It was over 120 years ago that Herbert George Wells first published the seminal alien invasion story, “The War of the Worlds.” Like so many of Wells’ works (“The Time Machine,” “The Invisible Man,” “The Shape of Things To Come”) WOTW became a template for many such alien invasion stories to come, such as 1956’s “Earth vs. the Flying Saucers,” or the 1996 quasi-remake “Independence Day”; not to mention its own various adaptations (the 1953 and 2005 WOTW movies, as well as a 2-season late 1980s television series).
The book is told in an unnamed first person account (not too unlike Wells’ “The Time Machine”) by an astronomer in Victorian England who is invited to the local observatory to observe curious explosions on the surface of Mars. Soon, a giant meteorite containing a cylinder lands in the rural countryside of Woking, Surrey. The cylinder contains an advanced scout for an invasion force from the planet Mars.
Before long, heat rays emanate from a mirror atop the cylinder, devastating the crowds gathered nearby. Leathery, bear-sized, oily-skinned Martian creatures, weakened by our heavier gravity, slowly emerge from the cylinder but soon retreat back into their newly-assembled tripodal war machines for ground transport.
In the wake of the initial attack and panic, the astronomer is separated from his family, and spends much of the book trying to reunite with them. During his trek, he observes the horrific changes to his world, following the full-on Martian invasion. As the astronomer is briefly reunited with his family, he witnesses various failed military engagements against the Martians, including the destruction of the mighty HMS Thunderchild.
At the start of Book Two, the astronomer finds temporary hiding and refuge with a curate who’s gone mad. The curate inadvertently threatens their mutual safety, and the astronomer is forced to kill the man. He speculates that the Martians will use his blood to create the ‘red weed’ that is forming all over the countryside; a possible prelude to altering Earth’s atmosphere to suit Martian requirements.
Eventually, the Martians are weakened by a common virus, and die en masse. Their war machines, useless without living pilots, are abandoned. The war is over, and a shook humanity
I own the book both in hard copy (as part of a hardback Wells collection) and an unabridged audio version, and it still holds up as a masterpiece of science fiction and horror. The book’s metaphors for British colonialism of the time are succinct, and still applicable to other such situations around the world, even (or especially) today.
The first major adaptation of the book, 40 years later, would also be its most controversial…
War Of The Air.
On the night of October 30 1938 (the night before Halloween), the young Orson Welles (only 23 at the time) and his “Mercury Theatre Company” did a live radio dramatization of Wells’ book for CBS (Columbia Broadcasting System) Radio, rejiggering the tale as a modern, American-based story (as many subsequent adaptations would). What makes the Mercury adaptation unique was its format.
The play was broken into two acts, with the first act presented in the form of a live news broadcast, with reporters covering an unusual meteorite landing in Grover’s Mill, New Jersey (a rural American setting, much as the book’s initial landing took place in the rural English countryside at Woking).
Director Welles plays Princeton astronomer Professor Pierson, who also observed the explosions on the Martian surface through a telescope. Pierson, along with ill-fated reporter Carl Philips, would cover the ‘meteorite’s’ landing at Grover’s Mill.
All hell breaks loose at Grover’s Mill as the invading Martians attack with their deadly heat rays. The sounds of screaming first responders is quite chilling to the listener, in fact, as your mind fills in all of the details. As are the moments of dead silence (NPI) when the broadcasts are momentarily ‘cut off’ by Martian weaponry. The first act of the play reminds one why radio was such an effective format for drama for as long as it was; imagination fills in all the required visuals, and arguably more effectively, than images from movies or television ever could.
The second act is a more traditional radio drama, with Prof. Pierson finding refuge in an abandoned farmhouse with a deranged artilleryman (a composite of several characters from Wells’ book) who has plans to seize control of a Martian war machine for his own personal power. Pierson, seeing no future with the power-crazed artilleryman, leaves. Wandering though the abandoned streets, Pierson finds that the Martians have been overcome by a common Earth virus, that “God in his infinite wisdom has put upon this Earth.”
Like the book, the radio play makes generous use of the names of real world locations that gives the simulated newscast of the first act a sense of immediacy. That immediacy caused one hell of a panic. People who tuned in late to the broadcast didn’t hear the initial identification of it as a Mercury Theatre Production, and only heard the cleverly simulated newscast. Listeners abandoned their homes, fleeing for safety. Reports came in of people who shot at water towers, mistaking them for Martian tripodal war machines in the darkness. If they’d stayed home by their radios, they would’ve heard the second act that clearly betrays the whole thing as a work of fiction.
Halloween morning 1938 saw a very contrite Welles (looking, in his words, like an “early Christian saint”) holding an impromptu news conference to apologize for what he assumed would be seen as a harmless Halloween scare… the radio equivalent of putting on a mask and yelling, ‘boo.’
I’ve listened to my CD of the broadcast many times, and it makes for a very entertaining hour; imagination paints very vivid mental pictures as the sounds of first-responder screams, bomber planes, city church bells and broadcasters coughing from Martian chemical weapons fill the ears. It’s not too difficult to imagine a nervous, pre-World War 2 audience of 1938 tuning in a bit late, and not realizing it wasn’t an actual news broadcast…
Even 80 years later, the play is a masterpiece of radio drama. It also brings home the fact that 1938 America was a far less cynical place than the America of 2018. Today, the internet engages in hoaxes and disinformation on a daily basis, with false reports of dead celebrities and such. Even utterly nonsensical conspiracy theories such as 2016’s “Pizzagate” can gain real-world traction and have unfortunate real-world consequences. Unfortunately, the hoaxes of today are little more than deliberate attempts at political & social manipulation rather than harmless Halloween fun.
The power of radio, which arrived decades before television and the internet, was still relatively new in 1938 and was just beginning to flex its muscle.
Fifteen years later, producer George Pal (who would later adapt Wells’ “The Time Machine”) and director Byron Haskin (“Robinson Crusoe on Mars” “The Outer Limits”) would create a lavish, gloriously technicolor vision of Wells’ story. Once again, WOTW was reformatted to fit the 20th century… in this case, 1953 Cold War America, at the height of the Red Scare, with ‘evil commies’ hiding in every darkened corner of America’s imagination.
The movie opens with the voice of the legendary actor Cedric Hardwicke (1956’s “The Ten Commandments”) narrating over shots of beautiful space artwork from the equally legendary space artist Chesley Bonestell. Hardwicke speaks of the Martian plan to conquer the only planet in the solar system to which they could flee their own cold, dry, dying world…Earth.
This version of the story arguably has the least to do with Wells’ book as it follows scientist Dr. Clayton Forrester (Gene Barry), who is pulled from a relaxing camping trip to observe a fallen meteorite in the hills of southern California (not too far from where I currently live, in fact!). The name ‘Clayton Forrester’ was later given to one of the ‘mad scientists’ in the comedic movie-commentary TV show, “Mystery Science Theatre 3000.”
While there, he meets lovely local librarian Sylvia Van Buren (Ann Robinson) whose beloved uncle is killed by the Martian war machine, which is now a hovering manta-ray shaped craft, hovering on intermittent beams of green energy instead of tripods (all the more to capitalize on the ‘flying saucer’ craze of the time). The spacecraft had a cobra-like weapon (much like a gooseneck lamp) that rested atop the craft and fired bursts of energy that leveled cities around the world much like the German V-2 ‘blockbuster’ rockets that terrorized London, an image still fresh in the popular zeitgeist of 1953.
The Martians themselves are very well realized, and are effective even today. While they don’t match the slithering, gravity-challenged, bear-sized creatures of Wells’ books, they do look truly alien; with a single tri-colored eye embedded in leathery hide, with spindly arms and suction-cup fingertips.
Most memorable is the scene where a Martian ‘sneaks up’ on Sylvia, and places its suction-tipped fingers on her shoulder. We get a quick but memorable look at the creature. It also makes a hideous, loud meowing noise (like a cross between a cat and a peacock) when it is struck with a bludgeon by Forrester.
After devastating the world, and surviving US atomic bomb strikes, the Martians are once again felled by the common cold, and die. Church bells ring in victory.
Many threads of the book are summarily dismissed in the relatively short 85 minute movie, including the Marsaforming red weed, the characters of Ogilvy, the deranged curate, or even the lead character’s family. Forrester is made a bachelor, in order to give him a fresh love interest in Sylvia. Much of the book’s social commentary is replaced with spectacle.
Despite this, WOTW53 is a stunning technical achievement of the time, and is still quite enjoyable if modern viewers can make the appropriate allowances for a 65 year-old film. While current HDTVs can easily see the occasional strings of the Martian war machines, one can easily forgive such slip-ups in favor of such a splashy piece of colorful, popcorn entertainment. Actors Gene Barry and Ann Robinson really sell it, too (especially Robinson, with her fearful reactions).
It’s also amusing to hear the future sounds of “Star Trek”’s photon torpedoes used for the Martian green energy weapons. While WOTW53 lacks the layering and social commentary of Wells’ novel, it very much still works as the “Independence Day” of its time, and as a forerunner to the 1970s ‘disaster movies’ made famous by producer Irwin Allen.
In 2005, my wife and I went with some friends of ours to see the summer event movie-remake of “War of the Worlds”, now being directed by none other than “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” maestro Steven Spielberg and starring Tom Cruise as Ray Ferrier, a blue-collar dockworker living in New Jersey (the site of the 1938 radio play’s ‘invasion’), with a ten-year old Dakota Fanning as his daughter Rachel, and Justin Chatwin as his son Robbie.
The movie opens with a nod to Sir Cedric Hardwicke’s 1953 WOTW narration, using the equally omniscient-sounding voice of Morgan Freeman this time around.
In a major departure from all previous versions, Ferrier isn’t a scientist, and he is a divorced dad. The invasion takes place just as Ferrier is taking his somewhat estranged kids for the weekend from his ex-wife (Miranda Otto).
Not too unlike the original story, the alien war machines rise up from the ground (much like the meteorite pit from previous versions), having been subterraneously ‘planted’ there, during what appeared to be an unusually powerful lightning storm. The aliens aren’t necessarily Martians in this version, either; though their precise origin remains a mystery.
Despite this version’s post-9/11 United States setting (like the 1938 radio play), this version of WOTW was surprisingly faithful to Wells’ original story in some key respects:
The Martian tripod machines of the original Wells story are back, rendered with more fluid computer graphics and making loud, menacing, foghorn-like sounds that are eerily reminiscent of the alien mothership’s tuba-like ‘music’ in Spielberg’s own “Close Encounters…”
The lead character, now named Ray Ferrier, is once again a dad, unlike the bachelor Forrester of the 1953 film. He is divorced, but is left with his two children for the weekend at the beginning of the film. His daughter Rachel is most vulnerable, while his rebellious teenage son Robbie wishes to join the fight against the alien invaders. For awhile, Ray and his son are separated when Robbie impulsively runs off to join a local militia. This is not too unlike the book’s astronomer, who is separated, briefly reunited and then separated again from his own family.
The terraforming (or exo-forming?) ‘red weed’ of the book also returns to the story. We also see its hideous origins, as humans are graphically mined for their blood in order to create the alien flora.
The book’s naval battle with the HMS Thunderchild engaging a Martian tripod is also the inspiration for a scene aboard a refugee-filled ferry fleeing New Jersey. An alien tripod easily treads water and destroys the ship, with many of the refugees drowning aboard. Ferrier and his children barely manage to escape. While not a naval battle per se, the scene is certainly evocative of one.
The cowardly curate from Wells’ book makes a quasi-return in the form of a nervous, paranoid artilleryman Ogilvy (Tim Robbins); a name also borrowed from Wells’ novel. And like the book, Ferrier is eventually forced to kill Ogilvy for his own survival. Ferrier has to kill Ogilvy in front of his daughter, whom he tries to shield from the brutal ugliness as much as possible.
The Martian (alien) ‘periscope’ of the 1953 movie makes a return, but updated to look a lot less clunky; much like the 1953 WOTW, it’s meticulous inspection of the Ferrier family’s basement refuge is very suspenseful.
Also from the book, crows scavenge around the alien war machines, eager to feast on the dying aliens inside. Similar to the 1953 film, a hatch on the bottom of the alien craft opens, and dying, three-legged alien spills out of it. The aliens in the 2005 WOTW look quite a bit like their cousins from 1996’s “Independence Day”, which is fitting since ID4 owes its very existence to the original WOTW story.
In Spielberg’s biggest salute to the 1953 classic film, the Ferrier family is eventually reunited (including wayward Robbie) at the home of Ray’s ex-wife’s parents, played by none other than original stars Gene Barry and Ann Robinson. A lovely tribute.
Despite the somewhat incongruously happy ending of 2005’s WOTW, it’s a powerful and surprisingly faithful version of the Wells’ story. Desaturated cinematography by Spielberg current favorite Janusz Kaminski (1993’s “Schindler’s List”) adds to the newer version’s mood of dread and paranoia, and is a stark contrast to the bright, Technicolor 1953 film.
Lots of post-9/11 nods as well, with the most pointed being a terrified, sobbing Rachel asking her father, “Was it the terrorists?” An all-too valid question one would ask in post-9/11 America (and many other countries around the world today). Dakota Fanning is simply astonishing.
Another scene has a mortified Ferrier returning home to grab his kids after witnessing the beginning of the alien onslaught, realizing he is covered with the ash of those who were vaporized around him. Tom Cruise gives an excellent performance; one of his most underrated, in fact.
Nuances such as these give 2005’s WOTW a much needed gravitas somewhat lacking in other adaptations of the story. It makes a fine addition to the WOTW legacy.
Casualties of War.
Now for the bad news; there was a (mercifully) short-lived, two-season syndicated TV series of “War of the Worlds” that premiered in 1988. And yes, being a WOTW fan, I diligently watched both seasons…hoping that, at some point, it would eventually cohere into something truly worthwhile, much as “Star Trek: The Next Generation” did after its own shaky start. It never did. WOTW the TV series is pretty much a waste of time, both for its viewers and for all involved.
The series, a direct sequel to the 1953 film, proposes that the entire alien invasion and reconstruction afterward was (somehow?) ‘erased’ from the collective memory of humanity. Only a few ‘crazies’ actually remember the invasion (most notably guest star Ann Robinson in one episode), but they are largely ignored thanks to the collective amnesia. How that could ever make any kind of sense is never satisfyingly explained at all. It’d be like humanity collectively forgetting World War 2. It’s simply not possible.
A remarkably bland and uncharismatic cast led by Jared Martin (“Harrison Blackwood”), Lynda Mason-Green (“Suzanne”), Philip Akin (“Norton”) and Richard Chaves (“Colonel Ironhorse”) are part of an X-Files like group that is trying to stop a clandestine group of aliens from reviving their comatose comrades left behind in 1953’s invasion. The actors are utterly passionless, save for Chaves, who tries to add a bit of spark to the dried wood and make fire every now and then. The wheelchair-bound Akin does a wildly inconsistent accent that goes from full-on Jamaican in the pilot to increasingly Canadian throughout the run of the series.
If only that were the series’ greatest sin…
Season Two saw a ground-up revision of the series, which now took place in a post-apocalyptic Earth, following a deadly ‘second wave’ that is inferred but never seen. S2 also saw the elimination of cast members Akin and Chaves (basically the only diversity of the cast; the wheelchair-bound Jamaican and the native American). The two are replaced with future “Highlander” TV series star Adrian Paul, who ups the beefcake quotient, but little else. Mercifully S2 would be the last of this failed experiment.
The aliens of this series (no longer referred to as Martians) are able to assume human form now (a real budget saver), but their bodysnatching causes their host bodies to rot from within, giving them a cheap zombie look that is about as convincing as an over-the-counter Halloween makeup kit for children.
Thirty years later, the series has been virtually forgotten, which ironically makes its illogical premise seem almost sound.
Maybe it really is possible to collectively forget something so horrible, after all…?
There were also a slew of other cheap, made-for-TV & video WOTW adaptations, including a 2005 SyFy Channel version (and a sequel) starring former “E.T” costar C. Thomas Howell. The cheaper knockoff was an attempt to steal some of the Spielberg movie’s thunder, but it wasn’t quite ready for primetime.
The absolute worst WOTW adaptation I have ever had the misfortune of seeing was a version that I bought on DVD (a used copy for $5, which was $5 overpriced). It was also made in 2005 and was directed by Timothy Hines. It was as if Ed Wood himself rose from the grave and decided to take a stab at H.G. Wells’ legacy. While it is accurate to the novel in the most heartbreakingly sincere way, it is utterly undone by truly shabby CGI FX, a nonexistent budget, horrible actors, hideously bad orange-tinted cinematography and just about every other Filmmaking 101 mistake you can possibly imagine. It also clocks in at an insane running time of 2 hours and 59 freaking minutes.
If you ever want to see this version? Don’t. Just don’t.
Consider me your canary in the coal mine on this one. You’re welcome.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Jeff Wayne’s 1978 musical adaptation of “War of the Worlds”, though regrettably, it is one of the few noted versions of the story I’ve not personally experienced. If any readers have and would like to chime in, please do so!
The only thing I do know with any certainty is that 40 years later it still has its fans.
War Is Currently Raging.
Another version of War of the Worlds is on its way as well; this time a high quality Victorian-era period BBC miniseries. It is expected to arrive later this year, though exact airdate information at the time of this writing is not available.
Given the BBC’s penchant for quality science fiction, fantasy and period-piece offerings, such as “Doctor Who” “Ultraviolet” “Sherlock,” and “Jekyll,” I have little doubt that this newest version will wash away some of the stench of the failed 1988 TV series and the 2005 made-for-video versions. The series was adapted by brilliant Doctor Who writer Peter Harness (“The Zygon Invasion” “The Zygon Inversion”). His involvement alone already gets my antennae up, as the recent Zygon two-parter was arguably the best of Peter Capaldi’s era of Doctor Who. Can’t wait to see what he’ll do with WOTW.
The series stars Eleanor Tomlinson, Rafe Spaul, Robert Carlyle (“Trainspotting”) and Rupert Graves (“Sherlock”). I will most certainly be watching!
My Own War Story.
I actually had the pleasure of meeting Ann Robinson in person at WonderCon in Anaheim (home of Disneyland) in 2017. I attended the event in my Fred Flintstone cosplay (a solid celebrity icebreaker at such events). She and I had a nice little conversation about her work in the film, as well as her cameo in the 2005 Steven Spielberg remake. We also talked about her career as a stuntwoman before “War of the Worlds” gave her an acting career, too. She was a cheerful lady, and a bit of an imp. When I asked if I could take a picture with her, her first impulse was to ‘sneak up’ behind me and recreate the famous scene of the ‘Martian shoulder tap.’ She giggled mischievously as she gripped my shoulders. Ann Robinson is a real character, and although our meeting was brief, I adored her. I imagine she played many such pranks on her family.
“War of the Worlds” is the seminal alien invasion story. It paved the way for so many that followed, including “The Day the Earth Stood Still” (1951), “Invaders From Mars” (1953), “Earth vs the Flying Saucers” (1956), “The Blob” (1958), “Independence Day” (1996), “Mars Attacks” (1996) “Signs” (2002) and innumerable others.
It stands as a testament to the power of Wells’ 120-plus year old novel that it can be adapted, homaged and referenced so often many decades later. No doubt it will continue to do so in forms we can only imagine in the decades to come.