It is an Associated Press dispatch, describing a universal nightmare. —The Critic April 23, 1898
June 25, 2012.
After two unsatisfying productions, one produced by George Pal in 1953 and another directed by Steven Spielberg in 2005, it is obvious that Hollywood – from its producers and directors down to its writers and its gaffers – does not understand H. G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds (1898). Both Pal and Spielberg modernize the story and by doing so, doom both films before the end of their opening credits. Like the Martians, who did not survive leaving their native soil, The War of the Worlds does not survive modernization without cheapening it, turning it into yet another clichéd invasion film with its sole distinction being H. G. Wells’ name on its credits.
H. G. Wells’ story of alien invasion is significant and powerful not from being set in a generic place in universal time, but from his setting the story in the waning years of the 19th century.
But we have it on word from the reviewer in The Critic and from other excellent writers like Jorge Luis Borges that The War of the Worlds is universal. Borges even foresaw a day when we forget the name H.G. Wells, but not his stories, because his stories have the power of myth like those of Greek antiquity.
And who am I to argue?
But if Borges is correct, how is it that the efforts of two accomplished filmakers yield movies that while being satisfying in parts are so wholly unsatisfying?
To understand we need to remember how scientists and the public understood Mars during the gestation of The War of the Worlds. We forget that the Mars of our late 19th century was a fascinating place in popular imagination.
Like the Martians, who did not survive leaving their native soil, The War of the Worlds does not survive modernization without cheapening it, turning it into yet another clichéd invasion film with its sole distinction being H. G. Wells’ name on its credits.
Percival Lowell obsessively trained his personal wealth and his telescopes on the red planet and observed features that seemed to confirm his suspicions, suspicions that the transverse stripes of Mars might be canals, signs of water and possibly of intelligent life. Lowell’s magnificent misreading of the data and his books arguing for the existence of life on Mars profoundly influenced popular thinking and science fiction well into the 20th century, crystallizing in a vision of Mars that writers like Edgar Rice Burroughs, Leigh Brackett, and Ray Bradbury all populated with characters. In fact excerpts from Lowell’s books on Mars were even printed in The Atlantic Monthly as early as 1895.
What Lowell argued was that given the nebular hypothesis and mechanism of evolution, Mars was likely an abode of life. By virtue of having less mass than Earth, Mars coalesced and cooled far earlier than its blue neighbor. And if Martian life emerged, it would be far older and perhaps more advanced than life on Earth. But being first has its disadvantages too, since the smaller, older molten core of Mars would have cooled, diminishing the planet’s magnetic field and exposing the Martian atmosphere to erosion by the solar winds. So the Mars of our 19th century was a dying world likely peopled by an advanced and desperate race.
It is this bleak vision of life on Mars that spurs Wells’ Martians to rain down their cylinders and war machines on the cities of Earth. Their motivation for war is deeply rooted in the science of the time, which makes H. G. Wells in some sense, a writer of hard science fiction. And should this statement cause you to raise a skeptical eyebrow, remember that his explanation and his design for the Martian death ray anticipates a workable design for a maser.
What is critical is that Wells’ invasion has what most invasion stories that follow his lacks—a scientifically credible, sound reason for invasion.
If the invaders were not the Martians of our 19th century – if they were a race from deep space with advance space travel – they could colonize any number of planets suitable for life and rich with resources in this most unfashionable backwater of the Milky Way. If the invaders mastered interstellar travel, they do not need Earth, but the Martians of The War of the Worlds have limited space-faring technology and as a result, bring war sunward to our Earth.
But what of Orson Welles and his The Mercury Theatre on the Air’s interpretation of War of the Worlds?
It is this bleak vision of life on Mars that spurs Wells’ Martians to rain down their cylinders and war machines on the cities of Earth. Their motivation for war is deeply rooted in the science of the time, which makes H. G. Wells in some sense, a writer of hard science fiction.
It is often said that Orson Welles’ production of the Martian invasion story is the most successful of many adaptations. I agree and would argue that it succeeds because its Martian cylinders fell on Grover’s Mill, New Jersey on the eve of the Second World War. In October of 1938, the Martian tripod and death ray were far more terrifying than any weapon in the arsenals of Earth. But by the end of World War II, the scientists of Earth peered into the vortices of the atom, split it and unleashed its terrible power. It is regrettable, but the 19th century Martian tripod and its death ray fail to terrify like a terrestrial, 20th-century atom-bomb.
The power of The War of the World relies on this historical context. It is this clash between an arrogant species fancying itself the apex of terrestrial evolution, swinging its crude, industrial weapons against an advance guard of Martians, wielding poison gas and death rays that credibly paints mankind’s desperation in The War of the Worlds. And our despair upon our failure is far more deflating when our balloon is filled with the 19th century’s unbridled confidence in the Industrial Revolution rather than with the 20th century’s anxiety and fear of the atom bomb. Like Antaios, The War of the Worlds has strength only when rooted in its native soil; when modernized into a generic time and place, it is just another invasion story in a long line of uninspired invasion stories.
©2012 Kent Gutschke. All rights reserved.