Time Travel in Fiction
Time travel is one of the most explored concepts in fiction. One reason for this is because time travel can open a lot of really fun doors for creatives because there are so many different ways it can be done. For example: Is time a loop? Or is it a ball of “wibbly wobbly timey wimey stuff” as Doctor Who tells us? Can we interact with our surroundings or simply watch events unfold? Can we change our futures? Our pasts? How do we get into the past? A car? A memory? A cupboard? A call from our ancestors?
One can also see that time travel provides characters with an opportunity to learn about the world and themselves.
In order to give a small insight into time travel in fiction, the following works are all very different yet still highly effective presentations of time travel.
A Christmas Carol- Charles Dickens (1843)
Beginning in the 19th century, Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is one of the most iconic festive tales and has been reproduced many times. Arguably though, the novel is not given enough credit for its use of time travel.
A Christmas Carol follows Ebenezer Scrooge, a cantankerous and stingy businessman who detests Christmas and everything it stands for. Then, on Christmas Eve, Scrooge is visited by three ghost who show him the Christmas of the past, present and future ultimately leading him to change his ways.
Scrooge is taken by the first ghost to his childhood, a heartbreaking reminder of his loneliness. The ghost of the present takes him to see his employee’s sickly child, another harsh reminder to Scrooge of his mistakes. Finally, the last ghost shows Scrooge his own grave, with no one there to grieve him.
Time travel in Dickens’ iconic novel acts as a means for redemption. In examining our pasts, noticing new things in the present and thinking about the consequences of our actions, one can change for the better.
La Jetee- Chris Marker (1962)
Chris Marker’s La Jetee is a black and white film which consists almost entirely of still images, accompanied by score and voiceover narration. The film tells the story of a man who is experimented on in a post-apocalyptic Paris and forced to travel back in time by scientists. Supposedly, he has been chosen because he possesses a vivid image from his childhood- the death of man on an airport jetty- which the scientists believe that if he focuses on it enough he can travel back in time. The man does so and ends up fostering a relationship in the past with a beautiful woman whom he saw on that fateful day.
The use of still images perfectly captures what it feels like to remember or to dream as the pictures are so vivid but inaccessible in a strange way. One moment which is particularly striking is the sequence in which the man and woman go to a museum where they look at taxidermy animals. The still images make the humans seem just as frozen as the animals and, combined with the chiaroscuro of the black and white images, is a really haunting sequence.
[SPOILERS] Finally, the man transports back to the day at the airport jetty as he attempts to escape the scientists whom he knows will kill him. When discussing time travel this is probably the most interesting sequence to examine as it solidifies the version of time travel that Marker wants to present. The man sees the woman on the jetty and runs towards her thinking that he can finally be with her only for the scientists to appear and kill him. Then, the eerie voiceover informs us that “the haunting moment [the man] had been granted to see as a child was the moment of his own death”.
Whilst this is obviously a science fiction film, the context of post-war France is definitely relevant. It’s certainly no coincidence that this film is set in a post-apocalypse Paris when it was made only 17 years after the end of the second world war. The haunting images and general eerie tone combined with the existentialist themes and the heart-breaking ending also reflect the immense trauma felt in France at the time as well as Marker’s own pessimism. Despite being set in a dystopic France in an unknown time period, Marker is able to discuss his contemporary world and it’s issues in an almost allegorical fashion, one of the many strengths of the time travel genre.
Kindred- Octavia Butler (1979)
Octavia Butler’s novel Kindred follows Dana, a young black woman living in California in the 1970s. One day, Dana is suddenly transported back in time to a pre-civil war plantation in Maryland. As a black woman, she is forced to work for the white family who own the land but eventually learns that the people around her are her ancestors. Dana travels back and forth without control between freedom and slavery, learning more about her roots as she spends more time in Maryland.
Kindred is an ambitious and moving novel which makes the most of time travel as a mode of examining society. Butler explores anti-bellum America through Dana’s point of view, knowing how far racial relations will go but also knowing the issues that remain. The 1970s setting is also up for examination and the novel arguably holds even more weight 50 years on as modern audiences take on the role of Dana in criticising not only the pre-civil war society but the 1970s society as well.
Back to the Future- Robert Zemeckis (1985)
This next film is a bit less niche and it is probably one of the first films people think of when we talk about time travel but nonetheless it is a really interesting one to examine when talking about time travel.
Robert Zemeckis’ 1985 hit Back to the Future follows Marty McFly, a teenage boy whose mum is a distant alcoholic and whose dad is pushed around by the same bully that tortured him in high school, Biff.
One day, Marty’s (for some reason) friend, the town’s mad scientist, Doc Brown builds a time machine out of DeLorean car. Accidentally, Marty transports himself back to 1955 when his parents were teenagers and finds himself in the care of his young mother after being hit by his grandfather’s car. Not knowing Marty is her son, Lorraine (Marty’s mum) quickly develops a crush on Marty, preventing her from meeting and falling in love with Marty’s dad, George.
In Zemeckis’ version of time travel, events can be altered and Marty soon realises that his actions in the past are causing his present to alter; if his mum and dad don’t get together he will never be born, something which is nicely presented to us in the picture of his siblings which gradually begins to fade as Lorraine and George stray farther away from each other.
[SPOILERS] Luckily, Marty is able to save the day and ensure his own birth by setting up his parents at the ‘Enchantment Under the Sea Dance’. However, upon returning to 1985, some things have changed; Lorraine is beautiful and vibrant, George, no longer a pushover, Biff no longer a bully. Overall, this is pretty nice picture of time travel and the way in which it can alter the future, Marty ultimately gets his dream life despite all his meddling in the past.
Whilst it could be argued that Zemeckis’ message is not hugely ground-breaking or even morally sound one could say that by actually listening to their child, Marty’s parents ensure a better life for themselves. For example, George isn’t able to stand up for himself until he meets Marty and Lorraine won’t even look at George until Marty convinces her otherwise. By learning from their own child, George and Lorraine become better versions of themselves. Granted, Marty has the wisdom of knowing their potential futures but Marty is the only character who remains largely unchanged, implying that maybe he had it right all along. This wouldn’t be inconsistent with the growing popularity at the time, of teenage films such as Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and The Breakfast Club in which young people are actually presented positively and sympathetically.
About Time- Richard Curtis (2013)
Richard Curtis’ About Time starring, Domnhall Gleeson and Rachel McAdams is actually more of a rom-com than a sci-fi which is one of the reasons it makes for an interesting analysis.
About Time follows Tim, who, when he turns 21 learns that all the men in his family, including him are able to time travel. The film lays out the rules of time travel very clearly, something which can be helpful in time travel storylines; Tim can only travel backwards in time and only to moments within his own life, he can’t change history but crucially, he can change the trajectory of his future.
With the knowledge of his new power, Tim decides to make his life as perfect as possible, re-living and altering moments that could’ve been improved. When he meets Mary he lives the first date over and over again to make it as perfect as possible, when his best man gives an awful speech at their wedding he simply goes back in time and picks a different one.
[SPOILERS] Tim’s life is going great and eventually he and Mary have their first child. Then, one day Tim’s friend gets into a car accident, Tim goes back in time to stop her from driving that day only to find that when he returns Posy is a completely different child. Tim’s meddling has finally caught up with him and, after some other events that I won’t outline now, he eventually decides to give up time travel and simply live life as it was intended. This is an interesting way to end the film and the message that comes with it is really nice; to live every day to its fullest and appreciate it for what it is. This could also provide insight into the current state of the world as this more modern presentation of time travel exists in a society obsessed with technology and convenience where we have everything we could ever want at our fingertips yet we never take the time to look up from it and appreciate what we have.
Ultimately, About Time is a film about family and love but what’s great about it is the way that the sci-fi elements blend with the seemingly mundane romance narrative that Curtis composes. It helps to amp up the romance storyline but also to ground the more fantastical elements.
So, according to these works, the passage of time can be accessed via ghosts, a memory, ancestry, a DeLorean or even just simple genetics. You can be tied to your destiny like the man in La Jetee or you could permanently alter your future like Marty and Tim. Or like Scrooge you can learn from your past and change your future. You could exist within your own past body, like Tim or you could exist as two different versions of yourself like the man and child in La Jetee. You could be limited to your own memories like the man in La Jetee and Tim or you could be privy to an era in which you didn’t even exist like Marty or Dana. The possibilities are endless but ironically, one thing time travel can provide insight into is our current world whether that’s post-war France, the anti-Bellum South, the teenage empire of the 80s or the age of social media.
What do you think? Leave a comment.
When Tim goes back in time over and over again to “improve” his sexual performance, it becomes obvious that he gets tired because he is actually doing it several times (contrary to his partner, who will just live and remember their last interaction). That would mean he is actually re-living those moments and spending actual extra time, therefore aging more. He should look older… That always bugged me.
A big sci-fi fan, and I think it takes something special these days to tell an original tale.
The 50’s sci-fi films, Philip K Dick, Isaac Asimov, The Twilight Zone and the original Star Trek series has most bases covered.
It takes something extraordinary in terms of concept, cinematography and sound to hit the spot. I’m thinking 2001, Alien, The Matrix, Under The Skin and Ex Machina as examples of films to be truly celebrated as unique (to me).
I didn’t find the last last two on your list to be either entertaining or original.
Under the Skin, whilst visually stunning, did an appalling disservice to the novel.
There’s a lot of great Japanese sci-fi anime, Akira, Ghost in the Shell, etc, athough tbh I haven’t seen anything recent that really wowed me.
Ex Machina was really really good. Chilling. Gonna check out Under the Skin on your description, cheers.
I think “La Jetée” was originally made in two versions, English and French.
A recommendation on the small screen would be Continuum, which is very well written up to the de riguer bloated last season where they perhaps over egg the time travel pudding.
Time travel is fun and exciting in itself. No need of chases and fights to make it interesting. It’s such a mind-bending scientific “possibility” that the narrative and metaphysical implications are infinite. Primer is a very good example of a film exploiting fully the colossal potential of the genre, and on a very limited budget too. Director Shane Carruth said his goal was to make about 50 % of the film understandable, and let the viewer wonder about the rest. You can watch the film 20 times, and I did, you’ll never be able to fully grasp who is where and when… Which is part of the pleasure. Exciting times, and I hope much more is to come. I’d like to see The Anubis Gates made as a film.
The Anubis Gates: One of my two favourite books from that time in my life. (The other was “Bridge of Birds”)
There’s an indie film called “Time Lapse” which is worth a watch for a time shifting fix, as is Dirk Gently on Netflix!
Most of us grew up watching Dr Who!
I like the bit in the Austin Powers fillum where Exposition advises Austin not to worry about the Grandfather Paradox or anything, then turns to camera and says ‘And that goes for you too’ while Austin smiles reassuringLy.
Anyone ever read Julian Barbour’s “The End of Time”? In it he makes quite an argument against the very existence of Time as a separate, “flowing” dimension. There’s only a 4-dimensional space as a continuous series of Now-instances. What, then, gives us the impression of a sequence of “moments”? That is the question.
Time is just a concept and a constant in an equation. Memory & entropy are something else altogether.
Rowan, hello. You might be interested in the article that follows. Consider this:
Cinema is uniquely poised among all the arts to explore time, because of editing and the possibilities to manipulate speed, including negative speed. Tarkovsky explained his concept of cinema with the title of his book “Sculpting in Time.” No one today has any intellectual problems apprehending slow motion, for example, but this is also an unnatural manipulation of time that is used for emphasis and also to mimic a human sensation that time appears to behave differently in moments of extreme stress. The idea that time might possibly not only advance in a linear and steady manner has been explored and proved in science and now mimicked in cinema along those scientific lines, in particular by Nolan (Miller’s water planet in Interstellar, where 1 hour on the surface of the planet = 20 years on the orbiting spececraft). The fact that these are difficult concepts to get one’s head around does not mean they are nonsense. In physics, we are told today that a particle can be in two places at the same time. This seems absurd, and yet, it has been observed to be true.
The existence of one particle in two places at once had never been demonstrated through experimentation, or even by scientific evidence in the mathematical sense. Such a statement is just an interpretation of a few of the mathematically abstract patterns. Yes, that will seem silly to us when we interpret it that way using our everyday language. One approach I’d like to advise is to try to think of it in terms of potential, unrealized properties rather than actual, established ones. It would be similar to optical illusions. if you take a close look. Another picture could appear. And once you see it, the picture seems irrevocably altered.
One particle in two places is actually possible in quantum physics, but only until observed. There are at least a dozen takes on what makes this shift from “unobserved” and superimposed to “observed” and in a definite place happen. Most theories tend to suggest this snap (technically the collapse of the wavefunction) happens instantaneously when we’re no more limited to the sub-Planck length and enter the macro-universe (sizes atomic and up). Though this has no relation with time travel, these particles exist in the same slice of time.
Everything I need to know about time travel I learned from Time Bandits.
The original Star Trek series had it all for me. These new sci fi / deep thought films are too sterile and one dimensional. One raised eyebrow from Spock and a quip from Kirk was enough to round off the episodes exploration of Nietzsche or pondering about God or Socialism or a myriad of philosophical ideas.
The best, and most consistent, time travel movie for me is still the original 1960 The Time Machine. Amazing that the novella was written by Wells back in 1895! Insightful man, that H.G. It avoids the issue of meddling with your own past by not going back, but forwards only. (Apart from when he returns at the end thereby potentially negating the future he’d just seen but hey.)
It’s always been a problematic trope to me, especially as the characters who go into the past usually focus on local issues, not the bigger picture – nobody in Dark thinks of going back another 33 years and throwing Hitler of track for instance!
Usually the plot that is discouraged by philosopher time travellers is to go back and kill Hitler. Would it be OK just to buy lots of his paintings and give him some encouragement to pursue art?
His real passion was architecture. It was something that he was actually good at. Painting was just a plan B after he got rejected at architecture on technicality.
Two words: Bill. And Ted. And another word. Three.
Of course what really happens to our putative time travellers is they fire up the machine and rematerialise in the void of space because the Earth isn’t there yet. That’s why we never see them, they’ve all frozen and suffocated far, far from here.
In BSG, one of the shuttle craft did a leap from space into the rocky centre of planet. It did not go well.
Except if they have managed to work out how to travel in time, they probably have worked out how to travel in space, as well. They just have to work out the co-ordinates of where the required earth location would be.
All the important aspects of time travel are covered in the groundbreaking Hot Tub Time Machine.
By far the best film about time travel was made in 2027.
Try Time Lapse. It’s small, makes sense, is well acted, and has both fun and serious stuff in equal measure.
To date the best time travel tale in film is told in ‘the Time Crimes’ which has a similar dedication to science that Primer has, but weaves it in to a dark suburban chiller/horror story. It’s Spanish and probably best watched with subtitles. ‘Los Cronos Crimenes’ and clearly explains the idea that time travel even for very short distances creates all sorts of paradoxical problems, in fact far more problems than you’d generally expect from travelling further precisely because of the proximity of the 2 time zones.
If Einstein was right then there is no universal time frame. Time is a function of physical distance and relative movement only. In a very real sense, the only ‘time’ 2 observers are in the same ‘frame’ is when they are in the same region of physical space, and moving at the same speed as each other (or not moving relative to each other) – as soon as either the speeds or distances significantly diverge then each observer can be considered to be in their own separate time frame.
And if Einstein wasn’t right well then we’re still waiting for the one smarter than him to come along and set him straight.
I can’t recommend Time Crimes enough – fantastic movie.
Do not get the love for Time Crimes at all. The whole thing falls apart because of the ridiculous choices of the main character. I was very disappointed when I saw it at a festival years ago.
I disagree. He’s certainly less than noble. Not any kind of Hero for sure. I find him depressingly realistic to be honest. His entire motivation is to escape responsibility for the incredible events he has unwittingly unleashed, and everything he does fits that motivation.
His behaviour in itself is a parody of the time travel story, he is really trying to reverse time to prevent the horrific consequences of his actions.
I like the pastoral atmosphere of Time Crimes. It’s like a video game where you keep dying and going back to the start.
Most time travel stuff are really quite boring! I’d rather watch paint wet.
It’s important that we ridicule time travel, just believing it’s possible even as entertainment increases the dangers of screwing with our time line. Maybe that’s why our reality is out of whack.
My favorite time travelling movies are:
Donnie Darko (2001)
Twelve Monkeys (1995)
The Time Traveler’s Wife (2009)
The Final Countdown (1980)
The Amazing Mr. Blunden (1972)
Time after Time (1979)
The Cloverfield Paradox (2018).
There was a strip in 2000AD (Strontium Dog I think) which dealt with time travel nicely; in that the person travelling through time would not also travel in space, so going back just a couple of hours meant they materialised in outer space and promptly asphyxiated, because the planet was no longer in the same position.
Haha that’s brilliant!
The best scifi trope debunking I’ve ever seen was that Stargate episode where the (fake) SG-1 woman says “if I can walk through walls, why don’t I fall through the floor?”
Another fun submission to the genre: Timefreaks. Science nerd uses a time travel app to re-do every time his girlfriend is unhappy in their relationship to prevent her breaking up with him. Ends up prolonging the relationship but killing any real emotion in their romance. The metaphor is strong: stop imagining how you could have done things differently and just live in the present.
Another thing about time travel as shown in movies and TV is that it can create alternate timeliness so that the future you live in and the one you changed are two separate things, so technically by changing your future you could be ruining others.
I saw this article and it immediately made me think of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. This is an absolute classic example for kids growing up in the 90s or 2000s (personally, I’m still a bit confused by it), but ended up being such a major component of the plot that no one would have guessed. Time itself, as the conclusion says, can be accessed by so many different means — and is always preserved through our own memory and that of others.
Would love to see a time travel article about the upcoming final season of Stranger Things! Predictions? References to these classic portrayals of time travel? Fan theories?
Time travel is such a tricky thing to get right in fiction! Most recently I read and loved Natasha Pulley’s ‘The Kingdoms’ which does just that – and is all about trying to figure out if someone really can be the same person at their core despite living in shifting, changed timelines. There’s this excellent [mildly spoilery] quote from the book that I haven’t gotten out of my head since reading: “I think you’re the same thing in three different lights.” Can’t recommend enough (and the rest of Pulley’s books too).
About time is one of my favourite movies. I love anything with time travel in it. There is a book called Mum, Me and the 19C about a teen and her Mum who accidentally go back to 19C Australia and interact with bushrangers. It just gives so much scope for fiction when you can use the settings and rules of the past both as expanders and limiters in you story.
The concept of time travel in fiction is an interesting topic. The way the article is written really gives a great range of examples and comparisons of the different ways that time travel can be utilised within fiction. Doctor Who and Back to the future are two of my favourite time travel stories and make great contributions to cinema.
I used to hate time travel stories and depictions on screen but I’ve come to love them as I’ve gotten older. Despite its focus on time, I believe it is a truly timeless sub genre
Imagination is time travel, a gift from our evolutionary biology. It is a way out of fear, impoverishment, and dispair – and what better way to overcome that part (the engrained emotions and instinctual) of our nature – using imagination.
Films like Dr Who and Back to the Future stick with us because we sit with that powerful human attribute – to engage in not only our capacity for imagination but learning how developed others’ imaginations are.
Think of the film Interstellar! What a mind blow into another time, space, reality, and a film that is so close to science.
Imagine (excuse the pun), schools teaching film production starting during kindergarten years! Where would our scientists be by then?
Such an effective and fun concept for film ideas. I’ve always been drawn toward movies that deal with time travelling. Time is always a mind bending idea to implement in films, and i love how you have shown its history. Although, you forgot one phenomenal movie… ‘Hot Tub Time Machine’…
I think one of the main reason for why people love time travel is because we tend to think if we can change or amend something in the past.
Even though time travel is the most used in fiction, I can hardly name 10 great movies I’d watch over and over again. I love time travel and I hope we’ll have more new films about it soon.
I love seeing time explored in fiction.
The best examples presenting vividly time travelling theory to me are Interstellar and Looper. Both are based on different time travelling theories, while the former is an absolute masterpiece giving us some understanding of what happens if you travel back in the past and kill your grandpa.
About Time is such a criminally underrated film