Discover more from Are You Not Entertained?
Martians Invading Your Inbox
A new project starting next month!
The War of the Worlds is a science fiction classic. Originally serialized in the United States and the United Kingdom between 1895 and 1897, then published as a novel in 1898, it's never been out of print, and has showed remarkable flexibility and adaptability. It's been adapted, extended, and riffed on too many times to count. My work in progress is one of those adaptations.
So in order to prepare for my novel's release, I'm going to serialize The War of the Worlds on Substack, starting on October 18th. I'll create a new section in the next few weeks and post details on how you can follow it (or not.)
I'll publish a new chapter, with audio and commentary from me, once a week until I've published them all. Some of Wells' chapters are rather hefty, so I'm still deciding whether I'll go one-for-one with the book, or slice some of them into smaller sections.
The War of the Worlds and Its Place in History
WOTW is far from the first science fiction novel, (I would award that distinction to Mary Shelley for Frankenstein) but you could make a case for it being the most recognizable, if not influential. As I pointed out above, it's got a separate Wikipedia page for adaptations and works it's influenced. One reason for this is how plastic the story is; it works well as a cautionary tale many things, including war, nuclear proliferation, cultural hegemony, and environmental destruction.
Thanks for reading Are You Not Entertained?! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.
Orson Welles' 1938 Halloween radio show adapted WOTW into a frightening set of news reports that caused at least a minor panic in the New York City area.
The 1953 film adaptation moved the story to California, added a Hollywood romance and an atom bomb, and won an Academy Award for visual effects. It influenced a generation of science fiction monster and invasion movies and, thirty-five years later, a War of the Worlds TV series served as a sequel, with one star reprising their role for the show. In 2011, the Library of Congress added it to the National Film Registry.
And, of course, Steven Spielberg released his version in 2005. His story differs greatly from the original, but still hits most of the important beats.
The War of the Worlds and Its Themes
Wells said that one inspiration for WOTW was how badly Tasmanians natives fared under British colonial rule. Portraying the British Empire as human-eating invading aliens is rather extreme, but not entirely off the mark either. He also includes a priest (called a "curate") who believes the Martians are "God's ministers" on a sinful world and nearly gets the narrator killed, as a demonstration of how he feels religion collapses in the face of science and reason.
This sort of message isn't unexpected or unusual in Wells' writing. He wrote in many genres, including non-fiction and social commentary. He was a passionate advocate of equality and human rights and an opponent of imperialism and very critical of organized religion.
War of the Worlds also plays with evolution and Social Darwinism. The Martians are a "superior" species and clearly feel entitled to occupy our home and eat us. This is closely related to the anti-imperialist message, but worth mentioning because, while Wells was an avid promoter of Darwin's work, he opposed using it to justify class separations.
Orson Welles' radio show (cowritten with Howard Koch) strips out much of H. G. Wells' themes, transforming it into dramatic news coverage of an alien invasion. Based on the Wikipedia article, which assembles a ton of research, the idea for the dramatic news coverage came before they picked a story.
The 1953 film adds an obvious cold war element with an atom bomb that fails to stop the Martians, along with a religious angle that Wells would have objected to. His curate is replaced with a heroic minister, the film's climax includes a prayer session, and the film's protagonist thanks God for his wisdom in placing microbes on the Earth after the invasion ends.
Spielberg's 2005 film adds yet another new element to Wells' story when it depicts the martian's machines as having already been on Earth. How did they get there? When? Why didn't they just take over the planet in the first place? If their primary interest was farming human being, why not just create a farm? The movie never answers this questions, but preserves the 1953 film's closing line about God's wisdom.
I hope you'll stick around here for more science fiction ruminations, and join me for War of the Worlds next month.
If you have any friends that might be interested, please let them know.