I’m going back into Flatland so I’m justifying procrastination by looking through Flatland adaptations. I’ve been trying to get my mitts on the below version for some time featuring, as it does, the inimitable Dudley Moore as A Square, an unsurpassable piece of casting. The animation was by John Hubley, who was blacklisted for refusing to name names to the House Committee on Un-American Activities and is noticeably influenced by the geometric Modernist stylings of Russian animation. It is available on DVD from Documentary Educational Resources, but they charge an absurd $65, which for an 11-minute film seems a bit steep. I guess the Greek youtuber below felt the same, and shared a copy in the interests of unhindered education.
I post this first because it is charming and seems closer to the spirit of the novel than the 2007 film, Flatland: The Movie, which had a significantly larger budget: significantly large enough to cast Martin Sheen as A Square and Michael York as the Sphere. It’s an interesting proposition. The animation is whizzy and while the kind of scriptwriting that has a character declaring “Dude, you’re freaking me out!” makes me instinctively uncomfortable – for a start, it’ll age pretty badly – I wonder if its good intentions and intended audience don’t actually mirror those of Abbott. When it came out in 2007 I thought they’d missed the opportunity to do it in 3D, which would have made so much sense and brought alive the Spaceland sections, so I’m glad they’re remastering it for 3D Imax, no less. Dude! You really are freaking me out!
Despite claims from the producer that selling it directly made more money than he had made on other projects, I guess they ran out of budget for the website. Thomas Banchoff was involved as a consultant, so the geometry and Abbott scholarship are rock solid.
This production must have been enormously bad news for the producers of Flatland: The Film, which also came out in 2007, without the big names. I’m afraid I’m not able to feel too much pity for them, though, because it looks as if they’ve played rather loose with plot and while the animation shows a debt to Abbott’s original illustrations, I’m not sure there’s a lot to be gained from making Flatland a war movie (and the soundtrack?)
Flatland has clearly found a contemporary niche as an educational resource, a way of instructing dimensionality. This is interesting, and certainly part of the story, but as a cultural historian I would hate to leave it to the maths classroom, as valuable as it may be there. Flatland’s complexity and responsive immersion in late-Victorian intellectual life seem reduced by these later versions. Given the prominence of ideas related to Malthus, Lamarck and Galton it might just as well be a resource for teaching evolutionary narratives. Biologists! To the DVD player!
It is also worth observing that narrative is precisely its strength today: the fact that the geometry is embedded in a story is what makes it so attractive to teachers. I think this, too, leads is into more interesting avenues of thought, particularly relating to how and where Flatland fits into literary history. An intriguing essay by Mark McGurl observes that the critically commonplace descriptions of characters as flat and round, coined by E.M. Forster in Aspects of the Novel (1927) , surely owes to Flatland. (I’m uncertain about other claims McGurl makes, regarding Flatland’s position on class, but this is a great point). Flatland , I think, actively participates in and is aware of its place in the literary theory of the 1880s.
As I have argued before on this blog, higher space is also play, so it is appropriate that Flatland has inspired a number of recent computer game projects, which I’ll round up in my next post.