Have you ever watched a trailer for a movie or read the back of a book jacket and thought “that premise is really dumb,” only to hear people rave about said book or movie later?
Maybe you weren’t wrong.
Maybe the premise of a time-traveling hot tub is completely ridiculous and, yet, somehow it worked. (That movie got 63% on Rotten Tomatoes, which if you’re a frequent flyer of Rotten Tomatoes you know that’s a pretty good rating for a slapstick comedy. And, if you’ve seen it, you know it’s surprisingly hilarious.)
Taking Risks is Scary
As a writer (The Travelers), I’m not sure I could ever write something called Hot Tub Time Machine. Not only am I just not that funny, I’m also not that brave. I haven’t yet shed that nagging fear of rejection. It admittedly keeps me from taking too big of a risk – what if people hate it? What if people think it’s stupid? What if people think I’m stupid?
Therefore, when I read or watch a story that is so out there and takes a huge risk, I am in awe at the guts of the person who not only thought of it but put it down on paper and/or film and somehow made it not terrible.
The Hot Tub Time Machine Phenomenon
I was thinking about this. What’s the difference between the movie Hot Tub Time Machine and the less popular and more critically panned Joe vs the Volcano (an older, but similar type of dumb-funny movie starring Tom Hanks)? Neither sounds particularly good on paper. And countless other seemingly dumb premises that failed. Is it execution? Does one book or movie just somehow capture the zeitgeist of that place and time?
Since I really don’t have an explanation, and when we don’t have an explanation it’s just a phenomenon, I’m naming this one the The Hot Tub Time Machine Phenomenon.
Definition: An instance in which a book or movie that seems completely dumb and not worthy of space on a page or screen somehow becomes very popular, beloved and even, in some cases, award-winning.
Literary Examples of the Hot Tub Time Machine Effect
Here’s what I came up with for some books that I think fall into this category. Anyone have any other thoughts?
The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka
A traveling salesman wakes up one day and finds he’s to find himself transformed into a large, monstrous insect-like creature. Ew. Weird and yet considered one of the greatest pieces of fiction of all time.
Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
Let’s really think about this. A doctor decides to take cut up pieces of dead people, sew them together and somehow regenerate this patchwork body. I think this is the 1800s verson of hot tub time machine. (I don’t imagine they had quite the same sense of humor.)
Alice In Wonderland by Lewis Carroll
You’ve probably seen or read this book so many times it’s weirdness no longer seems that weird. But, let’s take a moment to list some of the very strange things that happen in this book.
- A little girl follows a rabbit with a stopwatch down a hole
- A girl eats various food and drinks that change her size and appearance
- There is a tea party with a Mad Hatter and a mouse that falls asleep a lot
- There is an advice-giving blue caterpillar
- Living playing cards paint white roses red
This list could go on for a while. Right now you’re thinking Hot Tub Time Machine isn’t so strange after all.
Bizarre Books for Kids
Speaking of children’s books, perhaps not surprisingly, that’s where you can usually find some seriously wacky premises. It’s a little easier to get away with in young readers. Still some of these are so strange, you wonder what publisher read these and said – yep, let’s do that.
Freckle Juice by Judy Blume
A kid tries to make a concoction to give himself freckles, and ends up getting really sick. That is a whole book and it’s beloved.
James and the Giant Peach by Roald Dahl
Nearly every Roald Dahl book could be here, but I have to give it up for James and the Giant Peach. If you’d never heard of this book and someone told you to read a book about a kid that rolls around in a giant peach with some giant bugs, what would be your response?
Coraline by Neil Gaiman
Gaiman is no stranger to strange, however, he gets extra points for weird in thinking a story about doppelgangers from another world with button eyes who try to convince a little girl to sew buttons on her eyes so they can stay in their other world. It’s one creepy tale for kids.
Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs by Judi Barrett
The title pretty much gives away the weirdness of this book, essentially a story set in a town where every day it rains food. The movies are both also cute and we have been known to quote them in my house. Our favorite? There’s a leek in the boat!
Some Weird Books for Adults
Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut
Vonnegut is another master of strange that could have a few books on this list. But what makes this one so strange is that the underlying event – the Dresden bombing and events in WWII and weaves these with the disorienting story of Billy Pilgrim, a chaplain’s assistant in the US army, who believes he was held in an alien zoo and become unstuck in time after he is abducted by aliens from the planet Tralfamadore.
Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk
A book about a insomniac who meets a soap-making stranger and for some reason they start and underground fight club. It really just gets weirder from there.
American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis
How about a book about a guy who is a serial killer or maybe he isn’t. It’s hard to say. What? That’s confusing. And why would anyone want to read a book about such a deranged, unpleasant lunatic? Not as laugh-out-loud funny as, say, a Hot Tub Time Machine, but the novel has humor and the premise of an unhinged serial killer as a metaphor for the ruthlessness and vacuousness of the business world is very unique and still resonates twenty-ish years later. Strange? Sure? Zeitgeist capturing? I think so.
Any books you feel fit into the Hot Tub Time Machine Effect?