#92 = Volume 31, Part 1 =
A Book That Fails to Work Miracles
H.G. Wells. Man Who Could
Work Miracles: A Critical Text of the 1936 New York First Edition,
with an Introduction and Appendices. Ed. Leon Stover. The Annotated H.G. Wells
8. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2003. xix + 142 pp. $49.95 hc.
The Man Who Could Work Miracles (film) and Man who Could Work Miracles
(book) have long been stepchildren in studies of H.G. Wells. The film has
never been examined significantly beyond occasional plot summaries and
production information. The book has been out of print for decades, and,
possibly because it has been taken as a mere adjunct to a dated film, has evaded
scholarly attention to a surprising degree.1
Despite this neglect, both the book and the film have many points of interest
and provoke many unanswered (perhaps unanswerable) questions. The largest
question that arises, strangely enough, is, who wrote the film and the book?
Both the film and the book are attributed to H.G. Wells, without comment or
qualification. The film credits state “scenario and dialogue by H.G. Wells”; the
book is subtitled A Film by H.G. Wells. Film production reference works,
however, usually mention that Wells was assisted by Lajos Biro (1880-1948), a
Hungarian scriptwriter who had worked in Hollywood and later served as scenarist
in Great Britain for Alexander Korda, the producer of The Man. So far as
I have been able to discover, Wells never mentioned Biro in print, although he
did refer contemptuously to William Cameron Menzies and Lothar Mendes, the two
directors of his films. The Man Who Could Work Miracles followed close on
the heel of Things to Come. This was far more ‘producer-proof’ than its
predecessor. It was directed by Lothar Mendes, a far worse director even than
Menzies, dull beyond words” (G.P. Wells 213). But how far did the collaboration
with Biro go?2
Korda’s associates state strongly that the script of The Man was
really not Wells’s work. Paul Tabori says that the film was “scripted by Lajos
Biro[,] and H.G. Wells interfered little with the development of the story”
(167). Karol Kulik, who wrote the standard biography of Alexander Korda, goes
Since Wells’s presence throughout the former film’s production [Things
to Come] had demanded constant patience, conciliation, and accommodation
from the film-maker, this time Korda kept Wells away from the film as much as
possible. (Korda apparently solicited Frank Wells’s assistance in these
manoeuvres.)3 Although Wells received screen credit for the script,
Lajos Biro was, in fact, the responsible party. (185)
Tabori and Kulik, who are partisan, undoubtedly exaggerate; but it is
reasonable to conclude that The Man was a collaboration (as would be
inevitable in adapting a work of fiction to the screen), although Wells, for
commercial reasons, received sole credit.
As with the earlier Things to Come, there was a basic disagreement
between Korda and Wells, although their personal relationship seems to have been
cordial. In The Man, Korda was interested in comic situations, special
effects, and theater. It is significant that his working title for the film was
The Miracle Maker (Smith 110, footnote). Wells, on the other hand, was
interested in social and political ideas “which weigh the film down” (Kulik
Wells, it would seem, had less influence on
The Man than he did on
Things (despite his thorough dissatisfaction with the latter), but he did
try to make his presence felt, in spite of the attempts mentioned above to
bypass him: “I’m here (with the Boissenans) for a week of rest and then I shall
go back to do The Man Who Could Work Miracles cut and clean it up—for
most of it is shot already. I’m more than a little disillusioned about films.
They could be magnificent art, but all the art has still to be learned....”
(Undated letter to Constance Coolidge, 1936, in Smith 121).
A second basic question is, What is the text? The two versions, film and
book, differ considerably. To assume tacitly, as does Stover, that the two are
identical is incorrect. There is hardly a page in the book that does not contain
material that has been omitted from the film. There are also many changes of
diction; even scenes have been shifted in place. Can we infer that the book is
closer to Wells’s intention and that the film script is more Biro’s? There is no
Nor is it clear which version is Wells’s last and thereby possibly his preferred
version. The book appeared in 1936, whereas the film was not released in Great
Britain and the United States until February 1937. From the standpoint of
“editions,” the film is later. On the other hand, the film may have been
finished before the book saw production and could therefore be earlier. We must
take our pick since we have no real knowledge.
Although Stover tries to force identity in theme between the original short
story “The Man Who Could Work Miracles” (Illustrated London News, July 1898) and
Man/The Man, and works on the assumption that the same ideas permeate
both, it is obvious that the short story and the script are enormously different
The short story was what Wells called a “single sitting” story. “The first of
the single sitting stories I ground out was the ‘Stolen Bacillus’  and
after a time I became quite dextrous in evolving situations and anecdotes from
little possibilities of a scientific or quasi-scientific sort ... forty perhaps
altogether” (Wells, Experiment 433). It would seem reasonable that the important
“little possibilit[y]” in the short story was the cataclysm that would result if
the rotation of the world were to be stopped for an instant, with a little
satire on religion. The original story was thus simply a jeu d’esprit. The
film/book are another matter. There is now a theme, social amelioration, which
is presented in many facets, partly as irony when various selfish interests are
rejected; partly, toward the end, by what Wells might have considered a
reasonable proposition: establishing political and social control by a qualified
elite, a situation that fits in with his general philosophy of culture. The
attempt fails because of the inadequacy of its proposer (Fotheringay). (One
could make the critical point that the film/book also fail because of inadequacy
in fusing discordant elements.)
The title of the book can be interpreted as indicating the new direction into
which Wells attempted to take the story. The short-story title calls attention
to the actions of an individual in the past. It might be restated as “The man
who was able to work miracles and what he did,” with some emphasis on the
personality of Fotheringay. The book title drifts nebulously into the future.
“Man” has now become a collective, “homo” versus “vir,” “Mensch” versus “Mann,”
or mankind versus an individual. The word “could” has shifted from a past tense
meaning “was able to” to a subjunctive, with the implied protasis “if he really
tried” or something of the sort, denoting future possibility. Restated again:
“Mankind could work miracles if it really tried.” This interpretation is
fortified by the optimistic last words of the Player, when the elemental powers
are arguing about the future of mankind: “Come back here in an age or so and you
shall see ...” (Man 91, author’s ellipsis).
Are any of the above questions or doubtful points addressed in Stover’s
edition? No. They are not even mentioned. They might as well not exist. Stover
seems totally unaware that there are two texts involved. He ignores questions of
authorship, preferred text, and the enormous differences in idea between the
short story and the book/film.
What does Stover do? He reprints the 1936 book text, offers a few footnotes
(which might well be dropped), a harangue or two (to the effect that Wells was
anti-democratic), and three other pieces, two of which, “A Vision of Judgement”
(1899) and “Under the Knife” (1896), are irrelevant. The third component is a
retitled excerpt from After Democracy (1932). A brief introduction tries
to force the background situation into that of Things to Come. Stover
interprets the three “elemental powers”/“Riders”/”mighty powers”/”great
Spirits”—as Wells variously calls them—in terms of the Hindu trinity (Brahma,
Shiva, Vishnu) and then, by an astonishing leap, equates them with Platonic
thought in the Republic and/or Laws. Not only does this distortion not fit the
characterization or functions of the powers, but Stover has apparently not
noticed that the elemental powers are four, not three: the Master, Observer,
Indifference, and Player. Apart from this misleading syncretism, Stover makes no
attempt to analyze the text or even to raise interpretative questions: why are
the “elemental powers” nude males, and why do they ride horses? Is this a
theatrical image of Biro’s making? What exactly did Wells mean by “elemental”?
Is it just a turn of phrase or is it linked in any way with either the
traditional four elements or occult elemental forces? Are there à clef elements
as there are in Men Like Gods (1923)? Is there any principle behind the
differences between the two texts, film and novel, beyond brevity? Has Biro left
any reminiscences? Or Frank Wells? To what extent is the present work a
figurative statement of Wells’s life, from a draper’s assistant to a prophetic
figure calling for the cooperation of the world’s top minds?
There are so many major things wrong with this bad book that it may seem
nitpicking to call attention to minor examples of carelessness, but they should
not be ignored: Wells, as should be clear, was far from having “unprecedented
control over two films” (1), as Stover claims. Fotheringhay (not Fotheringay)
Castle is in England, not in Scotland (4). And the periodical in which the short
story “The Man Who Could Work Miracles” appeared was not the London
Illustrated News (95) but the Illustrated London News.
Man Who Could Work Miracles is probably to be considered a minor work,
even though it gives Wells’s social ideas of the middle 1930s in more economical
form than his long books; but it still deserves better treatment than it
receives in this volume. To call this over-priced, inadequate edition “a
critical text” is an effrontery to scholarship.
If the reader is curious about the texts, forget the present edition. Copies of
the out-of-print 1936 book are easily available on the Internet at reasonable
prices. The film is in print on VHS in the United States and Great Britain.
1. The following books, which were all that were available to me, make no
mention of either the film or the book: Robert Bloom, Anatomies of Egotism: A
Reading of the Last Novels of H.G. Wells (1977); Michael Corem, The
Invisible Man: The Life and Liberties of H.G. Wells (1998); Richard Hauer
Costa, H.G. Wells (1985); Michael Foot, H.G.: The History of Mr. Wells
(1995); Roslynn D. Haynes, H.G. Wells, Discoverer of the Future (1980);
Mark R. Hillegas, The Future as Nightmare (1967); John Huntington, The
Logic of Fantasy: H.G. Wells and Science Fiction (1982); Peter Kemp, H.G.
Wells and the Culminating Ape (1982); Frank McConnell, The Science
Fiction of H.G. Wells (1981); Patrick Parrinder, Shadows of the Future
(1995); Patrick Parrinder and Christopher Rolfe, eds. H.G. Wells under
Revision (1990); Ingvald Raknem, H.G. Wells and His Critics (1962)
John R. Reed, The Natural History of H.G. Wells (1982); George Slusser
and Eric S. Rabkin, eds. Shadows of the Magic Lamp (1987); Anthony West,
H.G. Wells: Aspects of a Life (1984).
The following works assign a line or so to the film or the book: Michael
Benson, Vintage Science Fiction Films (1985); J.R. Hammond, H.G. Wells
and the Modern Novel (1988); I.Q. Hunter, ed. British Science Fiction
Cinema (1999); Norman and Jeanne Mackenzie, The Time Traveller: The Life
of H.G. Wells (1998, with errors); R.D. Mullen, “Wells’s Last Decade,
1936-1945” in Darko Suvin and Robert Philmus, eds. H.G. Wells and Modern
Science Fiction (1977); David C. Smith, H.G. Wells, Desperately Mortal
Detailed plot summary and some criticism of the film, but no historical
background or analysis, are to be found in Charles Mitchell, A Guide to
Apocalyptic Cinema (2001) and Don C. Smith, H.G. Wells on Film: The
Utopian Nightmare (2002, with errors).
As far as could be determined from the MLA index of publications, no articles
have been primarily concerned with the film or the book, although it is possible
that casual, unindexed mentions may occur.
2. Biro’s papers are said to be held in the British Film Institute. They
might be informative.
3. Frank Wells, H.G. Wells’s son, was working on set design at the Korda
studio in Denham.
Kulik, Karol. Alexander Korda, the Man Who Could Work Miracles. London:
W.H. Allen, 1975.
Mitchell, Charles. A Guide to Apocalyptic Cinema. Westport, CT.:
Smith, David C. H.G. Wells, Desperately Mortal. New Haven, CT: Yale UP,
─────, ed. The Correspondence of H.G. Wells. Vol. 4 (1935-1946). London:
Pickering and Chatto, 1998.
Smith, Don G. H.G. Wells on Film: The Utopian Nightmare. Jefferson, NC:
Tabori, Paul. Alexander Korda. London: Oldbourne, 1956.
Wells, G[eorge] P[hilip]. H.G. Wells in Love: Postscript to An Experiment in
Autobiography. London: Faber and Faber, 1984.
Wells, H.G. Experiment in Autobiography. New York: Macmillan, 1934.
Wells, H.G., et al. The Man Who Could Work Miracles [film]. London Film
Productions, 1937. VHS reissue as Vintage Classics, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1000657
[n.d.]. (Includes the original trailer).
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