from the visuals, it is mainly on the basis of the central performances that audiences of 1936 and since have been able to fully – or halfway – connect with the film from a human rather than cold intellectual perspective, with Massey turning in the performance of his career as John and Oswald Cabal both – the “Man of the Future” – and strong turns by a young Richardson as “The Boss” (“I want those planes!”) and Hardwicke as Theotocopulos (“Is man never to rest, never to be freed?!”).
Things to Come, however, remains a landmark both of science-fiction and cinema in general, a monument of iconic vintage vistas in glorious black-and-white. From the opening titles and montage of pre-war Everytown at Christmastime, to the final shot of Massey’s Oswald Cabal declaring against the backdrop of stars: “All the universe or nothingness? Which shall it be?” – the film never lets up in the persistent display of its imagery, using angles and editing reminiscent of German and Soviet propaganda films, and in a manner that even anticipates the techniques of Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane five years later. Using unique superimposed three-dimensional and rolling titles, and a near-seamless blend of stock footage, models, mattes and life-sized sets, Menzies and his crew outdid themselves in creating a fantasia of indelible and endlessly imitated scenes: the advertisement of war scare, the bombing of Everytown, the savage effects of the Wandering Sickness, the collapse of society, the rise of dictatorship, the landing of the bubble-helmeted Cabal, the breaking of Wings Over The World’s aircraft through the clouds, the aforementioned montage of advanced industry and reconstruction, and the utopia envisioned by Wells (even if some of the costumes seem to be more at home in a Buck Rogers or Flash Gordon serial). All of it made more alive by the stirring score composed by Sir Arthur Bliss.
When all is said and done, Things to Come is best remembered for two things: its shared thematic and visual influence with Metropolis on future sci-fi classics to follow – including 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Star Wars (1977) and The Matrix (1999), all of which would refine the approach first taken by Wells, Korda, Menzies and company. From its stylistic approach to its largely-accurate prophecy, and with its depiction of sociopolitical conservative and progressive values caught in a never-ending ideological struggle, Things to Come continues to resonate. With World War II, space travel, dictatorships, deadly outbreaks of new diseases, and technological advances of the 20th century already behind us; wars in the Middle East; and the possibility of a Third World War, bioengineering and continued space exploration on the horizon, what else may follow?
For that matter, what if Wells’ ideals are naive and the presentation of his visions in Things to Come are at times laughably aloof and outdated by today’s standards? Who are we to say that the possibility of utopia as predicted by Wells – and all things that precede it and call for its eventual emergence – is impossible? With 2036 only two decades away, and with the possibility that even more of Wells’ prophecies may occur as we hurtle forward into a millennium in its early infancy, all we can do is look back at monuments such as this, and marvel at how far we’ve come in realizing some of Wells’ ideals, and how much we have yet to accomplish and behold.
“Which shall it be?” indeed.