Book Vs. Radio Play Vs. Movie Vs. Comic Vs. Movie: War Of The Worlds

This post has been a long time coming. After reading and not particularly enjoying H.G. Wells’ War Of The Worlds, I decided to go on and listen to the radio play again, watch both the 1953 and 2005 movie versions and read Alan Moore’s interpretation of the adventure using his League of Extraordinary Gentlemen in the second volume of that book. I listened to the play again online, watched the first movie and read the trade within a pretty short amount of time, but then got hung up on watching the latest movie for timing reasons.

To sum up my previous post, I thought WOTW (first published in 1898) was an interesting book that based an alien invasion story around the technology and military practices of the time. Overall, the way the story was told (almost completely in first person recollection–like a journal–with almost no dialog) sapped a lot of the tension right out of the proceedings. Hell, you know he survives because he’s writing the book you’re supposedly reading. The basic idea of the book is that our white collar main character sees something fall from the sky that turns out to be a Martian. These head-like aliens with giant eyes and tentacles shot here in cylinders, built huge tripods, walked around in them destroying things with heat rays and green death fog only to be SPOILER brought down by Earth germs. Without spoiling too much, I enjoyed every other version of this story more than the original text.As I mentioned in the post about the book, I was fascinated by the 1938 radio play version of the story orchestrated by Orson Welles and his Mercury Theater (you can listen to it here if you’re interested). It was done on Halloween that year and–this is the part that blows me away–some people thought it was real! This might seem ridiculous, especially considering the opening, intermission and very end make it very clear you’re listening to fiction, but just imagine how many times you’ve tuned into a TV show a few minutes after the start. The way the story was presented to people back then was basically the same as a mockumentary now. A live concert was interrupted, first by reports of strange streaks in the sky and later by a full-on report from New Jersey where one of the pods landed. There’s even a great moment early on when they interview a guy who was just driving around listening to the radio program that we are listening to. He says he was getting bored and dozing because it was boring!

Even though this thing was done almost 75 years ago, it still felt thrilling and spot on from a news standpoint. Even though I’d heard it before a bunch of times, I was excited to hear what was going on. It’s kind of like watching Jaws or Halloween again. I know what’s happening but I love the ride. I’m also really impressed that it still feels like a modern up-to-the-minute news story. It reminded me of seeing the events of 9/11 unrolling when I was in college. You have no idea what’s going on except for a few things you’re hearing/seeing and you’re trying to put the pieces together. And, man, it just feels hopeless at times. How are these people going to defeat these giant monsters they can’t seem to even touch?

Compared to the book, the radio play is far more exciting. They use the same basic story structure, but the inclusion of New Jersey and New York City as locations and more common language make it easier to follow. By this time, the language of sci-fi was more established, so it’s easier to explain what’s going on. We also see some straight-up sections taken from the book mostly after the intermission with the narrator explaining what’s going on. The character of the infantryman showing up and giving his spiel about sneaking around and building up a resistance to fight the aliens. And, of course, the story ends with our hero realizing the aliens have died from Earth germs. The 1953 version of War Of The Worlds is considered a sci-fi classic. I had no idea, but I can see why after watching the movie. It’s a very 50s flick with nearly everything shot on backlots (I know this might look corny to some people, but I love the look of studio lot movies like Hitchcock’s The Trouble With Harry). This time around, our hero meets up with a girl and winds up getting stuck in a house with her (like the hero in the book was, but he was with an annoying guy). I thought this change in dynamic was interesting and offered some different elements that I enjoyed. There’s also a really intense scene where one of the Martians sticks an eyed tentacle into the house and the couple have to avoid it for fear of being killed.

Another new element that you can see on the above poster is that, instead of riding around in tripods, these aliens use flying ships (which were actually mentioned as potential transport for the Martians in the book). The effects look amazing–especially when you see an actual Martian’s hand–and there’s an excellent behind-the-scenes documentary on the DVD that I got from Netflix that goes through and shows how they did a lot of the practical effects for the movie (fun fact: Ray Harryhausen shot test footage because he wanted to do the movie, but it went to someone else).

Again, compared to the book, this is a much more engaging journey right off the bat. Four minutes in and I was jazzed about the story and wanted to see what was going to happen. One interesting thing is that, in the very beginning, they actually show Mars and then the other planets, explaining why they wouldn’t work for the Martians (which is interesting because at the end of the book, we’re told another planet would work, I think it was Venus, but scientifically speaking that’s nonsense). Anyway, they use more science than Wells had access to, but it’s funny to see a drawing of Earth from space instead of a picture, because, well, we hadn’t been to space yet.

If you’re a sci-fi fan, you should do yourself a favor and rent or just buy this bad boy. The movie is awesome, but it’s also jam packed with extras. You’ve got the FX thing I already mentioned, plus interviews with the surviving cast members, especially the female lead who knew a LOT about what was going on with the making of the film. The most interesting aspect though, was a featurette which compared Wells with the other godfather of sci-fi Jules Verne. Apparently Verne didn’t like Wells because Verne took the time to do the science and Wells just made stuff up that doesn’t make a lot of sense (like the seemingly nonsense Martian biology his narrator describes). Oh, they also have the full radio show on the DVD too, if you don’t want to listen to it on your computer. Aside from the radio play, the second volume of Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen was the other version of War of the Worlds I’d experienced before. There’s a lot more going on in these issues that originally came out between 2002 and 2003 from Wildstorm imprint America’s Best Comics, including a visit to Dr. Moreau (as in The Island Of) and a pair of confrontations between members, one romantical, the other super duper gross and bloody. But, the overall thrust of the story involves Allan Quartermain, Mina Murray, Mr. Hyde, Captain Nemo and the Invisible Man doing what they can to stop the Martian invasion (Moore went with the traditional tripod designs for the Martian walkers as you might expect from the master of detail).

LOEG is not only one of my favorite concepts (Expendables is basically the LOEG of action stars!) but also one of my all-time favorite comics. I even did a big paper comparing the characters in the comic to the characters in the original books back when I was in college, though it was confined to just the first volume because otherwise, I would have gone insane. Anyway, what I like most about Moore’s take on the story is that humanity actually gets to do something more than fumble around until germs kill the Martians. If you haven’t read this trade yet (what are you waiting for?) this is SPOILER territory. Not only does Hyde fight one with his bare hands, but the trip to Moreau is to get a bioweapon mixing anthrax and streptococcus that they fire at the aliens to take them out. YEAH! Humanity FINALLY got to do something instead of knocking a few tripods down with rockets or whatever. The final entry in the post comes down to 2005’s War of the Worlds flick directed by Steven Spielberg and starring Tom Cruise, Dakota Fanning, Tim Robbins and even cameos by Gene Barry and Ann Robinson who were the leads in the 1953 flick! This time around Cruise stars as a divorcee who doesn’t have the best relationship with his son and daughter (Fanning). He’s got them for the weekend when the aliens start their invasion and goes on a tour of the east coast trying to keep them safe. Spielberg incorporates elements from all the previous official renditions mentioned above including paraphrases or direct quotes from the radio play, book and 1953 movie along with a few scenes from the previous movie. This time, instead of arriving in cylinders, the war machines were supposedly buried on Earth years ago (before roads were built) and a lightning bolt somehow brought the aliens down from Mars into the robots while also taking out communications and machines with an electromagnetic pulse. I understand why they changed this: modern humans wouldn’t wait around for an alien to build a craft in a hole. But, it just feels kind of strange and goes back to one of the problems with Wells’ original: some of the science doesn’t make any sense.

Anyway, the aliens once again ride tripods, feed off of humans and destroy lots and lots of things and people with their heat rays. Cruise–the luckiest man in the world as everyone around him gets zapped to death and he almost never gets grabbed by the aliens unless he wants to–gets home, gets his kids and they make a break for it. Once again, even though I knew how the story would end, I was still really drawn into the story thanks to the obstacles Spielberg put between Cruise’s family and safety.

Back when this movie first came out I wasn’t very interested because of Cruise’s real-life craziness, but I actually liked him in the movie, partly because his character is kind of a crazy asshole. It’s like watching Nic Cage’s enjoyable movies like National Treasure instead of the ones where he’s trying to be serious (Bangkok Dangerous SUCKED). I had a lot of fun with the movie, but once again, it ends with people discovering Earth germs kill Martians, though there are a couple scenes where humanity takes a few of them down, which is nice. Again, even knowing the ending, I was just waiting to see how things would end (aside from the germs).

After reading the book I thought “Well, I don’t like this version, but the story has a lot of potential.” Clearly that’s correct, though I’m not sure how much more it might have. Frankly, the fact that humans don’t get to actually do anything, makes for a less-than-stellar story. I know that the meat of the remakes have been about the perseverance of the human spirit in the most daunting and adverse situations, but with the same ending every time (minus LOEG Vol. 2) it gets kind of neutered. In the end, I think I’m all set on War of the Worlds remakes and reinterpretations, unless they can recreate the real life panic started by the radio show. THAT would be interesting.

Ambitious Reading List: War Of The Worlds by H.G. Wells

Well, I finally did it. As the days of summer come waning towards fall, I actually finished the first book in my Summer Reading List that looks to be turning into a 2010 Reading List. And even though my copy of War Of The Worlds clocks in at 172 page, it STILL took me a while to read, mostly because the story is just a recounting of what happened instead of putting the reader in the story more with actual dialog. It’s almost epistolary or like reading a journal entry with almost all telling without showing.

As far as my review goes, I didn’t read any of the supplemental material in the book or anything about Wells or the book’s background. I just jumped in. So, some of my observations and revelations might be really obvious to anyone knowing the history of the era (late 1800s/early 1900s). I took a history class of that time period in college and most of my excellent English professors in college would give us lots of background before diving into a text. I kind of just wanted to leap in feet first and see what I would see. Now that I’m done, I might go back and read the chronology or just move on to the next one.

For anyone who might not be familiar with it, the book follows a philosopher as he survives an invasion by the Martians in 1898 (at least that was the year the book came out, so give or take a few years). The Martians look kind of like Krang from Ninja Turtles and walking around on giant tripods. They’ve got weapons that include heat rays and something akin to mustard gas that kills automatically. We hear about the invasion both from our narrator and from a recounting of the narrator’s brother’s adventures in London (the narrator lives in the country). The narrator’s journey isn’t particularly heroic in any way, he just happens to survive without influencing the battle in any way, which makes for a somewhat boring account of the action. For instance, he spends a week in an abandoned house under which one of the Martians is building his war machines and doesn’t do anything but eat and beat the crap out of his annoying companion at the time. I kept wanting him to grab a knife or something, drop down into the pit and straight-up murder that little ball of slime. But nope. He doesn’t do jack but watch. Overall, it’s kind of disappointing that this is the best way HG Wells could think of to tell a really interesting story.
The epistolary-like presentation of the material really sucks the tension out of things. Obviously, our hero survives all of his trials and tribulations as does his brother who either told him what happened or recounted it to someone else who told the narrator. As if that weren’t bad enough, our narrator hints at and then flat out tells us that the invasion gets pushed back and society gets back to the point where they can publish pamphlets soon enough well before the end of the book.

Really what gets me is the lack of dialogue. The book could have been so much more interesting had we actually read the interactions between the narrator and, say, the curate or the infantryman as opposed to just hearing this guy ramble on and on and on.

There are two aspects of the book that I did find interesting. First off is the complete lack of a basic sci-fi language. It’s kind of funny reading Wells’ narrator try to explain a heat ray, when you’re just like “CALL IT A HEAT RAY!” but obviously science fiction was in its infancy back then, so the terms were all there. Wells deserves a lot of credit, of course, as he was one of THE guys back then for this kind of fiction, but that doesn’t make this story any more fun to read.

The other aspect of the story I thought a lot about was the actual Martian invasion. Unlike alien invasion stories of today, it’s not like there’s a mother ship waiting outside Earth’s orbit, the Martian soldiers are just sent hurtling across space based on whatever intel their overlords could glean from watching Earth from afar. Once the soldiers are there they either succeed or fail and carry on the plan while their people watch back home.

For a while I was thinking this was really interesting and unique, but then I realized that this was basic military tactics for the day. Without mass communications or speedy transport, the terrestrial versions of these battles were pretty similar. Some general somewhere sends a bunch of soldiers off to war in a far off place. Whether they survived or failed would decide the next move. So, while I was thinking this was some kind of crazy, cool aspect of invasion fiction I hadn’t really heard before, it was actually commonplace military practice for the time, which doesn’t make it any less interesting, just makes me think about it differently. All of which makes me think the story while on the surface trying to entertain with an alien invasion story, also was trying to say something about England and other countries’ desire to expand their holdings on other continents. It’s got a “how would you like it if someone bigger with better weapons tried to take what you have?” vibe to it. I wonder how that went over with the people.

I did find myself enjoying the last few chapters of the book, after the narrator finally got out of the house and realized the invasion had stopped because the Martians weren’t used to Earth germs, or more accurately any kind of bacteria. Yes, it’s kind of a flimsy excuse that they had absolutely NO germs, but what are you gonna do? Our “hero” wanders around, meets the infantryman again who’s got big plans for lying low and taking over one of the walkers to blast the Martians (at the time, they don’t know the invasion’s over). Now THAT would have been a fun read! From there we get a recounting of the few days after the events and everyone’s happy to be alive and also freaked out that aliens attacked and the narrator notes that they’ll be keeping an eye on Mars, but also that they saw what looked like Martians being launched at Venus. The humans also studied the Martian technology to figure out flight, though the heat ray seemed to be giving them trouble.

The version of the book I read is the 1993 Everyman edition. I’m not a huge fan because there’s a complete lack of footnotes or notation of any kind explaining what the hell these hundred year old words mean or how far away Woking is from London. It does include a timeline and a chronology of Wells’ life in the beginning as well as a section in the back about Wells and his critics, but what I really needed was a little help in understanding the text more. As it was, I found myself trying to speed read through a fairly boring text.

I bought this version back around ’93 because as I’ve mentioned my dad introduced me to old time radio at a young age and I was fascinated by Orson Welles’ radio play. But, as it’s so dense, I stopped reading pretty quickly. Even so many years later, I feel like I did when I was 10. That book was rough to get through, but at least I can say I read the original and will be able to compare it to the radio play, the Steven Spielberg movie and the second League of Extraordinary Gentlemen trade, all of which I will be absorbing soon and doing my very first Book Vs. Movie Vs. Radio Play Vs. Comic!

Next up on the summer reading list is Ulysses by James Joyce, one monster of a book. I read sections of it in college for a class and think I liked it, but the denseness of it plus the huge length are making me a little nervous. I’ve also been thinking of reading something light and short or maybe a few short stories as something of a palette cleanser, but we’ll see. I’ll keep you posted.