Screen gems...with M.V. Moorhead
‘War of the Worlds’
Editor’s note: This is the first in an ongoing series by M.V. Moorhead that compares films with the books on which they were based. In most cases, the books are available at or by special order through Changing Hands Books in Tempe.
For many of us, the word “invaders” conjures up an image not of a foreign horde breaching our borders or shores, but of otherworldly creatures descending upon us from outer space.
This curious modern connotation can be traced through hundreds upon hundreds movies and books and TV shows to a single literary source, just over a century old: War of the Worlds.
With a new film of that title about to make the scene, directed by Steven Spielberg, it’s a good time to remember the influence of that slender volume and its amazing author.
And if you’ve never actually read it—if you know it only from one of its later incarnations—it’s time to do so.
The book is cast in the form of a personal memoir of a man looking back from the near future at the recent past-a time when enormous metal “cylinders” from Mars begin to crash into the English countryside. From these emerge octopus-like aliens, sluggish in the unaccustomed gravity.
The human populace is fascinated, almost amused at first, and caught off guard when the Martians attack them with horrifying, technologically superior weapons like the tripods, giant ambulatory war machines armed with the “Heat-Ray”—possibly the first ray-gun in all of science-fiction—and with poisonous black gas.
We see the narrator’s point of view (and, for occasional variety, his brother’s) as the tripods trudge northward through London and beyond, laying waste of civilization until a providential twist of fate intervenes on humankind’s behalf.
Because this general storyline is about as familiar to us now as “boy meets girl,” it’s hard to grasp how truly imaginative and innovative it was back in 1897, when it was first serialized in Pearson’s Magazine.
People had never read anything like it before. Wells had basically invented one of the standard sci-fi genres with a single book.
And it’s doubtful that it’s ever been done better—that any of his countless imitators have executed an extraterrestrial invasion in such precise and chillingly convincing prose, the horrors always seen against the backdrop of the English countryside’s placid beauty.
Just as American literature has never caught up with Mark Twain, just as American democracy has never caught up with Jefferson, just as Christianity has never caught up with Christ, so science fiction has never really caught up with Wells.
War of the Worlds is readily and inexpensively available in a wide range of editions, but there are two notable ones in bookstores now, no doubt timed to the release of the movie.
A new Penguin Classics version features a fine foreword by Brian Aldiss and excellent, informative footnotes. Then there’s War of the Worlds: Mars’ Invasion of Earth,
Inspiring Terror and Exciting Panic from H.G. Wells to Orson Welles and Beyond, which offers the novel with its original magazine illustrations, along with essays on its impact by various writers, the script
of Howard Koch’s brilliant radio adaptation made notorious by Orson Welles in 1938, and an accompanying CD featuring a recording of the Welles play, among other audio goodies.
As with all the best science fiction, War of the Worlds isn’t really about the future, it’s about the present, and it isn’t really about aliens, it’s about humans.
At the time Wells was writing, European colonists—or invaders, depending on your point of view—had almost completely exterminated the Tasmanian aborigines, and the author decided to turn the tables, to posit a foreign menace against which a smug Western Civ’s mightiest forces would be powerless.
Perspective is one of sci-fi’s great gifts, and Wells always flips to the wide-angle view, as when his narrator discusses the Martian fondness for human blood:
“The bare idea of this is no doubt horribly repulsive to us, but at the same time I think that we should remember how repulsive our carnivorous habits would seem to an intelligent rabbit.”