The War of the Worlds: The Future is Always Now
The War of the Worlds, originally published in 1897, is a surprisingly easy read for a book written over a century ago. Set in then contemporary England, it may start at a stately pace, but by the time the narrator/protagonist is fleeing before the advancing Martians, the story has become an action thriller. The technology may still be bicycles, dog carts and horse-drawn artillery, but the panic and chaos on the roads feels modern.
The book seems almost to cry out for adaptation especially given its science fiction logic… we (the Earth) are invaded by aliens whose technology is so far advanced that we cannot even begin to understand how it works. Nothing we throw at the Martians does anything to stop them or even slow them down. We see their advanced technology only from the outside, from the point of view of those running in terror from the invaders.
That logic makes the basic story easy to adapt. In 1938, a radio play adapted by Howard Koch and featuring Orson Welles, set the story in New England where the American Army fought with the planes and armament developed during WWI and before WWII. Scientists were more involved than in the book, but basically only to explain to the listening audience where these capsules were coming from and perhaps even Martians’ motivation. Biplanes had replaced dog carts but human beings seemed not to fare any better than they had three decades previously.
The story is set in another venue in the 1953 movie. Now we are in California and now we have many scientists centrally involved. Unlike Independence Day, the fight against aliens is not led by the United States even though they had recently demonstrated their power in the second world war (and in the contemporaneous Korean War.) Unlike the book and the radio play, in this version of the story, there are women actively involved in resisting the Martians and we see some (mostly stereotyped) diversity among the American population.
In 2005, Spielberg moves the story back to roughly the same area focused on in the 1938 radio play… New York and New England. Again, the American military throws their best against the Martians and again, they are seen as part of unified effort on the part of all humanity to best the Martians. The protagonist is made more ‘relatable’ (a divorced father struggling with shared parental custody, a wide gap in wealth between the protagonist and his ex-wives new husband, anxious and recalcitrant children) and perhaps most pointedly, a protagonist who is no longer situated within the wealthy and the highly educated.
What makes the book evergreen in my opinion? Written at a time when England was beginning to grapple with the logic of colonialism and imperialism (and by a man well aware of it), the book’s themes echo down through the years. The tables have turned, we are now the people marveling at the advanced technology of the invaders (note all of these adaptations are placed in first world countries, countries with their own colonial pasts.) None of the versions posit a leader, a saviour, a ‘man on the white horse’… they are all generous to others, accepting that people will panic and do dreadful things under pressure but presenting the bulk of humanity as a ‘good’ thing.
What makes the book/movie/radio play painfully relevant to us today? All these adaptations had something in common—all were set in the NOW of the adaptation. Haskin’s 1953 movie is set in what is recognizably the America of the 1950s. Spielberg’s 2005 film starring Tom Cruise takes place in a recognizably current United States with military and civilian anti-Martian efforts limited to the currently existing technologies. Similarly technologies deployed against the Martian invasion in the 1938 radio play were those which the American public believed to be within the capabilities of the American military at that time.
The original book and the adaptations all present humanity with an existential threat, demonstrate that there is nothing that humanity can do to ward off that threat and then posits a deus ex machina that will save humanity and human civilization. The message is clear… when faced with an overwhelming threat don’t worry, SOMETHING will save us. In every case, original and adaptation, the moral is clear. There is nothing that WE can do to stop the destruction of our world and all our efforts will do us no good.
And this, unfortunately seems to have been a message learned. Today it is not Martians who pose the existential threat… it is climate change. And many of us seem to be waiting for the deus ex machina to arrive, to solve the problem.
At one point in the radio play a radio broadcasts “is there anyone out there” on a loop receiving no answer. I always thought that that is where the play should have ended. The Martians arrived, WE died. The End.
The War of the Worlds is now in the public domain. There many excellent e-editions available from Kobo.com for less than a dollar, while others are more expensive but also have forewords and commentaries that might help the modern day reader. Both Kobo.com and Libro.fm have multiple audiobook versions available (narrated by the cast of Star Trek.) Buying through these links supports Turns and Tales.
1 Wells, H. G. 2002 (1897). The War of the Worlds. New York, NY: Dover Publications.
2 Haskin, Byron. 1953. The War of the Worlds. United States: Paramount Pictures.
Spielberg, Steven. 2005. War of the Worlds. United States: Paramount Pictures.
3 Koch Howard. 1938 The War of the Worlds. New York Mercury Theatre of the Air