In the Guy Pearce version of The Time Machine, he can frustratingly appear to have managed to change the past, but since he built the machine because his fiancé died, no matter what he does, she dies by various means: he can change the past but not the essential aspect that she indeed always dies. (It seems to me that there are other outcomes that would make him create a time machine -- what if she were merely extremely traumatized? Or merely insisted that he build the machine so she can see it, but in this movie, The Mind of the Creator (or whatever) keeps coming up with no plot lines that do not end in her death.

Anyway, I think the Pearce version may have been the first time travel movie that showed how the past could not be essentially changed. Of course in, for example, A Christmas Carol, the Ghost of x-mas past tells Scrooge that he is seeing shadows of the past that simply cannot be changed. But that is different than my question: a changeable past, but not changeable in the desired way.

One minor thought: I recall the line from "The Island of Dr. Moreau" in which the good doctor expresses frustration with his results: "The damned beast flesh keeps growing back!" and this strikes me as eerily similar to what happens to the professor in Pearce version.(I am pretty sure the originally Wells story does not have this essential immutability theme in it.)

EDIT: It appears there were many stories before 2002 The Time Machine which (I am guessing based on the responses) had the details of the past change but not the main outcome so changing to first movie.

  • Are you looking for stable time loop or immutable time?
    – DavidW
    May 5 at 18:35
  • @DavidW: I am looking for the idea shown in the 2002 Time Machine: how he can in fact change the past but cannot change, ironically because he desperately wants to do do, what happens to his wife-to-be.
    – releseabe
    May 5 at 18:41
  • 3
    And I'm asking you, since you're looking for a specific type of phenomenon, to categorize it. Is it a Stable Time Loop, You Can't Fight Fate, You Already Changed the Past, Self-Fulfilling Prophecy, Ontological Inertia...
    – DavidW
    May 5 at 18:49
  • ...In Spite of a Nail, Necessary Fail and possibly some other tropes I missed on a quick read-through. There are a lot of time-travel stories, so this question should be cast as narrowly as possible.
    – DavidW
    May 5 at 18:55
  • 2
    One obvious example is Fritz Leiber's "Try and Change the Past" (1958) but no doubt there are earlier ones.
    – user14111
    May 5 at 19:14

1 Answer 1


Fortunately, there is legitimate academic work on this

Micklethwait's doctoral thesis at the Australian National University is bang on point.

The Time Machine (2002) is identified as an open past, open future, converging timeline without causal loops: that means the time traveller could make changes in the past, and those would create changes in the future but that the timeline would converge back to its original shape. Which is what you describe.

The oldest film that Miclethwait analysed (and he was pretty comprehensive) that met these criteria was Tay Garnet's A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court (1949), starring Bing Crosby and Rhonda Fleming.

Interestingly, both are based on eponymous 19th-century novels by H. G Wells (1895) and Mark Twain (1889) respectively. I've read both, but I can't remember if the time travel paradigm in the books is the same as in the movies. I will note that George Pal's The Time Machine (1960), starring Rod Taylor, had a different time paradigm from the 2002 version: it was closed past, closed future, fixed without causal loops. I will say the 1960 version is a much better movie.

  • The Connecticut Yankee is one way -- he does not go back and forth and also the time distance is very large vs that in The Time Machine, so the idea of the Yankee trying to change things and being thwarted would not be present.
    – releseabe
    May 29 at 8:43
  • @releseabe it was possible for him to change the past and for those to ripple into the future, but the future was elastic - returning to its previous shape in both movies. It doesn't matter if there was one or more trips back.
    – Dale M
    May 29 at 9:23
  • In Yankee, we see the future (or I guess present) change? In The Time Machine, he can change the future or again his present since in the present he has memories of his fiancee being killed not by the mugger but by the automobile. He can I guess change the past very significantly but sadly, specifically never how he wants to change it.
    – releseabe
    May 29 at 9:39
  • An aside, Rhonda Flemming passed away only a few years ago, one of the last adult actors from a 1940s film. She was almost 100 and born only a decade or so after Twain died.
    – releseabe
    May 29 at 9:44

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge that you have read and understand our privacy policy and code of conduct.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.