Looking Upward: H.G. Wells, Science Fiction and the Cinema

By Grant, Barry K | Literature/Film Quarterly, July 1, 1986 | Go to article overview

Looking Upward: H.G. Wells, Science Fiction and the Cinema


Grant, Barry K, Literature/Film Quarterly


Three of the traditional concerns of science fiction literature-space, time, and the machine-possess natural affinities to the medium of film. Space and time are obviously relevant, for the cinema is a medium wherein people, objects, and the recording apparatus itself move through both dimensions at once. The cinema is, in fact, very much like a time machine: since D. W. Griffith, filmmakers have successfully distorted time and space in film narrative, accelerating/decelerating the former and condensing/ elongating the latter for psychological effect. Moreover, the cinematic machine, like the constructors in Stanislaw Lem's The Cyberiad, is a device capable of imagining and "building" (through special effects) other machines infinitely more sophisticated than itself. For Christian Metz, the chronological development from Lumière to Melies marks an evolution of "cinematography to cinema," from a conception of film as a recording tool to an artistic medium.1 But it is perhaps more accurate to say that cinema is simultaneously Lumière and Méliès, science and fiction, for the film image is at once a concrete, scientific record of things in the real world ("actualitiés") and a selected account of that world ("artificially arranged scenes").

"The science fiction writer," according to Cyril Kornbluth, "churns out symbols every time he writes of the future or an alternate present; he rolls out symbols of people, places, things, relationships, as fast as he can work his typewriter or his pen."2 Indeed, writing in the interrogative mode of science fiction rather than the declarative mode of realist fiction is necessary to write symbolically, for it is a kind of writing (usually referred to as "extrapolative") which contemplates the potential of things, how things might be regarded. Thus, the cinema would appear to be a particularly conducive medium for the science fiction narrative. After all, movies are able not only to present the extraordinary as the immediate,3 but they also offer a "second order" vision of things. They can, particularly in the generic context, raise things to the level of symbols, change objects into icons, and so make the immediate seem extraordinary.

Yet is is these very same affinities which, paradoxically, have worked against science fiction film, which have been at the root of the genre's general failure to express fully the ideas and concepts found in the best science fiction literature. Ideas may be "extrapolated" from science fiction movies, of course, but their primary concern has been to provide the visual frisson-that "senuous elaboration" which Susan Sontag describes as "the aesthetics of destruction ... the peculiar beauties to be found in wreaking havoc"4-and, of course, to allow us to stand back and witness it (hence the importance of that "bird's eye view" shot in Hitchcock's The Birds, in which the viewer is placed with the birds looking down in seeming contemplation of the destruction they have created in the town below). Monsters, phaser-gun gadgetry and large-scale destruction are staple motifs of science fiction literature, but not the dominant ones to the extent they have been in film. James Whale's adaptation of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, filmed for Universal Studios in 1931, is both a classic and paradigmatic example. The film's laboratory, with its battery of crackling generators and steaming, German expressionist beakers, evokes not enlightened scientific enquiry but the dark supenatural world of the Gothic. Thus the creature is transformed from a nimble and articulate being, an effective metaphor for Romantic overreaching and encroaching industrialization, into a lumbering, grunting monster. The movie is less interested in the moral implications of genetic engineering than in the frightened spectacle of Boris Karloffs stiff-legged strut, and so shifts the focus from the doctor's dilemma to the revenge of the creature. As a result, the rational is replaced by the fearful; science fiction becomes horror. …

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