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'Time Traveler' Review Ahead Of Spike's Adaptation

Soon after posting the news that Spike Lee purchased the adaptation rights to Dr Ronald Mallett's time travel memoir titled, Time Traveler: A Scientist's Personal Mission To Make Time Travel A Reality, I bought the book from my local bookstore. I wasn't sure how available it would be, so I was pleasantly surprised when I found a copy at the first location I checked.

I immediately noticed how thin the book is, flipping 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 basic knowledge of physics.

Despite it being what I would call a simple, brisk read, the author's routine explications of his scientific studies and further research, as well as the research and theories of others physicists, past and present, were a challenge to comprehend, and often interfered with my ability to appreciate 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 sudden 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 core story, but I think if I were a physicist, or had a relatively solid background in that specific science, my reading experience likely would have been superior.

As I read, I was most engaged when Mallett talks about his relationships - with his father, mother, siblings, other physicists and his romances - I suppose what I would call the more human elements of the story. I wanted more of that kind of prose, but there's actually not very much of it, seemingly written about almost as if in passing, or as an afterthought, since the 200+ pages are dominated by the technical/scientific elements of the narrative.

He was clearly a man with tunnel vision, on a mission to fulfill the 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.

The book spans about 50 years, from the 1950s to the early 21st century. Ronald Mallett is a black man, but he doesn't use up pages discussing his experiences with racial constructs. He devotes few lines to the racism and discrimation he faced growing up both in the north and south of America, post WWII, through the fight for civil rights in the 60s - especially 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 dive into the subject, but he never quite does, instead choosing to focus almost solely on the subject of time travel, which is fine. However, a potential problem I see in reading the book, is that one could make the possibly wrong assumption that he had it significantly easier than most. 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. Or rather he just accepted that the overt, unappologetic racism of the time was simply one of the negatives of life, but nothing that needed to consume his 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!

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 will adapt this is a mystery. I think it could be a challenge if it's a completely faithful adaptation, but I doubt that it will be. Spike will have to get creative, and squeeze as much life as he can out the humanistic elements of the book, and find a way to balance the scientific, without allowing it to dominate.

Spike could also follow the same path that writer/director Shane Carruth took when he made his 2004 Sundance 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 the starring characters constantly share with each other. The 79-minute film hits the ground running - no backstory, no footnotes. It's as if Carruth is saying, 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, 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.

Or Spike could maybe consider something along the lines of PI (by Darren Aronofsky), another Sundance winner, and another favorite film of mine that I've seen countless times but haven't completely digested - essentially, making it something of a thriller... 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.

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 sci-fi in the typical Hollywood sense - 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. Other than those moments, there really aren't any other possibilities to razzle and dazzle the audience with spectacle!

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 on 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 I would attack those latter years in much the same way Carruth did in Primer - except, unlike the men in Primer, Mallett had a life outside of his research (the older version of him anyway), which would make for an even more interesting story, hence, the balance I mentioned earlier that Spike will have to manage.

I have no idea when the film adaptation will go into production. 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. Octavia Butler's Kindred has been optioned several times over the last 15 years or more, and we're still waiting for someone to finally see it all the way through. Not surprisingly, financing is often the hold-up. But I think Mallett's story is one that can be done "cheaply," relatively speaking of course, in the $10 to $30 million range. Keep in mind that the average studio movie budget these days hovers around $60 to $80 Million. So, $10 to $30 Million is less than half the average. Whether Spike will be able to raise the money is an uncertainty. If he gets a star to play the older Mallett, then funding might be a snap.

So, who do I think could assume the role? Mallett is 63 years old this year. If Spike takes my advice and focuses on the man's recent life, where much progress was made on his time machine project - meaning roughly the last 10 to 15 years - he'd need an actor in his mid 40s/early 50s, who could be easily and naturally aged with make-up, as he ages from about 48 to 63 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 in his 50s now, however, I can see Spike going with him since they've worked together several times before)... who else? Maybe Laurence Fishburne. Unless Spike goes with an unknown, but I doubt it, especially if the budget is substantial.

I plan to read the book again. Sometimes it's better the second time around - not that it was bad the during the first read. But going back over the physicist jargon that dominates the memoir might do me some good. I'll keep Wikipedia open on my laptop for easy look-up access!

By the way, incase you are wondering, here's a clip from Primer. It's not the most indicative of the point I made above, but it gives you an idea of what I saw in my mind as I read Mallett's memoir:

Here's the trailer for PI:


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