Tony Black on the original of Wells vs. The Ripper…
It’s been quite the week for time travel TV shows, as first NBC’s Timeless dropped a trailer (and if that show could have more cliches, I’d love to know how), the announcement that Jeremy Carver has jumped from the good ship Supernatural to head up a TV version of Dennis Quaid/Jim Caviezel 2000 thriller Frequency (I know, you’ve never heard of it, but don’t worry), and now the trailer for Time After Time has landed on ABC. Anyone who’s seen it will understand the concept is simply thus: HG Wells actually invented that time machine he wrote about *in* The Time Machine and when it’s knicked by his mate, none other than the world’s most infamous serial killer Jack the Ripper, Wells must follow him forward in time to the present day and prevent Jack from beginning another reign of murderous terror.
What a concept! I can almost hear you thinking. How did the writers come up with that one? Well, simply, they didn’t. Hands up how many of you a) knew this was originally a 1979 book by Karl Alexander or b) knew a film adaptation was also released in 1979, directed by none other than future Star Trek saviour Nicholas Meyer? That’s not many of you, and it’s no wonder – Alexander’s book and especially Meyer’s film have flown under the radar for years, which is almost criminal given they’re both pretty much fantastic. As the idea is thrown back into the public consciousness, let’s travel back through time and examine the first iterations of Wells vs the Ripper.
In truth, the original book and film are almost symbiotic in how they came to be, which is extremely rare in Hollywood. Meyer had been friends with Alexander for some time, both coming together from similar tracks; Meyer came to attention for his 1974 Sherlock Holmes novel, The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, which he later wrote the screenplay for when it was adapted by director Herbert Ross in 1976. Truthfully it’s a movie, like Time After Time, many more people deserve to remember, starring Nicol Williamson as Holmes and luminaries such as Robert Duvall as Dr. Watson, Alan Arkin as Sigmund Freud (the real life father of psychology) and Laurence Olivier no less as Professor Moriarty (which is about as dream fantasy casting as you can conceive). Meyer even went on to pen two sequels, 1976’s The West End Horror and 1993’s The Canary Trainer.
So while Meyer got his start as a novelist, Alexander–both of them roughly the same age at this point–conversely came from a screenwriting background; his uncle Karl Tunberg had written Ben-Hur, the 1950’s Charlton Heston epic, which gave him a unique perspective on how movies were configured. So if you put together a novelist who understands screenplays, and a director who understands the construction of a novel, the result is an unusual creative kismet and their collaboration ended up giving us Time After Time.
Upon hearing of Alexander’s story and reading the first few pages, Meyer almost immediately optioned the movie rights. He began adapting the screenplay as Alexander continued writing the novel, both freely swapping notes between each other about story and character, leading to a rare fusion of creative ideas between prose and the eventual cinematic translation – how rare is that? Usually novels are adapted long after publishing, sometimes even once the author is dead, and the vision frequently gets diluted – here Alexander’s book and Meyer’s film were more of a shared concept. Meyer later took the project to Warner Bros on one condition: he got to direct. A bold move from a writer who had never directed a film before, but the strength of his pitch (and of course his screenplay) led Warner Bros to agree to his terms. Alexander turned in the book around the same time Meyer turned in the script, and filming began in earnest soon after.
Malcolm McDowell was cast as Wells, horrified though to learn upon finding old recordings of the legendary writer’s voice that he spoke in a pronounced, squeaky brogue – McDowell wisely elected to ditch that affectation and give Wells a distinguished tone, alongside David Warner’s deliciously vicious and upper class performance as Jack aka John Leslie Stephenson. The film ended up both a critical and commercial success on its 1979 release, featuring a stunning score from the great Miklos Rozsa (who also scored Ben-Hur coincidentally), indeed one of the last before his death in 1995, which won him a Saturn Award and led him to comment of all his scoring work, “it was the one I worked on the hardest”. The film even led to McDowell’s marriage to co-star Mary Steenburgen a year later. A rare combination of on and off-screen harmony. Why, then, do more people not remember Time After Time?
Meyer after all reached even greater heights just a few years later when he co-wrote and directed Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, widely regarded as one of the finest science-fiction movies of all time. Alexander probably never became as well known for anything else, but even he then released a sequel to the novel as recent as 2011, Jaclyn the Ripper, which sees Stephenson’s daughter menace the future when she tries to pick up where daddy left off. Alexander sadly died just last year, but Meyer is still going strong – involved as he is in the brand new Bryan Fuller-led Star Trek series arriving on CBS in 2017. Nonetheless, Time After Time remains in the past, perhaps because it does *feel* rooted in the age it was made; the film sees Wells travel to 1979 San Francisco and watching it back now, with Stephenson in very 70’s disco clubs trolling for victims and Wells interacting with now dated technology and innovation, it oddly feels even less timeless than The Time Machine, Wells’ classic Victorian-era public domain novel Alexander took a leap from in writing his book.
It remains nonetheless a well-written, performed and directed film, a film I would champion to anyone as a lost gem of the 1970’s, but ABC are not the first people to consider how such a great story deserves updating. I myself have half a fan screenplay on my computer for a modern update of Time After Time, placing Wells in Apple Stores being utterly amazed by iPads. I wrote that in 2011. iPads are themselves already starting to date. If I tweaked it now, I’d be having him experience Google Glass or PlayStation VR. By 2020, no doubt the next innovation will be at the door. It’s a timeless concept, but one prone to being ironically stuck in time too. This is where the brand new ABC series will have to be careful. It doesn’t have the hand of Alexander or Meyer carefully stewarding it, and the trailer for all the world looks like a very faithful adaptation of the novel (indeed it gives way way too much of it away, certainly if those events span more than just the pilot).
It does however throw a few extra components in the novel lacks – the final conversation as Wells meets his black great-granddaughter is most certainly new and in order to extend the novel (which has a very contained, complete story) beyond its components, showrunner Kevin Williamson will have to be adding fresh elements which give the series continuing legs. Will Wells start travelling to other time periods? Will he be recruited by the government to track down other infamous bad guys across history? The possibilities to build out the concept are wide but also a little dangerous. It could lose that essence of what made the original novel so compelling, and the film so enjoyable – not just the fish out of water element with Wells’ utterly eccentric character in the modern world (which the trailer suggests is fairly quickly ditched), but also the underlying social commentary about the meaning of a utopian society, and quite what we can make of our future.
One can hope that Williamson will capture the style and tone of the source material, and we may well end up with a fun, fresh new modern take on a great novel in Time After Time. Before the brand new series drops however, dig out Meyer’s movie and give it a watch. Time, after all, is on your side.
Tony Black is a freelance film/TV writer & podcaster & would love you to follow him on Twitter.