Classic: The War of the Worlds

Herbert George Well’s classic novel, The War of the Worlds, was first published in 1898.  Set “early in the twentieth century”, in and around the London, England, it tells the first-person account of a journalist/philosopher who witnesses how the normal activities of his countrymen are thrown into total chaos by an invasion of Martian beings. The journalist personally witnesses the landing of an alien cylinder from which Martians emerge, spewing death with a Heat-Ray.  He glimpses the first-seen alien, a tentacled thing the size of a bear and barely escapes to tell his tale.  As more Martians emerge, they begin building fantastic machines that they use to rampage through the countryside.  Foremost of these are large tripod vehicles that overwhelm England’s military defenses.

All of England is overwhelmed by the invaders.  Refugees, including the journalists brother, attempt to flee the island nation but are blockaded by two tripod “Fighting Machines” who are held off by the British Ironclad ‘Thunder Child”.  The refugees escape but not before the warship is destroyed.

Meanwhile, the journalist wanders the countryside, eventually coming to the devastated ruins of London.  He falls to depression and runs to sacrifice himself to the Martians in a suicidal attempt to end his misery only to learn that they aliens have died, having been slain by Earth’s bacteria.

Like his previous novel, The Time Machine, Wells viewed this book as a commentary of the society of his time.  It contains his hopes for a better social order and identifies the flaws he saw in government and the attitudes of his fellow man.

The book might have faded into relative obscurity if not for the 31 October 1938 radio adaptation produced by Orson Welles.  Orson and the players of the Mercury Theatre presented the Halloween thriller as a news narrative, interrupting contemporary music selections with the fantastic new reports of the drama.  Despite disclaimers, many listeners thought the radio drama was a real event.  The listening population of New York went into a panic.  Citizens packed the roads, hid in cellars with loaded guns, and made precautions to defend themselves against the aliens.  Hours later, everyone realized their mistake.  Through this event, Orson Welles proved the power of the media.

In 1953, movie mogul George Pal brought The War of the Worlds to the big screen. The movie modernized the tale, lifting elements from the book and relying heavily on the Mercury Theatre radio adaptation.  The film followed the turmoil that affected two main characters, Dr. Clayton Forrester and Sylvia Van Buren. 

Like the original novel, the military is ineffective against the Martians, even using atomic bombs against them to no effect.  Scientists prove equally unable to stop the invasion.  Ultimately, the Martians are again destroyed through bacteria, although the film portrays their death as divine retribution for their having attacked a church containing praying refugees, including the main characters. 

The War of the Worlds movie remains among the most classic of the classic films.  It paved the way for the hundreds of alien invasion movies that followed over subsequent decades.  In the most classic scene, Sylvia hides in the ruins of a house as a Martian creeps up behind her, slowly grasping a long fingered hand on her shoulder.  Her scream became the template for the screams of women in peril everywhere.

In 1978, Jeff Wayne released a rock opera of The War of the Worlds that brought an old story to a new audience.  Since its release, it has held a strong cult following.  The opera gleefully mixes synthesizers and seventies pop-rock beats with orchestral string arrangements. Narrated by Richard Burton, it follows H. G. Wells’ tale fairly accurately, taking some liberties with the plot for flow and ease of story. 

Ten years later, in 1988, War of the Worlds emerged as a television continuation.  In this storyline, the Martian bodies, hidden away for decades, are released.  They transform into human-looking invaders who attempt to overrun the Earth through subversion.  To counter this threat, the son of the Dr. Forrester and Sylvia, led a government team dedicated to stopping the aliens without raising the suspicions of the general population. 

– written by Rob Farquhar