Thursday, October 23, 2014

The War of the Worlds: Adapt or Die [Guest Post]

By GW Thomas

HG Wells inspired so many branches of the Science Fiction tree: time travel, human-animal hybrids, invisibility, moon men, giant animals, super intelligent animals, and alien invasions. When I skim through The Great Book of Movie Monsters (1983) by Jan Stacy and Ryder Syvertsen, I can identify that at least one third of the films included have Wellsian roots. HG Wells is surely the single most important writer of SF in Hollywood.

That being said, the adaptations of his works have been confused, cheap or downright stupid. Every giant insect drive-in thriller is his legacy as much as objects on strings, giant killer ants chewing up Joan Collins, or men in rubber suits. Not to mention the entire Irwin Allen disaster movie and Godzilla genres. Wells was a great thinker; a controversial social critic, but his films usually come off as silly screamfests.

To my mind, his masterpiece is The War of the Worlds (1898). Wells imagines an invasion of earth by Martians who come in meteor-like canisters that open and produce killing machines on tripod legs and armed with death rays. The narrator journeys through the London landscape, seeing the devastation until the invaders die from earth bacteria. (This is bad Science but Wells was making a comment on Socialism not bacteriology.) This novel, due to its scope, has had fewer adaptations than most: four, not including Orson Welles' famous radio scarefest of 1938 and other media. (The most popular film product is The Invisible Man with twelve.) Destroying all of London (or is it New Jersey?) is a big enterprise, so the low-budget schlock makers have avoided it for the most part.

The first adaptation in film was the 1953 George Pal classic with its saucer-like machines. Garishly brilliant in color, it plays out Wells' novel in a modern setting and philosophically misses the boat with its churchy ending. (Wells must have spun in his grave faster than the Lord of the Dynamos.) An Oscar for special effects proves it typical SF fare in that the effects take center stage, making Gene Barry and Ann Robinson even more forgettable. To my mind, I missed the tripods but understand that flying saucers were all the rage in the 1950s. Pal would have been crazy to use the great stalking machines.

The 1960s and '70s did not produce a new film version. We had the cool, if superhero-sized comic book Amazing Adventures featuring Killraven created Roy Thomas and Neal Adams. This Marvel comic supposed an earth overrun by the Martians and how they would reshape our planet. Even better was the Jeff Wayne musical starring the voice of Richard Burton as the narrator. Wayne leaves the Victorian setting in place with tripods and all, though he did reshape the story a little to create scenes worthy of emotional duets.

The next adaptation on film was the 1988-90 TV series that was begun in the 1970s by George Pal, but took another 10 years to be realized. The Canadian-filmed show starring Jared Martin and Adrian Paul offered a more modern alien invasion. The Martians from 1953 have been sealed up by "the Government" and hidden from the public. Rather than being dead they are actually in suspended animation. Once released they assume the bodies of the terrorists (I didn't know they could do that!) who have stolen and released them. Their plans to take over the world are back on. The themes of government cover-up, UFOs, toxic waste, and terrorism are the flavor of the show rather than Wells, whom they piggybacked rather unnecessarily. Everyone in the first season dies and is replaced (along with the creative team) for a second season that was no more successful. The show was cancelled after two seasons, pretty much guaranteeing nobody would touch the property in the 1990s.

The next adaptation is one of my favorites, despite being reviled by some. This was M Night Shyamalan's Signs (2002) starring Mel Gibson and Joaquin Phoenix. Shyamalan does something amazing and gets no love for it. First, he does an alien invasion movie without showing a thousand buildings falling down, tripods, or ray guns. Instead, he focuses on one family and how it affects them and only hints at the mayhem and destruction. That alone is amazing. This same technique will be used in Cloverfield (2008) (and receive much more praise).

The second and even better thing he does is to play his own philosophical riff from Wells. One of the strongest themes in the novel is that aliens have come therefore everything we thought was real has changed. How can a world with aliens in it believe in religion? Wells uses the character of the curate to explore these ideas. Shyamalan turns this on its head and actually finds a way to say, yes, religious belief is possible. Though I side with Wells on this personally, I still found Signs a wonderful rebuttal to the curate. I may be the only person on the planet that liked Signs, but as a Wellsian I'd love to see more films like it.

The last adaptation of War of the Worlds was the 2005 Steven Spielberger starring Tom Cruise. Now that it's ten years old I think I can look at it with some perspective. Visually the film is stunning. It also does a good job of being truer to Wells, having the Martians injecting human blood directly into their veins and such details, while at the same time being faithful to the New Jersey version of Welles and Pal. It uses the tripods, which is a big thumbs up from me. There were some justifiable criticisms about Cruise being able to drive from New Jersey to Boston without running into car jams. I could make the same criticism about a lot of recent disaster films too. Tim Robbins is great as a combination of the Artillery man and the curate. Cruise and Miranda Otto are able to bring some romantic energy to the tale, most likely inspired by Jeff Wayne's rock opera. Even Wells was not much for romance in his novel.

This film is likely to be the last for a while since it featured cutting edge special effects that haven't dated much. When CGI advances to the point where it can do something more, then perhaps we will get a new version. My personal hope is that the BBC does an incredibly faithful version as they did with The Day of the Triffids in 1981. I'd love to see the Victorian setting with really good CGI. John Wyndham's pal and fellow Wellsian, John Christopher's Tripods series would also be up for a remake with a good special effects budget. Until then, we'll put up with the schlock. Syfy's Sharknado Meets the Martians, anyone?

GW Thomas has appeared in over 400 different books, magazines and ezines including The Writer, Writer's Digest, Black October Magazine and Contact. His website is He is editor of Dark Worlds magazine.

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