Earlier this month I re-read H.G. Wells' "The Time Machine" only to discover that I'd never actually read it before.
Let me back up. I knew the story, of course -- when I was a child, I owned one of those "Great Illustrated Classics" versions, a tiny little pocket-sized book that was covered in illustrations every other page. I cannot remember how I came by the book, but I suspect my parents bought it for me under the impression that reading would improve my mind, and that anything deemed a 'classic' by the powers-that-be would not threaten my moral fiber with ungodly thoughts. (I wasn't, in contrast, allowed to read anything with dragons on the cover until I went away for college, due to their association in my mother's mind with Satan.)
Those of you who are familiar with "The Time Machine" will of course be chortling at the delicate irony omnipresent in my childhood, and I will readily confess that Wells' terrifying tale of a future where white ape-like creatures prey in the dark on the small child-like humanoids that dwell in the ruins of civilization utterly scarred me for years, but in a good way -- like a facial scar on an anime character that connotates bad-assitude without any of the usual drawbacks that facial scars in real life usually carry.
So when I picked up an eBook copy of "The Time Machine" and an audiobook copy from Audible recently in various sales, it seemed high time to revisit a childhood memory that I held in terrified adulation.
My reading started pleasantly enough. The prose was a little heavier than I'd remembered, and the narrator had that annoying (to me) tendency to jump ahead in the narrative with little 'teasers' like (I'm paraphrasing) "that was what I conjectured at the time, gentleman, but as you will see if you keep reading, er, listening, you will find how disastrously, monstrously, and above all interestingly wrong I was!" I absolutely hate that technique in writing, but Wells' was a master in so many ways that I really felt I must give him a pass.
I was something like two-thirds of the way through the narrative before it finally hit home to me that the illustrated classic I had read as a child was not just the original tale plus pictures, but was actually a re-write, a paraphrase of the tale, adapted for... I hardly know what. Not for children, because in all honesty, I thought the re-write packed more punch, but re-written nonetheless. I realized that my childhood reading had been a re-write not because of the differing writing style in the original, but because Weena never got her chance to speak.
In the book, the Time Traveler saves a young girl, Weena, from drowning and she becomes his constant companion. In the original novel, Weena's role is mostly to provide a few key reaction shots and to cause a great deal of emotional turmoil when she is stuffed into a refrigerator later in the tale. In the adaptation, however, Weena is given a much more expanded role. Her reaction shots are more vivid (helped by the illustrations), and she is given speaking parts to heighten the mystery and provide a clue to the strange economy of the future in which the Time Traveler walks.
The childish "rhyme" that Weena and the others sing provides a vital clue that the Time Traveler ignores at his peril: the dark places of the world are now highly dangerous.
The inclusion of the riddle heightens the tension of the reader, and provides foreshadowing of later events, but there is another valuable aspect here that is brought over in the adaptation but missed in Wells' original narrative. When the Time Traveler first learns that the Eloi are not the god-like intelligent future-humans that he had hoped to meet, but are instead operating at the intellectual level of very small children, his disappointment is profound, but his disappointment is surpassed by his disregard.
The Time Traveler operates at a strictly colonial mindset; either the future-humans are more advanced than he (in which case he must sit up and take notice of their advanced-ness) or they are less advanced than he (in which case he is justified in treating them with indifference and disdain). He saves Weena, yes, but he saves her in order to ignore her -- in Wells' original, she follows him daily in his wanderings until her stamina gives out and she is left lying exhausted on the grass pleading at his retreating figure.
Whether or not Wells' intended us to notice this blind-spot of the Time Traveler is debatable; to my mind, I think the business with the Morlocks at the end is played straight by the author as a senseless tragedy that nonetheless could not be reasonably avoided. But in the adaptation, the Time Traveler's ethnocentrism -- his attitude of "either they have everything to teach me or nothing to teach me" -- is his fatal flaw; if he had listened to the Eloi's rhymes and games with an open mind and deduced the situation earlier, he and Weena might not have timed their ill-fated trip with the dark of the new moon.
In the original, therefore, Weena's death provides pathos to the Time Traveler, but little to the reader; in the adaptation, Weena's death is a true tragedy that could have been avoided if only he (and ourselves) had taken her more seriously.
It should probably not come as a surprise to anyone reading this that I somewhat prefer the Great Illustrated Classics adaptation of the story to Wells' original, though I think there is room for both versions in my library. Adaptations sometimes get a bad name in the fiction industry; some believe that the original source material should never be tampered with, while others simply concede that some adaptations are very badly done, and care must be taken. There is very little talk, however, of the adaptation that makes the source material better in the process -- not the least of reasons being that "better" is a terribly subjective term in itself.
Google Books lists "Shirley Bogart" as the creative force behind the "Time Machine" adaptation, although how much total input Shirley Bogart had into the adaptation I cannot say. However, in reading "The Time Machine" last week for admittedly the first time, I found myself thinking about her a great deal. Did she believe (as I do) her adaptation to be an improvement over the original with our more advanced literary techniques of foreshadowing and post-colonialism? Or did she see her adaptation as a necessary evil, a sort of 'translation' for early readers who should eventually graduate from their Great Illustrated Classics baby food and turn to the originals for more solid fare?
I suppose I'll never know, unless Shirley Bogart happens to google her name someday and see this blog. (In which case, shirley bogart shirley bogart shirley bogart!) But I do hope that someone, at sometime, told her that giving Weena a real voice was the best thing since... well, since sliced Eloi, I suppose.*
* This is, of course, a joke entirely without taste, but I hold a suspicion that Wells -- were he alive to read it -- would have a good chuckle at it. And at the terrible pun that precedes this current sentence.