- H. G. Wells, Modernity and the Movies
The late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century writer H. G. Wells is often cited as not only the most significant of the parents of sf genres, but also as the prophet of numerous other actual technologies foreseen by his work: the tank, the nuclear bomb, the spacecraft and the Internet. Visionary as he was then, Wells also both anticipated and responded to the technology of the cinema, as discussed strikingly and eruditely in Keith Williams' H. G. Wells, Modernity and the Movies.
The movie camera is itself a kind of time machine, a cybernetic device that compensates for the insufficiencies of the human biological eye by transfiguring the ways both time and space might be perceived. Williams writes in detail about the kinds of transformations in vision wrought by speeded-up and slowed-down film (foreshadowed in Wells' The Time Machine (1895) and 'The New Accelerator' (1901)), and on other new perspectives in early cinema that were contemporaneous with Wells' formal innovations in fiction. Williams takes his cue from Ian Christie's notion that cinema not only altered the nature of aesthetic 'seeing', but also the ways in which its audiences perceived the real world. Naturally, the writer of scientific romances was strongly drawn to a mode of representation so strongly marked by both modernity and by the supernatural, carrying the marks of 'the "hallucinatory" mimesis of photography' alongside 'the fantastic realism of a waking dream' (15).
The early chapters discuss the ways in which Wells' books prefigure cinema, discussing the ekphrastic nature of Wells' mimesis of the real world, his words seeking to frame an imaginary picture in his reader's mind. (The actual illustrations included in the book are put to splendid use.) Williams is particularly adroit in noticing topoi of looking and the spectacular within Wells' texts and their screen descendants; an examination of the medium is a part of the message of such post-Wellsian experiments as Orson Welles' radio play The War of the Worlds (1939) or Nigel Kneale's television Quatermass (UK 1958–9) television serials. Television playwright Dennis Potter praised Wells for this metafictional quality, for showing '"the frame in the picture", not just "the picture in the frame"' (7), and technology is frequently the subject of Wells' self-conscious early work. The dystopian romance When the Sleeper Wakes (1899) shows modernity accelerating towards hyperreality; Williams' stylish reading of The Invisible Man (1897) sees both book and film as proto-Derridean play [End Page 153] on presence and absence, capitalism's reification of property given literal life in the film's special effects animation of clothes and objects. Making telling references to Wells texts beyond the early scientific romances, such as Kipps (1905) or the late Star-Begotten (1937), and moving fluidly between historical, post-structuralist, Marxist and psychoanalytical theoretical models, Williams on the whole wears his learning lightly. While the book's apparatus criticus is both scrupulous and generous – footnotes and bibliography occupy 86 of the book's 279 pages – the constant breaking-in of other voices can sometimes make reading H. G. Wells, Modernity and the Movies itself a little like a journey in a Time Machine, as a sentence spins dizzily from citing a critic or theorist, thence to an aspect of early cinematic history, then back to a Wells text. For all this, Williams' book is sure to reach a wide range of interested readers in different parts of the academy.
Wells hailed cinema as 'the Art Form of the future', was a founder of the London Film Society and even expressed the wish to live again in order 'to devote [himself] entirely to the cinema' (qtd 99). Nonetheless, it was not until decades after cinema's invention that Wells was able to make an impact as a scenarist, and Williams' discussion of the writer's career in the cinema is fascinating. Wells' energies had been redoubled in part by his irritation at what he saw as Metropolis's (Lang Germany 1927) sheer silliness, in spite of...