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Review of The War of the Worlds

The War of the Worlds, H. G. Wells, Heineman, 1967, omnibus edition with The Time Machine and The Island of Doctor Moreau, pp. 75 - 215 (originally published in 1898)

H. G. Wells was hardly ever subtle, and hardly ever less than arrogant. The man was also a genius, and science fiction owes an immense debt to his output in the year 1898, in which he published both The Time Machine and The War of the Worlds -- time travel and alien invasion, and both books have held up extremely well. The War of the Worlds takes us to the bottom of the colonial/imperial heap and says: here's what it feels like, you bastards! The message could hardly have been more obvious, but what good did it do? For all of his arrogance, Wells also suffered the agonies of Cassandra (see his 1941 introduction to The War in the Air for example). But The War of the Worlds also resists such easy analysis and part of the beauty of this book is its simple attention to detail and the way it evokes the British countryside and city under attack. Since 1898, we've been inundated with stories that lift Wells' style but use it to no particular reason. Wells is entertaining in the way that a melodramatic disaster movie is fun, but he also leaves you with things to think about.

The plot of The War of the Worlds is lean and mean (it clocks in at under 140 pages in this edition) on the whole, although this sometimes resolves into ramshackleness on a finer scale. The narrator has an interesting tale of his own, but he also supplies a good deal of information that he learned later, especially the whereabouts and actions of his brother. The book begins with the narrator ruminating about the meaning of the invasion, a section of lovely writing used to good effect in both the radio drama and the musical. A cylinder from Mars lands on Horsell Common, some well-meaning folks with a white flag are vaporized with a heat-ray, and the artillery is called in to deal with the matter. Too bad that arrogance alone is no match for the Martians, who have the aforementioned heat-ray as well as canisters of poisonous black gas. More Martian cylinders land, more havoc is caused. The narrator tells about what happens to his brother, a resident of London. The narrator's brother gets lots of dramatic moments: fleeing the city, saving two women, and an entire sequence where a British ship called the Thunder Child protects boats of refugees on their way to France. Meanwhile, the narrator has met up with an irritating curate and they get trapped beneath a house that was flattened by the landing of yet another Martian cylinder. The curate goes mad and is devoured by the Martians. The narrator escapes and meets up with an artilleryman who has also gone mad. The narrator himself loses most of his sanity as he wanders dead London, and approaches a Martian fighting machine in a moment of suicidal frenzy. However, in one of the most famous endings in science fiction, the Martians have all died of exposure to common terrestrial bacteria. Later adaptations, like the radio play and the movie, jettison all of the particulars of Wells' plot business, and substitute different locations with attempts at the same feel (which succeeded in the case of the radio drama). Other adaptations, like the musical, streamline the plot and keep the location.

The characters of The War of the Worlds are mostly interesting. The narrator is the typical kind of erudite British competent man, straight out of Kipling, except that the narrator here is uttering Victorian heresy. Were the Martians superior, God help us, to Britishers? What is the nature of power and do we ourselves abuse it? He's not afraid to ponder these matters and he has a fabulously well-told tale to keep us on the edge of our seats in the meantime. The narrator's brother is a bit of a cipher, although we can find out a few things about him from his actions (much the same as the women that the brother meets). Wells shuffles the lesser characters on and off stage with ease, and this puts us right into the chaos of the situation. The narrator meets an artilleryman near the beginning of the book, and they chat briefly. The narrator then endures much hardship trying to find one particular person, his wife, only to run into the same artilleryman later on. The irritating curate (who gets a greatly expanded role in the musical) is the opposite number in a psychological pas de deux with the narrator, as close quarters and diminishing food destroy the social veneer of civility.

The War of the Worlds shows several signs of its times, despite how well it has aged. The two women keep their cool, but the narration often gives insight into how women were viewed at the time. For example, this is how the curate's reaction to being stuck near to the new Martian pit is described: "He was as lacking in restraint as a silly woman" (176). The only thing we know about the narrator's wife is her fears and how she is trying to restrain him from doing what he wants. In addition, as much as the book turns the British Empire on its head, Wells still uses the same lingo, which is problematic to say the least. In the first chapter of the novel, we find this famous paragraph, as the narrator reflects on the nature of the Martians:

And before we judge them too harshly, we must remember what ruthless and utter destruction our own species has wrought, not only upon animals, such as the vanished bison and dodo, but upon its own inferior races. The Tasmanians, in spite of their human likeness, were entirely swept out of existence in a war of extermination waged by European immigrants in the space of fifty years. Are we such apostles of mercy as to complain if the Martians warred in the same spirit. (78).
There are several troublesome things here. "Human likeness"? Also for people who still believed in human superiority (and European superiority), the irony of "apostles of mercy" might be completely lost. Of course, as the book progresses past this early passage Wells destroys every human hope, and even the Thunder Child sinks, despite its heroic dying efforts. The human race still survives, but only because the Martians overlook one of the most basic precautions for visiting a different planet. There's also the troubling link between the role of disease in colonialism (smallpox blankets for example) and its role here. Is Wells reworking the idea or unaware of it? Despite how "obvious" the message is, the argument for Wells as anti-colonialist can never be completely closed.

The War of the Worlds is now more than a hundred years old. The theme of alien invasion has been reworked, contradicted, impugned, revamped, and taken to the movies innumerable times. Some writers have taken Wells' story to its extreme logical conclusion: in the face of alien invasion, humans have no chance, and neither do terrestrial bacteria (Disch's The Genocides for example). Some writers still have humans rampaging through a dark continent (i.e., the rest of the galaxy), and sometimes there's only us, alone with our angst and our puny ambitions. However, we all owe a debt to Wells and it might take a few more centuries to pay that back.


The War of the Worlds, radio broadcast written by Howard Koch from the novel by H. G. Wells, performed by Mercury Theatre On the Air, directed by Orson Welles, Sunday, October 30, 1938, 8 p.m. to 9 p.m.

Few events in the history of science fiction can compare to the broadcast version of The War of the Worlds. A simple radio broadcast caused nation-wide panic, havoc, and confusion. Aliens invade! Why did all those people panic... because they believed in aliens? Xenophobia, or something more profound? These are difficult questions, and I'll talk about them more in my review of Koch's The Panic Broadcast (see my review following). Koch does not provide a particularly helpful or nuanced examination, but in fact it might be impossible to understand what really happened and why.

One element is clear: the broadcast was devilishly well written and performed. When I listened to the broadcast for the first time a year ago, I was impressed by the repertory of tricks and illusions that Welles puts to good use. We've been stealing from him for a long time, and maybe we've become somewhat more media literate because of that. Good thing! And despite the cynicism currently in vogue, the fact remains that this is one scary and effective bit of storytelling.

What's more, this is an excellent adaptation of the novel by Wells. Koch jettisons the British setting, and with it, some of the original criticism of the Empire and colonialism. But the essential feeling remains the same, as all of the arrogance of American might and glory gets overturned. The broadcast begins with an announcement that this is Orson Welles' Mercury Theatre, and once that is out of way, the mayhem starts in earnest. And I say mayhem deliberately despite the fact that music plays and we hear the weather. Why? Because the bulletins start coming in, we even hear a few more snatches of music, and the deception is on its way. Spurts of gas are observed on Mars, and a few minutes later (the first clue!), Martians land in Grovers Mill, New Jersey. Grovers Mill is near Princeton, where Professor Pierson, one of the main characters of the drama, becomes involved. The area gets cordoned off after the first appearance of the heat ray -- which we heard in the form of abruptly terminated human screaming. Carl Phillips, the announcer for the first few news bulletins, is found dead, his body identified for us. The Martians expand their territory and cause further destruction. Bombers are sent out on a mission to destroy the Martians, but the human machines all crash. The Martian fighting machines advance on New York, and destroy the Columbia Broadcasting System building (perhaps the most obvious clue that this was a piece of fiction, as the broadcast continued after that point... although most of the hysteria-stricken people were not listening). The first half of the broadcast ends with a lonely voice, "2X2L, calling CQ." This voice too goes silent.

What a beautiful moment! It is followed by the first commercial break. People didn't put this together or they weren't listening. Furthermore, when we get back from commercial break, Pierson is talking about events that happen to him later (and looking back from a perspective of the following April). He meets the mad artilleryman, who rants and raves much the same as in Wells' novel (and in the Wayne musical). Subsequently, he walks to downtown New York. And much the same as the book, the main narrator approaches the fighting machines to find that the Martians have died. These parts are not of interest in relation to the panic, but they are effective in the smaller context of a radio drama. First-rate writing from beginning to end.

And as I mention in my review of Koch's book, the voice acting here is really quite impressive. Memorable, and striking.

I love Welles' epilogue, where he calls the broadcast nothing more than "the Mercury Theatre's own radio version of dressing up in a sheet and jumping out of a bush and saying boo!" He was mobbed by reporters immediately after the broadcast (a press conference which can be seen in the early sections of the documentary The Battle For Citizen Kane). He struggled hard to keep the glee off his face, but instant fame has a way of going to your head. No one was killed in the panic, and it might have gone differently if that had happened. As it was, Welles would go on to fame in the movies. And as much as later cinematic works would bring him fortune or misfortune, he had already created a moment for all of the history books.


The Panic Broadcast, Howard Koch, Avon, 1970, 163 pp.

Howard Koch wrote the radio play for the famous radio broadcast. That was in 1938, and 32 years later he published this book, a retrospective look at the events surrounding the broadcast. The Panic Broadcast includes an introductory interview with Arthur C. Clarke, which is very short and of little substance. Following this is Part I, "The Night the World Came to An End -- Almost." This features Koch's story of the week in which he wrote the radio play, and some excerpts from newspapers regarding the aftermath (more of which are given in Part III).

Part II gives us the complete text of the radio play. Reading it is fascinating, especially since the words themselves are somewhat flat and uncaptivating. However, they do not stay as mere words, and the voices of the radio broadcast itself come easily to mind, especially Welles' voice as the much-wearied Pierson in the second half of the broadcast (when no one was listening anymore!).

Part III is entitled "The Aftermath," and here Koch excerpts many newspaper articles and cartoons of the time. This is the best place to get accounts of the panic, and first hand stories of what happened and why. However, Koch doesn't explore the panic in any profound manner; this is a surface examination of the matter. He mentions a book called Invasion From Mars, by a Princeton professor by the name of Cantril, which studied the panic. This book estimated that "approximately 6,000,000 listened to the program and, of that number, at least 1,200,000 took the broadcast literally and reacted according to their natures and circumstances. In addition an unknown number who were not tuned in to the broadcast were caught up in the mass hysteria" (96-97). Koch takes a few stabs at understanding, giving such familiar refrains as war and economic insecurity, but there's no stunning insight.

In Part IV, "A Martian Revisits the Scene of His Crime," Koch returns to Grovers Mill on the 31st anniversary of the broadcast to find out how the broadcast affected the town and its people. This section is mostly fluff.

Part V is a bizarre section entitled "Mars: Fact and Legend." This proves that Koch should not try his hand at science writing, and that he is quite capable of banal assertions about human nature based on the Woodstock music festival. Very puzzling.

The Panic Broadcast concludes with "The Privileged Voice." Here Koch ruminates on radio and the nature of credulity. He also thinks that the people who run democracies need training in the art of governing and he ends the book by saying: "If the nonexistent Martians in the broadcast had anything important to teach us, I believe it is the virtue of doubting and testing everything that comes to us over the airwaves and on the printed page -- including those written by the author of this book" (162).

A strange little book, with moments of interest, though widely scattered.


The War of the Worlds, written by Barre Lyndon from the book by H. G. Wells, directed by Byron Haskin, 1953, 90 min.

The War of the Worlds in its movie version is the beginning of the end for quality in adaptations of Wells' book. There's not much to say here that hasn't already been said about B-movies from the 50s. Absence of acting, macho scientist, screaming bimbo, cheap effects, poorly-written script. Some limitations, such as a low budget, can be overcome by sharp writing, as has been proven over the years by movies as diverse as Dark Star and The Brother from Another Planet. But Wells' famous story is squandered here, and it's replaced by slack plotting and offensive dialogue. The ending is retained, which is a relief in comparison to some of the other adaptations in the 1950s (for example, what's the point of filming 1984 with a happy ending?), but that's slight reward for the abuse that precedes it.

In direct contrast to the radio adaptation, this is an example of how not to rework a novel for a different medium. First of all, the movie moves the setting to California, which is a bad choice; as the narrator of Don DeLillo's White Noise points out, everyone else thinks that Californians get what they deserve. Secondly, the movie adds a screaming bimbo who is treated offensively even before the Martians start rampaging. Wells may not have provided equal opportunity roles for women and men, but neither was he this obnoxiously misogynist. Thirdly, any moments of drama from the book that survive into the movie are rendered ineffective by the dialogue and characterization. When the first group of humans who approach the Martian cylinder with a white flag are fried, you are not supposed to be cheering their demise.

However, I do appreciate how all of the might of the American army doesn't dent the Martians' advance. Some of the scenes in the ruined city are disturbing, in the same way that the urban scenes in The Quiet Earth get under your skin. However, the power of the ending of The War of the Worlds is ruined by the presence of Dr. Forrester (who became a MST3K icon for good reason), who is running around helpless and lost, looking for the bimbo. War of the Worlds has one or two moments of interest, but hardly enough other worthwhile features to fill the intervening screen time.


Jeff Wayne's War of the Worlds, Jeff Wayne, 1978, 2 CDs, 45:11 and 49:51.

Note: Also credited are Doreen Wayne for the adaptation of the Wells' novel and Garry Osborne for most of the song lyrics.

Jeff Wayne's War of the Worlds is a trash masterpiece. Although I would recommend this musical only to the most foolhardy fans of the story, I must also say that, in some strange way, Wayne creates an addictive piece of art. I'm frightened by the fact that this musical has grown on me. I still fall on the floor laughing at how seriously Wayne takes himself, but I can't stop listening to his music. Help!

This musical, surprisingly enough, provides a decent version of the story; not in the same league as the radio broadcast, but neither is it in the bargain basement with the movie. The time period and location survive intact from the novel, which is a nice touch and put to good use. Disc One is entitled "The Coming of the Martians." It's "the last years of the nineteenth century," and the narrator lives close to Horsell Common, where the first Martian cylinder lands. The Martian heat-ray annihilates a number of civilians, then all of the artillery that the puny humans think to kill the Martians with. The narrator leaves for London, where his wife Carrie lives, and gets caught in the chaos of six million refugees. He finds his wife, but she has gotten onboard a steamer bound for France, and he is left on the shoreline to watch the epic battle of the fighting machines and the ironclad Thunder Child. This is a clever bit of streamlining, as the narrator and his brother from the novel become one person here.

Disc Two is called "The Earth Under the Martians," and begins with a long sequence as the narrator encounters the crazy parson (the curate of the book). The Parson goes on a long rant about the Martians being devils, in a duet with his wife who is the voice of reason: "There must be something worth living for." Then his wife dies and he gets eaten by the Martians. The narrator escapes and meets up with the crazy artilleryman, who has a grand plan but is simply cuckoo. "Dead London" is a really beautiful evocation of the final scenes of the novel, where the narrator has given up and approaches the fighting machines. A silly epilogue is tacked on at the end, as NASA sends a spacecraft to Mars, only to lose contact with it in a mysterious manner.

What is Wayne's music like? It's probably best described as bloated 70's progressive rock nonsense. Wayne is operating in several contexts: the whole rock opera idea, first made popular by The Who, and popping up now and then in strange places; the whole concept album idea (differentiated from The Who by thinking about Rush's 2112 for example); and all of the progressive rock that was happening in the 70s. Also, one of the singers is Justin Hayward, of Moody Blues fame, which gives another clue as to the tone of the piece. Sure enough, Hayward gets some of the most syrupy ballads in the whole musical. Fortunately for Wayne, he managed to hire Richard Burton to do the narration (and no, Burton does not try to sing!). The narrator has the largest share of lines in the musical, much of those lines straight from the book, and Burton does a remarkable job of keeping a centre of sanity in the madness around him. Wayne's music is quite painful to the contemporary ear, at least at first. Unlike some bad pop artifacts of recent decades, Wayne's work here actually does have the power to grow on you. So if you do pick up a copy of this musical, watch out! You might find yourself enjoying it, against all better judgment.


James Schellenberg is a resident of Canada. The rest of the world doesn't know much about Canada, which is why our current efforts to fight the Martians have gone unnoticed elsewhere.


Last modified: March 17, 2000

Copyright © 2000 by James Schellenberg (james@jschellenberg.com)


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