The Inception of the Time Travel Tale
Michael J. Fox as Marty McFly and Christopher Lloyd as “Doc” Brown in Back to the Future (1985)
Time travel is a recurring theme in both literature and film, transcending the genre of science fiction and finding its way into romantic comedies like About Time and Kate and Leopold; psychological thrillers like The Butterfly Effect and Donnie Darko; superhero movies (which may arguably be considered science fiction) like X-Men: Days of Future Past, Dr. Strange, and Avengers: Infinity War; and even comedies like Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure and its sequel, as well as Hot Tub Time Machine. Time travel - whether going back to right a wrong (or perhaps to just write a research paper) or going forward for a sneak peek at what happens next – is a concept which may just be as old as time itself.
Possibly one of the most well-known and well-executed movies featuring time travel, the 1985 film, Back to the Future, and its sequels follow the adventures of a teenaged boy and his crazy inventor friend as they travel back and forth through time. The film series covers all the do’s and don'ts of time travel and is responsible for inspiring many attempts to invent the hoverboards featured in the second and third movies. Sadly, the only hoverboards currently available to the average consumer are the self-balancing scooters, which don’t actually hover and have a reputation for exploding. Perhaps they should have focused on inventing time machines instead. But Doc Brown wasn’t the first fictional character to use a vehicle for time travel.
In his 1895 novel, The Time Machine, H.G. Wells introduced the phrase “time machine” and popularized the idea of a vehicle as a means to travel through time. The novel tells the story of an inventor, from the Victorian Age, who travels to the distant future and discovers a seemingly Utopian society with a dark secret. It was responsible for inspiring the iconic 1960 movie, The Time Machine, and its 2002 remake as well as the 1979 movie, Time After Time, and the 2017 television series of the same name, in which Jack the Ripper steals the time machine and the time traveler must follow him to the future.
Ebenezer Scrooge didn’t need a vehicle to time travel in Charles Dickens’ classic tale, A Christmas Carol. This tight-fisted businessman is visited on Christmas Eve by three ghosts, who force him to visit Christmases past, present, and future in an effort to inspire him to change his ways. In this novella, the time travel occurs through magic rather than science. This story has inspired numerous stage and film adaptations, starring actors such as Patrick Stewart and Jim Carrey.
Before flying cars and time-traveling spirits, there was a man who fell asleep and woke up twenty years in the future. In Washington Irving’s “Rip Van Winkle,” the titular character doesn’t time travel so much as he just sleeps for a really long time. When he wakes up, his body shows signs of aging, indicating that some time has passed naturally. However, it is twenty years later and he hasn’t starved to death so clearly, he has not experienced that time in the natural way. While “Rip Van Winkle” didn’t inspire as many adaptations as Irving’s other classic story, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” the idea of a character in suspended animation who wakes up in an unfamiliar future world has been used in several movies, such as Demolition Man and Forever Young.
Ancient Mythology? This epic tale from Hindu mythology tells the story of King Kakudmin who, like Rip Van Winkle, experiences a sudden leap forward in time. For Kakudmin, the leap occurs after visiting the Hindu creator god, Brahma. He returns home to find time has greatly advanced in his absence. A similar tale occurs in a Japanese fairy tale about a fisherman named Urashima Tarō, who spends three days in an undersea kingdom only to return to his home three hundred years in the future. The story of the “Seven Sleepers” appears in both Christian and Muslim tradition and tells of seven people who hid in a cave to escape persecution and woke up three hundred years later.
It seems mankind has been spinning tales of time travel for as long as mankind has been spinning tales. The only question is, who came up with the idea first? Perhaps some traveler from the future wanted to see how we began and traveled to the past, inadvertently planting the seed that would lead to the invention of time travel. Probably not, but it sounds like a good idea for the next time travel movie.