Monday, December 26, 2011

11: A Movie You Should See

    It's not often that classic books from the mathematics world are
translated to film.  Thus I was excited to discover a site called, where an independent filmmaker named Ladd
Ehlinger has produced an animated movie of Edwin Abbott's classic
novel Flatand.  I plucked down my 20 bucks, and
a few days later was able to watch the DVD in my living room.  It
was defintely the most unique movie I have seen in a long time, and I
highly recommend it to anyone geeky enough to be listening to this
    Before I get into details of the movie, I should probably start by
giving a brief refresher on the book, in case it's been a while since
you read it.  Flatland, published in 1884 by Edwin A. Abbott, was the
granddaddy of the "two-dimensional world" genre.  Abbott did not
really attempt to describe a physically realistic two-dimensional
world to the same degree as later authors-- the inhabitants of this
world are geometric shapes like squares, trianges, circles, etc, and
freely move in two dimensions all over their plane.  The book
is partially a satire of the society of his day; the shapes have a
strict social hierarchy, with circles ruling the world, and polygons
being higher in rank depending on how many sides they have.  At the
bottom are the non-equilateral triangles, sharper ones being less
intelligent but useful as soldiers.  And women are lowly straight
lines.  The main character and narrator of the book is a square named
A. Square.  The action mainly takes place when a sphere, visiting from
a higher-dimensional world, lifts A Square out of his plane,
convincing him that a third dimension exists.  When the square
suggests to the sphere that there might be a fourth dimension as well,
the sphere angrily returns the square to his plane, and the square is
imprisoned by his own people for spreading the heresy of a third
    Ehlinger brings the book to life in his animated feature, filling
in a somewhat more detailed plot in an attempt to replace the large
amount of exposition in the original novel.  While the characters are
to some degree inherently whimsical, being animated shapes led by
circles who can't help resembling Pac-Man, the film avoids the
tempatation to make them too cute.  I love the way he animates the
shapes, complete with lifelike "guts" that we can see since viewing
their plane from above, and that make the scenes of violence a
little more bloody.  The movie departs from the book in numerous
details in order to create a more "cinematic" plot, and for the most
part is quite successful.   It's a dark story, involving injustice,
war, riots, and death, while at the same time displaying a constant
understated humor inherent in the subject matter.  It also preserves
the essential elements of Abbott's classic in a way that should
satsify all but the most literalist Flatland fanatics.  I have a few
minor quibbles with the movie-- the womens' voices can drive you nuts,
and the 3-D animation gets a little dizzying when the square is
travelling outside his plane-- but none of these prevented my
throrough enjoyment of it.
    I should also mention that this has not been the only attempt to
adapt Flatland for the silver screen.  According to Wikipedia, there
was a 1965 version with Dudley Moore, and a 1982 short film; if any of
you know a way for me to get my hands on a DVD of either of these,
please send an email!  There is also another flim in production at a
site called, due for release this year, which
should be interesting to compare.
    But don't confuse any of these other projects for
"Flatland: The Film", the one we're discussing today.  Although it may
have some upcoming competition, I really enjoyed this movie, and I
think you will too, regarless of how many Flatland versions ultimately
end up on our shelves.  If you're the kind of person who listens to this
podcast, and enjoys twisting your brain around the concept of a
two-dimensional world as well as thinking about higher-dimensional
possibilities, you should definitely check out

    This has been your Math Mutation for today.

  • Flatland on Wikipedia
  • Flatland: Complete Text from Project Gutenberg
  • Flatland: The Film
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