Elements of a Great Time Travel Story

I have to admit, I’m a sucker for a great time travel story. Whether it’s Star Trek, H.G. Wells or The Terminator, there’s something about the confusion, impossibility and theoretical consequences of traveling backwards and forward through time that engages and excites the imagination. However, not all time travel stories are created equal, and there are many different theories (fictional and real) on exactly how time travel might work, if it were possible. I’m not going to debate whether time travel is actually possible or not – Stephen Hawking’s party for time travelers may have unfortunately proved this – but rather examine the elements that make for an exciting and mind-bending time travel story, within which universe time travel – according to the rules set forth in the story – is entirely possible.

Paradox

Let’s get the obvious out of the way first: one of the most intriguing aspects of time travel stories is the concept of temporal paradoxes – the notion that by going (specifically) back in time, you can cause an event that would, in one way or another, prevent you from going back in time. The most famous of these is the grandfather paradox: if you go back in time and murder your grandfather before your father was born, you would never have existed, and therefore couldn’t have gone back in time to commit the murder.

There are a number of stories that deal with this – and other – paradoxes in wonderfully inventive ways. One of my favorites is Futurama’s feature-length episode, Bender’s Big Score. In it, a ‘time code’ is discovered (on main character Fry’s butt cheek, of all places) that allows for one-way backwards time travel (the traveler can go back in time to any point in history, but cannot return without waiting it out). A group of scammers get hold of the time code and use it to pull off heists in the past – all by using the robot, Bender, who can commit the crime, then simply wait out the centuries in the basement until bringing the pilfered goods at just the right moment.

The paradox presented in this episode is that of time duplicates: the more you use the code, the more copies of you end up in history, leading to the possibility of encountering yourself, and even killing yourself (or, in one somewhat disturbing scene, making out with yourself). This is corrected, humorously enough, by introducing a concept called the ‘doom-field’; the time code corrects all paradoxes by ‘dooming’ any time duplicates to death or destruction. This leads to some rather emotional moments, as Fry ends up going back in time to relive life in the 20th century, only to discover that his arch-nemesis, Lars, is not who he seems to be.

There are, of course, countless other paradoxes presented by the concept of time travel, and each story deals with it in interesting ways; some embrace the paradox, using it as a reason for everything to have happened in the first place, while others try to find a way around the paradox, but it’s one of the key aspects of any decent time travel story.

Fish-Out-Of-Water

Another major component of time travel stories, whether used for serious plot devices or simply for humor, is the idea that by traveling to another point in time – whether the past or the future – the traveler will find themselves woefully unprepared to deal with life in that other time. In cases where the traveler finds themselves in the past, we usually see a technologically advanced character in a position of superiority to the inferior technology of the past; when the reverse is the case, we usually see the character marvel incomprehensibly at the newness of imagined future technology.

One of the earliest examples of a going-to-the-past time travel story is Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, where the protagonist is hit over the head and awakens in 6th-century England, around the time of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. Whilst the story itself is something of a satire, the concept of an advanced character in a primitive setting is inventive (for the time). It helps that the main character, Hank, is an engineer, and therefore able to recreate the technology of the 19th century without additional aid, but a famous moment comes partway through the story when he is challenged to joust a fellow knight; rather than go through with the contest and potentially get killed himself, he fashions a rudimentary gun and simply shoots his opponent.

Of course, traveling to the past is entertaining in that we get to feel superior to our ancestors; traveling to the future, however, is an opportunity to engage both the author and the reader’s imagination and see how we would feel if presented with significantly more advanced technology than currently exists. To some extent, sci-fi shows such as Star Trek, set entirely in the future, are an example of this, but the fish-out-of-water concept specifically comes in when a character from the past is introduced. Star Trek has actually done this several times, but one of my favorites is the episode Relics, where Scotty, the engineer from the original series, finds himself aboard the Enterprise-D after almost a century of suspended animation.

This episode specifically plays on the notion that technology advances rapidly, and that we as humans are inevitably going to feel left behind, whether due to age or other advancements. Scotty, once-revered as a wizard of engineering, suddenly finds himself unable to do even the ‘simplest’ things (such as changing the dilithium crystals required for warp drive), because advancements in the century he was absent rendered most of his knowledge completely obsolete. It’s an interesting take that doesn’t really deal with time travel specifically, but more so deals with the the idea that human technology will one day advance beyond us all, and that what is incomprehensible today will one day be commonplace knowledge.

Causality

Perhaps connected to the idea of paradox, causality is also an important aspect of time travel stories, inasmuch as traveling back in time to cause an event is just as important a notion as going back in time to prevent one. Coming out of the blue as it did in 1984, seemingly billed as a simple action vehicle for Arnold Schwarzenegger, one of the best examples of this is the movie (and subsequent franchise) The Terminator. In it, the infamous titular villain is sent back in time from a future in which machines have taken over the world, on a mission to enact a grandfather paradox: killing the mother of the leader of the human resistance, meaning that John Connor would never be born, thus ensuring the victory of the machines.

However, The Terminator takes this a step further by introducing a second character sent back in time, Kyle Reese: a human, knowing the machines’ plot, is sent to stop the terminator before it can kill Sarah Connor. IN doing so, Kyle falls unexpectedly in love with Sarah Connor, and without knowing it, fathers her son: John Connor. In other words, the human savior would not have been born at all if the machines’ plot to kill his mother had not been hatched – which it wouldn’t have been, had it not already happened. It’s actually really quite confusing.

In this instance, we see an example of causality: in going back in time, Kyle caused an event to happen (the conception of John Connor) that ensured he would eventually have to go back in time to cause it to happen. In real life, causality usually only goes one way: we do a thing, which in turn causes another to happen. When the ability to travel into the past is introduced, things get funky: we can cause things that have already happened, leading into the time where we go back to cause it to happen again (an almost never-ending loop).

There are quite a few other aspects of time travel that I haven’t gone into, such as multiple timelines (see Back to the Future), but these are some of the aspects that intrigue me the most, and are most likely to get me hooked when reading/watching a time travel story. What are your favorite time travel movies, shows and books? Are there aspects discussed in them that I haven’t mentioned? What makes them so appealing to you? Let me know in the comments!

Writing in the Film Generation

If I’m to be brutally honest, I don’t really read that much – particularly not as much as I think I should, as a writer. This isn’t a new problem for me, but I haven’t always been this way – in my youth and young adulthood, I used to read voraciously, devouring book after book with gusto. In fact, I would argue that I stopped reading so much around when I started writing (an odd coincidence, to be sure), but it also occurs to me that I stopped reading quite so much when I started watching.

I’ve always loved movies, film and TV, and there was a time when I would be excited about all the newest movies in theaters, or the latest TV show to grace cable networks (I’ve also come to realize that, as I get older, I kind of just want to watch the same stuff over and over again, a kind of comfort in familiarity). And if I’ve never said as much outright, I find that film and literature are really two sides of the same coin – namely, storytelling.

I think that’s what I really enjoy more than anything – a good story. Something that triggers the imagination, that gets the creative juices flowing, or simply makes you feel. And I don’t particularly think that any given story ‘needs’ to be told through any particular medium; the core essence of the story can be just as valid as a book, a poem, a photograph or a full-length movie. However, the way in which the story is told is more important to the medium, and this is where I think that, as I write more and more, I’m slowly realizing the influences that are guiding my storytelling.

You see, reading in the past – wonderful books like To Kill a Mockingbird, or Great Expectations, or even Salem’s Lot – got me feeling in a way that, in my experience, only a book could. When Scout and her brother are being stalked through the dark, or when Magwitch is waiting in the staircase for Pip, I remember feeling a deep unease, a fright and terror that no movie could ever instill in me – something that came from a deep caring of lovingly crafted characters, and the words on the page painted emotion as much as they did images.

Film, on the other hand, is (obviously) a heavily visual medium. And whilst some films don’t necessarily explore this in depth, others manage to convey the story in a way only visual imagery could. The Lord of the Rings, Lawrence of Arabia, or even the manufactured but highly enjoyable Marvel movies … these are all prime examples of stories that, I feel, are absolutely best told through film. The grandeur, spectacle, and beautiful blending of sound and light simply wouldn’t work as words on paper (ironic, that all of these would have started life as scripts – or in some cases, actual books).

But as I delve deeper into writing my own novels, I’ve come to realize that I’ve become more influenced by these visual stories even as I put digital ink onto screen. When I write The Redemption of Erâth, I see the story in my head, almost as a film playing before my eyes; I write it as if I were describing a movie. And the more I think about it, the more I realize that I’m really writing movies – 400-page movies, to be sure, but movies nonetheless. My inspirations aren’t the books of my past, but the films I’ve watched and adored.

It’s interesting, because in some of the reviews I’ve read, people have actually said that they would make great movies – perhaps because of the visual element I’m trying to instill into black and white text (not always successfully, of course). And it makes me wonder – is there room for a different kind of story in me? Can I even write a book that toys with emotions and thoughts in a way that film can’t do justice to?

In any case, I enjoy writing these stories – whether they’re primarily visual in my head or not – and I suppose I’ll carry on for now in the way I always have; after all, I don’t particularly want to see a great change of style halfway through the Redemption of Erâth series. But as I continue through my literary journey, perhaps I can try to include a little more of the written story in my books, as well.

What do you think? What books have made you feel things that you couldn’t imagine from a film? Or vice versa?

5 Great Novel Adaptations (That Aren’t Lord of the Rings)

Sometimes you come across a book that, as you read it, simply begs for a cinematic adaptation. It might be the vividness of the characters (maybe you just hear the narration in Morgan Freeman’s voice), or the artistic scenery, but something about the words on the page just triggers you to think, this needs to be seen.

And of course, sometimes you watch a movie that makes you wonder whether it must not have been a book beforehand, simply because the world-building is so deep, or the characters’ interactions hint at backstories the film didn’t have time to go into. In many of these cases, it turns out to be true; you can almost tell when something was based off a book.

Naturally, the gold standard in the history of cinema for novel-to-film adaptations has to be Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings, and given that I’ve written extensively about these films in the past, I thought – why not see what other book adaptations have graced the big (and small) screen, and which ones stand out as particularly successful?

The five films below are my personal top 5 favorite book adaptations; it doesn’t mean there aren’t better ones out there, but these are films that also rank as personal favorite movies for me, whether I realized they were adaptions at the time or not. Here we go!

5. The Muppet Christmas Carol

Yes – that’s right. One of my favorite author’s best-known works, adapted for muppets, happens to also be one of the best versions of A Christmas Carol I’ve ever seen. Period. Fight me.

From the opening of the movie, which opens with the exact same opening line as the book (“Marley was dead: to begin with”), we are treated to what ends up being one of the most irreverent, and yet authentic, takes on a story that almost everyone already knows by heart. The silliness of the muppets’ song and dance somehow beautifully enhances the solemnity of the story’s moral message, and when we see the three ghosts, played delightfully by Henson’s creations, they capture Dicken’s original scenes absolutely perfectly.

The film also doesn’t hesitate to veer into what is, for muppets, frighteningly dark territory, showing of course the fate of Scrooge should he not change his ways, but also the fate of all those around him in misery and despair. Perhaps one of the best scenes is when we see several characters talking about how glad they are that Scrooge is gone, having ransacked his bedding only moments after his death (still warm) – a scene taken straight from the book, but oft missed in other adaptations.

And of course, Michael Caine’s performance as Scrooge is dark, authentic, and outright terrifying – and not just to children. He carries the role with a magnetic charisma, playing the villain perfectly, and of course finally learning his lesson, breaking down in tears at the sight of a bleak, dark and frightening future.

Despite so many adaptations over the years, the Muppets’ remains one of the most faithful, and for that I will ever be grateful.

4. The Lovely Bones

I will profess to having never read Alice Sebold’s award-winning original work (though it is on my list!), and despite the film’s somewhat tepid performance, I fell in love with the story put forth almost as soon as I started watching it. Despite it at times feeling like a vehicle for Peter Jackson’s typically over-the-top visual effects, it remains a stunningly beautiful movie, and whether or not the book carried such impossible scenes as the enormous ships crashing into sand, or the golden tree slowly losing its butterfly leaves, Jackson – as he is wont to do – adapts the narrative with his trademark visual style and, I hope, authenticity.

It is an incredibly sad, and yet simultaneously uplifting story, and the performances are subtle and nuanced – even from Mark Wahlberg, the same man whose wooden performance in movies such as Max Payne and Transformers have won him Razzies. And as with The Lord of the Rings, the visual effects never overwhelm the story, but serve to carry it in impossible dreamscapes and worlds beyond the living.

3. The Running Man

You might wonder why, with so many successful, Oscar-winning adaptations of Stephen King stories, I would choose The Running Man as my shining example of a great book adaptation. The truth is, I simply love this movie, with its violent excess, über-80s cheesiness, and too many terrible one-liners to count. It may not pay great homage to the original story, but the concept is nonetheless an interesting one – a speculative fiction-style pushing of reality TV to its extreme (what if people paid to watch others kill each other?), and at the end of the day it’s simply 80s campiness at its absolute best.

Schwarzenegger seems to relish the chance to play his characteristically over-the-top, Austrian-accented-yet-English-named, down-on-his-luck underdog hero without the seriousness of other franchises such as Terminator or even standalones like Commando. He delivers his lines as you would expect him to, and even manages to squeeze in an “I’ll be back”, to which the film’s villain hysterically replies, “Only in re-runs!”

The thing that really strikes me about this movie is that they managed to take a Stephen King story and turn it into a Schwarzenegger action vehicle, and watching it you would never suspect its origins were literary in nature. It watches just like every other terrible 80s action movie in the world, and in that regard, it manages to be a great adaptation by virtue of its being so very terrible.

2. Bram Stoker’s Dracula

Everyone knows the titular character, of course – bringing vampires to the popular consciousness as he did – but before 1992’s relatively faithful adaptation of Stoker’s seminal novel, not many people truly knew the actual story of the world’s most famous vampire. The book itself, of course, is a literary phenomenon, and its style, written entirely in journal entries and newspaper clippings, makes it one of the first truly horrific horror novels: no character is safe, because the reader learns of the tale events that, within the world of the book, had already taken place.

Francis Ford Coppola, in his seminal adaptation, paid homage to this style by having Van Helsing become the narrator partway through the film, but his faithfulness to the original story goes beyond style; almost every event that takes place in the film, from the seduction of Jonathan Harker in Dracula’s castle, to the desecration of Carfax Abbey, to the epic final battle against a demon risen at the height of his power, comes straight from Stoker’s pages.

The only element of the film that was not really present in the original novel is the love story connection between Dracula and Mina, but I can forgive Coppola this, as in my mind it actually makes for an even stronger and more compelling back story for one of the world’s most famous literary villains.

It also helps that Coppola wanted to recreate some of the thematic elements of the story, such as the price of technological progress, by ensuring that no CGI or digital special effects were used; everything we see on screen, even floating heads and roaring blue flames, was done entirely in-camera, which makes the visual elements of this film all the more impressive.

1. The Silence of the Lambs

The Silence of the Lambs is one of my favorite films of all time, and the Hannibal series of books are some of the best thrillers, in my mind, ever written. Despite the first novel, Red Dragon, being adapted in the mid-eighties as Manhunter, no one really knew much about Hannibal Lecter or Clarice Starling until Jonathan Demme brought the sequel to the big screen with such big-name stars as Anthony Hopkins and Jodie Foster.

To start with, one of the most impressive aspects of this film is that it starts the story at book two; completely overlooking Red Dragon or any content within it, we are dropped into the world of Buffalo Bill and his vicious killing spree without any knowledge of exactly who Hannibal Lecter is, or why he’s important – and yet it works. We never question that Lecter is already behind bars, and despite not seeing his psychopathy until nearly the very end of the film, we also never question the extreme danger this character presents – primarily because of Anthony Hopkins’ absolutely riveting performance.

Second, the mood, atmosphere and overall terror of the film was second-to-none for its time. Although we had seen plenty of horror throughout the 70s and 80s, few – if any – of those films truly felt so viscerally real – watching The Silence of the Lambs feels as though a serial killer might be hiding right next door, ready to prey on you, and you would never know.

One of the best adaptations of one of the best books, The Silence of the Lambs remains a film I believe everyone should take the opportunity to watch, and in fact, I may just watch it again tonight!

What are some of your favorite book-to-film adaptations? Are there any that you feel did a better job in telling the story than the book? Let me know in the comments!