One of HG Wells’ last truly great science fiction novels, 1901‘s The First Men In The Moon was a fanciful, brilliantly imagined tale of late Victorians in space. While not as well known as the author’s earlier works, such as The Invisible Man or The War Of The Worlds, its story of an eccentric scientist and a hard-nosed businessman, who journey to the moon in an iron sphere and encounter an insect-like race of creatures that live beneath its surface, has been brought to the screen on several occasions over the past hundred or so years.
Georges Méliès’ A Trip To The Moon was the earliest, though it followed the events of its source only loosely. 1964’s First Men In The Moon, which featured a sparkling script from Quatermass writer Nigel Kneale and unforgettable stop-motion creatures courtesy of Ray Harryhausen, came closest to capturing the tone of the book, even if it did take certain liberties with its characters and plot.
The latest adaptation, written by Mark Gatiss and directed by Damon Thomas (who previously collaborated on The Worst Journey In The World and Crooked House) is perhaps the most faithful retelling of Wells’ classic novel, and Gatiss is arguably the perfect choice for the role of Cavor, the book’s absent-minded genius and moral centre.
It’s 1909, and failed businessman Julius Bedford (Rory Kinnear) is holed up in a peeling country retreat, trying unsuccessfully to write a play that he hopes will provide some much needed cash. His attempts are constantly thwarted, however, by the daily wanderings of the eccentric Professor Cavor (Gatiss), whose weird buzzing noises drive Bedford to distraction.
After an uneasy first meeting, Bedford, a man with a keen nose for a new business opportunity to exploit, becomes intrigued by Cavor’s latest invention, Cavorite, a paint-like substance that, once cooled, blocks out the effects of gravity. Cavor ably demonstrates the process by slapping a coat of it on an apple, causing it to hurtle into the air and splatter on the ceiling.
Bedford immediately sees more practical, potentially lucrative applications for Cavorite, but its inventor has a bigger idea – specifically, a trip to the moon. Convincing the initially reluctant Bedford that the lunar surface is awash with gold, Cavor constructs a spectacularly quaint lunar module from iron, wood and velvet, and the two set off on their weird, improbable journey.
Perfectly written and performed, The First Men In The Moon captures the spirit of adventure found in Wells’ book, if not its scope. The production’s meagre budget gives the feature an adorable, homemade look, but severely limits what Gatiss and Thomas can show on screen. A potentially disastrous first experiment with Cavorite, which very nearly strips Earth of its atmosphere in the book, is here reduced to a brief conversation after the fact.
The moon’s insectoid race of Selenites, so engagingly brought to the screen by Harryhausen in 1964, are realised with considerably less charm with computer graphics, and their subterranean home is far smaller in scale than it was in Wells’ novel or its more generously budgeted 1964 adaptation.
Nevertheless, the quality of Mark Gatiss’ acting and writing shines through. His adaptation is filled with an obvious love and reverence for its source material, with some exchanges lifted from the book almost verbatim, while his performance as Cavor is note-perfect.
Lionel Jeffries made the role of Cavor his own back in 1964, and anyone playing the same character will inevitably have their performance compared to that earlier incarnation. And despite the budgetary deficiencies elsewhere, Gatiss’ turn as one of sci-fi’s most underappreciated nutty professors is arguably the equal of Jeffries’ – sympathetic, child-like, and unmistakably British.
Rory Kinnear also deserves praise for his performance as Bedford, the avaricious capitalist doomed to spend his twilight years telling tall tales in a travelling circus.
Like Wells’ novel, The First Men In The Moon is an allegorical tale of how science’s best intentions are thwarted by the depressingly human failings of violence and greed. It was, like The War Of The Worlds, a direct criticism of Britain’s cruel imperialism of the time, and its sentiments still carry a strong relevance a century later.
The essence of the original book and its moral underpinnings have survived intact. But what a shame the BBC couldn’t provide the funds to fully realise the grand, epic sweep in Wells’ story. Had its effects and production values been of the same high standard as Gatiss’ writing and acting, this could have been a classic, truly definitive adaptation.
The First Men In The Moon airs Tuesday, October 19th at 9:00pm on BBC4 and again on Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday.