Science Fiction Studies


#92 = Volume 31, Part 1 = March 2004

Everett Bleiler

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 further:

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 185).

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 answer.

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 in theme.

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’ [1894] 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 (1986).

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.: Greenwood, 2001.
Smith, David C. H.G. Wells, Desperately Mortal. New Haven, CT: Yale UP, 1986.
─────, 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: McFarland, 2002.
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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