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Don G. Smith. H.G. Wells on Film: The Utopian Nightmare.

Don G. Smith. H.G. Wells on Film: The Utopian Nightmare. McFarland, 2002. 205 pages; $39.95.

Widening Gulf

Don G. Smith's H.G. Wells on Film is a reference work covering "every theatrically released film from 1909 to 1997 (both credited and unaccredited) based on the writings of H.G. Wells" (2). By casting his net so broadly, Smith reveals how frequently filmmakers have drawn on Wells' ideas over the last century (the book covers over forty films). At the same time, only a few of these motion picture adaptations actually addressed any of the stories' central concerns.

This book is organized chronologically by the publication date of the original Wells stories. Smith offers a brief background and concise plot summary for each story, followed by full discussions of every cinematic incarnation. Each film's entry includes a synopsis, a comparison to the story that inspired it, an in-depth account of its production and marketing, an assessment of its strengths and weaknesses, and lastly a numerical rating.

The organizational scheme of H.G. Wells on Film allows the reader to easily find information on a particular film or to see the different ways a specific story was adapted for the screen. Smith has a knack for clear and vivid plot summary, and has amassed an impressive amount of information (including some interesting trivia) about the making of each film, including those that no longer survive. The nature of the information provided varies by film, but his broad purview covers production, direction, screenwriting, cinematography, and acting. Numerous illustrations--from movie posters, stills, and lobby cards--supplement the text. Smith's prose is easy to read, if a bit chatty and prone to irrelevant asides (such as how he would improve certain films' plots).

Though this book is not intended as a contribution to Wells scholarship or to intellectual history, it is nevertheless disappointing that Smith sometimes offers misleading interpretations of Wells' ideas. This is especially noticeable in his sections on The Time Machine and The Island of Dr. Moreau. He describes the former novel's central question as follows: "what will happen if the intellectuals and captains of industry fail to subdue labor, and how can the necessary subduing be achieved?" (11).

In actuality, the text addresses a rather different concern, namely the widening gulf between the ruling class and the workers, which Wells feared would lead to humanity's eventual degeneration. He called not for labor's subduing but rather for the reintegration of society's two diverging classes. Smith's understanding of The Island of Dr. Moreau has clearly been influenced by Leon Stover's highly problematic reading of the novel. This would be fine if Smith clearly signaled that the interpretation he had adopted was a contested one not widely embraced by scholars. However, he neither cites Stover nor mentions his critics, leaving a reader unfamiliar with the novel to assume that this idiosyncratic (to put it kindly) analysis represents a generally accepted view of the text.

The book also suffers from a lack of careful proofreading. Most of the errors are mechanical, consisting of missing or misplaced punctuation or erroneous word choice (e.g., using "alludes" for "eludes," "pray" for "prey," "credulous" for "incredulous"). Smith mistakenly has Claude Rains alluding to President Truman in a pressbook interview for the 1933 version of The Invisible Man (67). There are also confusing mix-ups concerning names, both of characters (49) and real people (108). Somewhat more seriously, Smith contradicts himself at times. For instance, he notes that people may assume the "panther woman" who appears in the films based on The Island of Dr. Moreau "was part of the original source. She was not" (28). Only twelve pages later he comments, "both the novel and the 1933 film adaptation had to have a panther woman" (40).

Errors like these (found throughout the book) matter little in their own right. However, their cumulative effect is to call into question the reliability of other information Smith offers, such as the extensive production details, which represent one of the book's greatest strengths. The accuracy problem is exacerbated by the absence of citations for any of the quotes, interpretations, or facts mentioned in the book. Some of Smith's most interesting material comes from the films' pressbooks and other publicity, but his otherwise helpful annotated bibliography includes no references for these fascinating sources.

Overall, Smith's book is a fine reference work that conveniently brings together information on all of the film adaptations of Wells' stories, with fascinating production notes and nice plot summaries. Scholars and students interested in Wells' profound influence on twentieth-century popular culture, the history of horror and science fiction films, or the strange route by which literary works make it to the screen will find it worth looking at.

Elun Gabriel

Saint Lawrence University
COPYRIGHT 2003 Center for the Study of Film and History
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Author:Gabriel, Elun
Publication:Film & History
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jul 1, 2003
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