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Review of Flatland: The Movie

Hemant Mehta

January 7, 2010

Flatland: The Movie, by Dano Johnson, Jeffrey Travis, and Seth Caplan.

Distributed by Flat World Productions. 2007. http://www.flatlandthemovie.com/

For over a century, math enthusiasts have been fascinated by Edwin A. Abbott’s 1884 novel Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions, and they’ll be excited to see this new animated adaptation of the classic story.

The original novel revolves around the journey of a square (aptly named A. Square) through his two-dimensional (flat) world. For the first half of the book, we’re treated to all the details of this world—the way each generation of shapes gives birth to a shape with one more side than the preceding one, the caste system that gives preference to higher-sided polygons, the reason women (straight lines in Abbott’s story) are forbidden from facing men straight-on, etc.

The second half of the book focuses on Square’s journey (in a dream) to Lineland, a world of only one dimension, and the square’s futile attempt to explain to the residents of Lineland his world of two dimensions. Later, Square is visited by a sphere who attempts to introduce him to the world of three dimensions.

Throughout the book, the reader is well aware of the first, second, and third dimensions, but Abbott’s aim is to open our minds to the possibility of a fourth (and higher) dimension—how these dimensions could exist and how we could possibly conceive of them.

In their adaptation of the book, the creative team behind Flatland: The Movie has the difficult job of condensing all this material into a half-hour production aimed at children. To make that happen, they must take a little artistic license. Women are no longer the lesser of the sexes (they are polygons just like the men; one woman even serves as a boss), and the main character, now named Arthur Square, is given a granddaughter (appropriately named “Hex”).

To guide students through the various dimensions, the team takes Arthur Square carefully through Pointland, Lineland, and Spaceland, explaining with terrific visuals just how each dimension is formed. By the climax of the film when the viewers are encouraged to think about a possible fourth dimension, it doesn’t seem quite as hard to grasp even if viewers can’t really put a finger on what that dimension might look like.

As in the book, there are subtle questions in this movie that any skeptic would appreciate: Why are the priests (those with hundreds or thousands of sides) trying to repress any information about the third dimension? Can mathematical/scientific truth trump accepted dogma? Is the truth accessible only to the elite, or can it be grasped by anyone?

While other film versions of Flatland have been made in the past, none have the visual appeal and star power this one has. The celebrity voice talents include Martin Sheen, Kristen Bell, Michael York, and Tony Hale.

I’m a high school math teacher, and for the past couple years I have shown my students this movie whether they were in a lower-level or Honors-level class. Regardless of age or skill, they have absolutely loved it. Watching and discussing the movie is consistently among their favorite memories of our class. More importantly, their curiosity about tesseracts (fourth-dimensional analogs of a cube) and string theory (which hypothesizes eleven dimensions) extends well beyond the classroom.

When I began teaching, the only popular movie about math was Donald in Mathmagic Land, a Disney film from 1959 featuring Donald Duck. As enduring as that movie has been, I can say from experience it doesn’t connect as well with modern students.

Flatland: The Movie doesn’t have that problem. This should be required viewing for any twenty-first century math teacher.

Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is a blogger at www.friendlyatheist.com and a high school math teacher in the suburbs of Chicago.