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From Book To Film: A Look At How Spike Lee Might Adapt Dr Ronald Mallet’s 'The Time Traveller'

by Tambay A. Obenson
March 11, 2014 1:42 PM
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Ronald Mallett

It could be just me, but it seems like there's a burgeoning, fresh interest in what we could generally deem "black science/science fiction" - 2 documentaries we know of are in the works on the contributions of black scientists, authors, filmmakers to science fact and science fiction; there's the reboot of a landmark science TV series (Cosmos) hosted by a renowned African American scientist (Neil deGrasse Tyson); there certainly has been plenty of critical and not-so critical discussion on this blog (and elsewhere) on the subject, especially as it relates to cinema; there seem to be more and more film screening series and film festivals emerging, with focus on science fiction films made by and are about black people; we have a president of African descent who certainly hasn't been shy about his beliefs on the importance of science; one of the more recognizable actresses of African descent, Halle Berry, is going to be starring in a sci-fi TV series produced by a filmmaker who's directed and/or produced several films in the sci-fi genre (Steven Spielberg); and more. There are other examples I could list, but I'd just say that there's just what feels like an overall emphasis and enthusiasm on the matter that I can't say I've experienced in years prior.

But again, maybe it's just me!

It did get me wondering whether some of those sci-fi projects that black filmmakers have been wanting to see produced for years now, might have a better chance in 2014 and immediately beyond, to become realities. Hollywood certainly loves the genre.

One that I immediately remembered, and that I first mentioned on the old S&A blog in 2011 (although I believe the project was first announced 2 years before that) is Spike Lee's adaptation of Dr Ronald Mallett's time travel memoir titled, Time Traveler: A Scientist's Personal Mission To Make Time Travel A Reality

Spike purchased the rights to the book about 6 years ago, and, for years, it sat on his IMDB resume as an upcoming project with no guarantee that it would ever be produced. 

Ian Harnarine, a celebrated director in his own right, and whose work we've featured on S&A in recent years, penned the adaptation.

By the way, Harnarine has graduate degrees in both Nuclear Physics and Film. Quite the combo; but it's no wonder why Spike chose him to adapt the book, given that his feet are firmly planted in both worlds.

I purchased the book not long after the announcement of Spike's interest, and eventually read it some time after. It was much thinner than I expected, as I flipped through to the very last page to see that it's just over 200 pages in length. I read it in 3 days, although I think I'll read it again, armed with more than just a rudimentary knowledge of physics. It certainly helps here, because, despite it being what I would call a brisk read, the author's routine explications of his scientific research, as well as his inquisitions into theories of others physicists, past and present, were a challenge for this writer to fully, immediately comprehend, and often interfered with my ability to appreciate what is, at its core, the tale of a man's drive to build the world's first time machine, so that he can travel back in time to prevent his father's death from a heart attack. 

But maybe that's ok. I don't necessarily have to understand every single scientific formula, hypothesis and conclusion to appreciate the central story and themes; but I do think if I were a physicist, or had a relatively solid background in that specific science, my reading experience likely would have been superior. 

Throughout the text, which spans about 50 years (from the 1950s to the early 21st century), I was most engaged when Mallett talks about his relationships - with his father, mother, siblings, other physicists and his romances - or, I suppose what I would call the more *human* elements of the story. But there's actually not very much of that, seemingly written about, almost as if in passing, or as an afterthought, since the 200+ pages are saturated with the technical/scientific elements of the narrative - essentially the parts I had the least understanding and appreciation for. But that's why, as I said earlier, I'd like to read it again, armed with more than just a rudimentary knowledge of physics.  

He was clearly a man driven, with tunnel vision, on a mission to fulfill this singular goal he set out to accomplish when he was a pre-teen, right after the death of his father. And as expected, his unwavering commitment to his goal wasn't always healthy - for him and those close to him. 

Ronald Mallett is a black man, needless to say, but he doesn't really devote any pages to discussing his experiences with racial constructs. He devotes few sentences to the racism and discrimination he faced growing up, both in the north and south USA, post WWII, through the fight for civil rights in the 60s, as one of the first black PhD physicists in this country, navigating his way from one campus to another, and one job to another, trying to find the perfect fit for his research. 

In reading the book, I kept expecting him to eventually delve into the subject of racial attitudes during his ascendance, but he never quite does, instead choosing to focus almost solely on the subject of time travel, which is fine, I suppose. Maybe it's just my own biases that are informing my need to have him discuss his experiences as a black man of his stature, especially given the periods in which he grew up and received the bulk of his education. Or it could just be that his intense, unwavering focus on his end goal made him oblivious of much of what was going on in the world around him at the time; Or rather he just accepted that the overt, unapologetic racism of the day was simply one of the valleys of life, but nothing that needed to consume his own life. 

His education and his dream were primary - essentially his weapons of choice in the war against prejudice. Absolutely nothing was going to deter him from success! 

It's a book about one man's life's work and passion, chased vigorously, unwaveringly, at the expense of his social sanity. It's not typical Hollywood sci-fi material - there aren't any scenes that would require computer generated effects, no aliens, no interstellar explosions, no time machines, despite the film's title. There are moments of reverie which Spike could have some fun with, wherein, Dr Mallett dreams about seeing his work realized, and utilizing it for the purpose that initially motivated him to dedicate his life to creating it. In short, there's very little spectacle! 

Needless to say, he doesn't actually build a time machine, rather just simply lays down the groundwork for the potential creation of one,  sometime in the future, once all the uncertainties of building such a thing have been sufficiently resolved. 

How Spike Lee's film adapt will handle the material is still very much a mystery (although maybe the project is dead to him right now). I think it could be a challenge if it's a completely faithful adaptation, but I doubt that it will be. Spike/Ian will have to get creative, and squeeze as much life as they  can out of the humanistic elements of the story, and find a way to balance the scientific, without allowing it to dominate as it does in the book. Unless they opt to follow the same path that writer/director Shane Carruth took when he made his 2004 Sundance Film Festival Grand Prize winner, Primer - also a time travel film. I own Primer on DVD and I've watched it more than thrice, but I still can't say that I completely understand the theories and ideas that are introduced and that the starring characters constantly discuss with each other. The 79-minute film hits the ground running - no backstory, no footnotes. It's as if Carruth is saying to the audience, you either understand what we're talking about or you don't, but we're not going to "dumb it down" by explaining everything to you... We're scientists and this is how scientists interact with each other and their work. 

So, in essence, either you buy it, or you don't. But yet, somehow, I've never been turned off by the fact that much of what is discussed is foreign to me, and instead find myself fascinated by it all. So, I suppose Spike could implement a similar strategy. But I doubt it. It's not really his style.

Or Spike could maybe consider something along the lines of PI (by Darren Aronofsky), another Sundance winner - essentially making it something of a thriller about one man's relentless quest in search of an answer to a problem that's been consuming him, as others close in on him to gain control of the knowledge in his head. 

If I were the screenwriter adapting the book, I would focus in on a very specific period of Dr Mallett's life, instead of attempting a bio-pic that covers the 50+ years the book lives in. I would focus on Dr Mallett as an adult, which is where he made the most progress in understanding and laying the foundation for his time travel machine; His life was fuller then - married twice, meeting several Nobel Prize-winning physicists he could only admire from afar when he was younger, and more. I would attack those latter years. 

That Mallett had a life outside of his research (the more recent version of him anyway), should pepper the story, hence, the balance I mentioned earlier that Spike will have to manage. 

So, the million-dollar-question is, who do I think could play Dr Ronald Mallet? Mallett is 69 years old this year. If Spike focuses on the man's recent life, as I suggested, where much progress was made on his time machine project - meaning roughly the last 15 to 20 years - he'd need an actor in his mid 40s/early 50s, who could be easily and naturally aged with make-up, from about 49 to 69 years old. So, that narrows the list of potentials down to just a handful of actors in that mid-40s/early 50s age range - Don Cheadle, Jeffrey Wright (he'd probably be my first choice if Spike goes the path I just described), Denzel Washington (although he's pushing 60 now; however, I can see Spike going with him since they've worked together several times before). 

Maybe Laurence Fishburne. Who else? 

I'd go with Jeffrey Wright.

Unless Spike goes with an unknown, but I doubt it, especially if the budget is substantial. 

Of course, I'm assuming that film adaptation will go into production some day soon. After all, just because a book is optioned doesn't mean that its celluloid brethren will be born instantaneously. It could be years before we hear about this again, or possibly not at all, and the project might be dead. He may no longer even be interested in the adaptation. 

The press release announcing his optioning of the novel in 2008, had this quote from Spike: "I’m elated to have acquired the rights to a fantastic story on many levels, but also a father-and-son saga of loss and love."

While we wait for news on the project, here's Dr Mallet talking to CNN in 2007, discussing his theories on time travel, and doing so in a manner that's much easier to understand than in the book:

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More: Spike Lee, Ian Harnarine, Book To Film

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  • Jay C. | March 13, 2014 1:31 AMReply

    Dr.Mallett will be featured heavily in my upcoming documentary feature "How to Build a Time Machine". His story is a great one!

  • tolly devlin | March 11, 2014 11:53 PMReply

    I still contend that Spike is not the man to bring this story to the screen. I was relieved when he moved on to other projects.

  • @JayTeeDee | March 11, 2014 2:07 PMReply

    This is one of my favorite This American Life stories, very touching and poignant.

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