It’s 8:00 p.m., the night before Halloween, a Sunday in 1938. Homes are lit with legions of jack-o’-lanterns, flickering with a pale orange glow. Black cauldrons sit bubbling on patios, under tangles of sprawling cobwebs. Dull white skulls peek out from behind gray headstones on lawns.
In that ghoulish atmosphere, listeners have their radios turned on. They’re waiting to hear “Mercury Theatre on the Air,” a CBS series of radio dramas produced and hosted by Orson Welles. The weekly show was a contemporary retelling of classic literary works performed by his theater company. On this particular evening, he was presenting “The War of The Worlds,” a science-fiction by H.G. Wells.
The program began with a summary of the weather, before bringing the groovy beats of a band, playing at a hotel in downtown New York. Abruptly, that was interrupted by a bulletin reporting that a series of odd explosions had been detected on Mars. Later, popular programming was intermittently disrupted with a string of live broadcasts relating ominous events developing on a farm in Grover’s Mill, New Jersey. They announced that the Martians had invaded Earth and had launched a deadly attack all over the country.
That struck terror in the hearts of those tuned in. People had no reason to not believe what they’d heard on the radio, which, after all, was the dominant mass media of its day. Besides, many who joined it in midstream had no way of knowing that this was a mere performance, a play. A mere patchwork of noises and voices had created a reality so solid that panic-stricken civilians piled into their cars and trooped into the highways, desperate to flee the invasion.
Well, it was a clever prank.
Since then, the novel has seen many remakes and reboots, each reflecting the tension and complexities of a contemporary society. “The War of the Worlds,” the movie, released in 1953, takes us to southern California, against the backdrop of the Cold War and the nuclear arms race. In 2005, Steven Spielberg directed a 21st edition of it, in which the epicenter of the Martian invasion is New York.
The settings in both these Hollywood productions are metropolitan regions on either coast of the U.S. If an extraterrestrial civilization were to ever drop by, though, it’s less than likely to pick Midtown Manhattan as the landing strip for its fleet of vessels. Nor is it they likely to play favorites, choosing to make contact with the White House over the Kremlin or decide to deface the Statue of Liberty any more than the Stonehenge.
The book, published in 1898, is strikingly different from the numerous modern popular culture products it has been a wellspring for.
Its omniscient narrator—an English philosopher—is recounting the terrifying developments that took place in the closing years of the 19th century. It begins with the crash of an “ordinary falling star” with a “greenish streak behind it” on Horsell Common, a wooded area close to his home in Woking, a town in Surrey. Observers rush to see what they think is a piece of space rock. It turns out to be a vast metal cylinder containing Martian intruders, who embark on swift conquest of England by a takeover of London.
This is how it begins:
No one would have believed in the last years of the 19th century that this world was being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man’s and yet as mortal as his own. With infinite complacency men went to and fro over this globe about their little affairs, serene in their assurance of their empire over matter. Yet, across the gulf of space, minds that are to our minds as ours are to those of the beasts that perish, intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic, regarded this Earth with envious eyes, and slowly and surely drew their plans against us.
But directors haven’t attempted to locate the story in suburban Victorian England, possibly because they believe that it’d be less salable to the average moviegoer who’s so entertained by science-fiction blockbusters, full of gee-whiz energy that he or she would be inexhaustibly bored by an offering that didn’t have anything in the way of technological eye-candy.
But wait. Placing it in the original setting, in 19th century English countryside and making it in 3D would make it a steampunk motion-picture, which, to fans of the genre will be a huge appeal. The notion of “monstrous tripods, higher than many houses, “ropes of steel,” dangling from them,” striding over the young pine trees” and firing beams of white-hot laser into roads crowded with horse-drawn carriages seem so radically out of place that it’d be wonderful change from the standard fare. Taking the “The War of the Worlds,” back to the past would add a layer of novelty to it.
Picture the Thames as a “red swamp,” choked by scarlet weeds or the streets of Sherlockian London as a “strange and horrible antagonist of vapor” passes through them, carpeting them in a black powder. To my mind, that’s just as eerie and lurid a landscape as a colossal ring hovering over a glittering cityscape. Only, one fills one with a sense of melancholy; the other, awe.
In the end, what the “the greatest power in the world” couldn’t defeat, the humblest of creatures accomplished. The Martians succumbed to the action of the countless pathogens in our ecosystem, some of which we’ve acquired a resistance to. But not without shaking humanity out of a sense of complacency.
We have learned now that we cannot regard this planet as being fenced in and a secure abiding place for man.
The novel is a censure of our own kind. Wells cautions us against judging the Martians too harshly. “We must remember what ruthless and utter destruction” human beings have “wrought, not only upon animals, such as the vanished bison and the dodo, but upon its inferior races. Are we such apostles of mercy as to complain if the Martians warred in the same spirit?”