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Issue #124 of Classics Illustrated from 1955 contains an adaptation of H.G. Wells' The War of the Worlds.

The War of the Worlds is a science fiction novel by the British author H.G. Wells. It was originally serialized in Pearson's Magazine in the United Kingdom and Cosmopolitan magazine in the United States in 1897. It was first published in a single volume in 1898. Its plot concerns the invasion and colonization of Earth by aliens from the planet Mars.

The novel has been adapted to other media numerous times, the best known adaptations including a 1953 movie produced by George Pal and a 2005 one directed by Steven Spielberg. The most infamous adaptation remains the American radio version, directed by Orson Welles, which was conceived as a Halloween entertainment and first broadcast on October 30, 1938. The first sixty minutes of the drama take the form of a "live news broadcast". Many listeners who heard the program in October 1938 believed that they were hearing genuine news of an alien invasion and panic ensued.

Plot of the novel

The novel takes place in London and surrounding areas of southern England in the late 19th century. The main character and narrator is an unnamed man who is knowledgeable about science and philosophy. Very little background information is given about the narrator. He has a wife and a brother who are also unnamed, as are most other characters in the novel. The War of the Worlds is divided into two parts; Book One: The Coming of the Martians and Book Two: The Earth under the Martians.

Front cover of a first edition of the novel.

Image from a 1906 French edition of the War of the Worlds.

At the beginning of the novel, explosions are observed on the planet Mars which cause great interest in the scientific community. An object, originally thought to be a meteor, lands in a wooded area near the narrator's home in Woking, Surrey, southwest of London. The narrator notices that it is not a meteor but a synthetic cylinder. The cylinder opens and some Martians emerge. The Martians are roughly the same size as bears, have grayish-brown skin, large dark eyes, V-shaped mouths without lips and many tentacles. They quickly find out that Earth's atmosphere is not suitable for them and go back inside the cylinder. A group of people carrying a white flag of truce approach the craft but the Martians quickly burn them to death with a heat ray.

The narrator makes sure that his wife gets away to safety in the nearby town of Leatherhead. When he returns, he finds that the Martians have assembled tripods, fighting machines equipped with heat rays and a chemical weapon called "black smoke". The tripods completely destroy army units that have gathered near the Martians' landing site and head towards London. The narrator learns from a retreating soldier that another cylinder has landed between Woking and Leatherhead, cutting the narrator off from his wife.

More cylinders land across the south of England and people flee London, including the narrator's brother who manages to escape to safety in continental Europe. All organized resistance to the invasion stops and Martian tripods roam freely across the country. A Martian plant called the "red weed" begins to grow in all areas with sufficient water.

At the beginning of the second part of the novel, the narrator and a clergyman are in hiding inside a ruined house. When another Martian cylinder lands near the house, the two men are forced to stay inside it for two weeks. The clergyman believes that the Martians are bringing about the end of the world as predicted in the Book of Revelations and begins to rant loudly about it. The narrator eventually knocks the clergyman unconscious but not before he has been heard by the Martians. A tentacle drags the clergyman away and the Martians apparently feed on his blood. The narrator manages to escape by hiding in the house's coal cellar.

When the Martians finally leave the area, the narrator heads for the center of London. He meets up again with the soldier whom he encountered earlier. The soldier speaks of his grand plans for rebuilding human civilization underground. The narrator eventually realizes that the soldier is deluded and will never do anything to make his grand schemes reality.

The narrator loses all hope and accepts that he will fall victim to the Martians. He then discovers that all the Martian invaders are dead. There are no bacteria on Mars and the Martians were unaware that they existed on Earth. The Martians all died of diseases for which they had no immunity. The narrator and his wife, who he had given up for dead, are reunited but life does not completely return to normal for him. The experience of the Martian invasion leaves the narrator feeling very troubled and insecure.

1938 radio drama

The Halloween episode of the CBS radio series Mercury Theatre on the Air, broadcast on October 30, 1938, was an adaptation of H. G. Wells' The War of the Worlds. The program was directed by Orson Welles. The script was written by Howard Koch and Anne Froelick with some contributions from Welles and other members of the cast. The action is moved from 19th century England to New Jersey and New York in the year 1939, one year in the future at the time that the program was initially broadcast. The first two thirds of the program are presented in the form of a live news broadcast. Many listeners, who had not heard the announcement at the beginning of the program that it was a fiction, believed that they were hearing genuine news of an alien invasion.


1937 photograph of Orson Welles.

The complete 1938 radio play, now in the public domain.

The program begins with an explanation that what listeners are about to hear is a drama set in the year 1939. There is an introduction, taken from Wells' novel, which describes the Martians observing Earth and planning their invasion.

A weather forecast is followed by a program of dance music from Ramon Raquello and his Orchestra. The program is interrupted by a newsflash about explosions observed on Mars. The astronomer Professor Richard Pierson (played by Orson Welles) is questioned about them. He dismisses the possibility of life on Mars. Interruptions to the program become more frequent. It is reported that a cylindrical meteorite has landed in Grover's Mill, New Jersey. Reporter Carl Phillips describes the scene as the meteorite is revealed to be an alien craft, a tentacled Martian briefly being seen inside it. Phillips' commentary continues as the Martians use a heat ray to burn to death the crowd that has gathered around the craft. He is cut off in mid sentence.

The dance music program is abandoned and news reports become constant. Richard Pierson speculates about the Martians' advanced technology. The New Jersey state militia declare martial law and begin an offensive against the Martians. They are confident that the Martians will not be able to cope with Earth's gravity. A tripod war machine then emerges from the crater that was formed when the craft landed and completely wipes out the militia.

Back at the studio, the radio announcer describes the Martians as an invading army. It is reported that the Martian tripods have destroyed power stations, bridges and railroads and another Martian cylinder has landed. Evacuation instructions are given and the Secretary of the Interior addresses the nation.

Soldiers are interviewed who say that they managed to damage one tripod but "black smoke' emerged from it. The soldiers begin to cough more and more frequently and the interview fades out. A pilot describes his approach to one of the Martian tripods. He continues to talk as his plane is hit by a heat ray and he dives onto the tripod.

From the top of the CBS building in New York City, a reporter describes the scene as five Martian tripods wade across the Hudson River. The reporter says that he can see people jumping into the East River and that the air is thick with "black smoke". The reporter succumbs to the poisonous smoke himself. The voice of a ham radio operator is heard saying, "Isn't there anyone on the air? Isn't there anyone on the air? Isn't there ... anyone?"

After an intermission, during which listeners are reminded once again that the program is a fictional drama, the play resumes in the form of a monologue by Professor Pierson. The professor describes the events following the Martian invasion and how all the Martians eventually died as a result of diseases, having no immunity to Earth's bacteria.

Orson Welles then breaks character and reminds listeners that what they have heard was nothing more than a Halloween entertainment, calling it the radio equivalent of "dressing up in a sheet, jumping out of a bush and saying, 'Boo!'" He goes on to reassure listeners that they have nothing to worry about and suggests that extraterrestrials do not exist by saying, "That grinning, glowing, globular invader of the living room is an inhabitant of the pumpkin patch, and if the doorbell rings and there's nobody there, that was no Martian ... It's Halloween."

Public response and aftermath

Sculpture in Grover's Mill, New Jersey which commemorates the town as the Martians' landing place in Welles' drama.

Editorial cartoon by Lee Callan from The Toronto Star which was reprinted in Radio Digest in February 1939 above the full script of the radio play.

In the month following the broadcast of Orson Welles' The War of the Worlds, there were more than twelve thousand newspaper stories about people who had mistaken the radio drama for news of an alien invasion. Although it is now generally accepted that suspicion of the new medium of radio by the newspaper industry led to exaggerated press reports, the drama caused some genuine panic.

Mercury Theatre on the Air was an unsponsored program which was not required to have commercial breaks at regular intervals, meaning that the "news bulletin" style The War of the Worlds could continue uninterrupted. The only announcements that the program was a fiction came at the start and more than fifty-five minutes into it. A popular variety show was being broadcast on NBC at the same time. The report of the Martian cylinder landing in New Jersey came twelve minutes into NBC's variety show, a point at which the show switched from comedy to music and when many listeners would be searching for something else to listen to on their radios. Consequently, many listeners began hearing Welles' drama from that point.

By coincidence, the town of Concrete, Washington experienced a power cut at the time that the program was being broadcast, meaning that the panic of the town's residents was added to because they could not telephone their family and friends.

It is known that many people telephoned their local CBS radio station, the newspapers and the police while the program was being transmitted but there are few reliable reports about people taking other actions in the face of a Martian invasion. It is likely that some newspaper accounts were deliberately exaggerated, newspapers at the time considering the new medium of radio to be a threat to them, in order to get across to readers how dangerous radio could be.

Many people tried to sue CBS for stress and personal injury that they suffered as a result of the program. All the suits were dismissed. A Massachusetts man asked CBS to reimburse the money that he had intended to spend on shoes but spent instead on trying to escape from the Martians. Orson Welles himself insisted that the man be paid.

As a result of the controversy caused by the program, CBS decided not to use the phrase, "We interrupt this program ... " for dramatic effect again. Commercial breaks and sponsorship were introduced to Mercury Theatre on the Air. The series name was changed to Campbell Playhouse when the Campbell Soup Company became its sponsor.

1953 movie

Poster for the 1953 movie.

A movie adaptation of The War of the Worlds, produced by George Pal and directed by Byron Haskin, was released in 1953. It stars Gene Barry as Dr. Clayton Forrester, Ann Robinson as Sylvia van Buren, and Lewis Martin as Pastor Matthew Collins. The action is moved from 19th century England to 1950s California. The movie begins in black and white and changes to color during the opening title sequence. George Pal had originally intended the final third of the movie to be filmed in 3-D but that plan was abandoned. Stock footage filmed during World War II is used in the movie to show destruction caused by the Martians and the armies of the world coming together in an attempt to defeat them. The movie won an Academy Award for its special effects. The film was rated "Approved" by the Motion Picture Association of America when it was first released. It was given a G rating in 1977.

The movie begins with illustrations showing the different planets of the Solar System. A narrator explains that the Martians decided that Earth was the only planet suitable for colonization.

Nuclear scientist Dr. Clayton Forrester is fishing near the town of Linda Rosa, California. When a meteorite crashes in the town, Forrester goes to investigate. At the crash site he meets Sylvia van Buren and her uncle Pastor Matthew Collins. The meteorite seems unusual. It is also slightly radioactive and too hot to touch. Dr. Forrester decides to stay in Linda Rosa overnight while the meteorite cools.

That night, a hatch opens in the meteorite and the snake-like mechanical head of a Martian war machine emerges. Three men who had been guarding the crash site wave a white flag but are immediately vaporized by a heat ray. A nearby electrical tower is destroyed, cutting the power in Linda Rosa. When the power goes out, Dr. Forrester notices that the watches of all the people around him have also stopped at the same time and that a compass which he examines points to the meteor instead of magnetic north. Forrester and the sheriff go to investigate. They are attacked by a heat ray but survive.

There are reports that other Martian craft have landed around the world. Marines are sent to surround the Martians' original landing site. Pastor Matthew Collins approaches the Martian craft, reciting a Psalm and holding up a Bible. He is fired on by the Martians and completely obliterated. The Marines open fire on the Martians but their machines are undamaged because they are protected by a force field. The Martians fire back and the Marines retreat.

Clayton Forrester and Sylvia van Buren escape in a military spotter plane. They hide in an abandoned farmhouse. They are trapped inside the house when another Martian craft lands nearby. An electronic eye on a long mechanical arm inspects the house but does not detect the two people inside it. When a loan Martian enters the house, Forrester attacks it with an ax, which he also uses to sever the electronic eye from its arm. Clayton Forrester and Sylvia van Buren escape and make it back to Pacific Tech, the institute of technology in Los Angeles where Forrester works. Scientists at Pacific Tech examine the electronic eye and the sample of Martian blood which Forrester took. They determine that the Martians are physically weak and anemic.

A nuclear bomb is dropped on some of the Martian war machines but it does nothing to them because of the force field which protects them. Evacuation is ordered. The scientists at Pacific Tech determine that the Martians could conquer the world in only six days and try to come up with a plan to defeat them. As the scientists evacuate, a mob steals their trucks and equipment and Clayton Forrester is separated from Sylvia van Buren.

While Los Angeles is being attacked, Clayton Forrester searches for Sylvia van Buren. He finds her in a church, where she and other people are waiting for the inevitable end. When all seems lost, Martian war machines begin to collapse. The Martians inside them are dying because they have no immunity to Earth's bacteria and viruses.

A significant difference between the movie and Wells' novel is the attitude taken towards religion. An unsympathetic character in the novel is a clergyman who the narrator hates. The movie features a pastor who goes heroically to his death. The movie concludes by stating that God placed microscopic organisms on Earth in order to protect its people from the Martians, a sentiment which is absent from the novel.

2005 movie

Poster for the 2005 movie.

A movie adaptation of The War of the Worlds, directed by Steven Spielberg, was released in 2005. It stars Tom Cruise as Ray Ferrier, Dakota Fanning and Justin Chatwin as his children Rachel and Robbie and Tim Robbins as Harlan Ogilvy. Ray Ferrier's estranged wife Mary Ann is played by Miranda Otto and her parents are played by Gene Barry and Ann Robinson, the stars of the 1953 version of The War of the Worlds. In common with the 1938 radio drama and the 1953 movie, the action is moved from 19th century England to contemporary America. The screenplay by Josh Friedman and David Koepp includes elements taken from the 1953 movie version as well as H.G. Wells' novel. The aliens are not identified as Martians in the 2005 movie. Steven Spielberg himself insisted that the aliens not arrive in spacecraft in the movie, in order to make it different from all previous films about alien invasion. The film was rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association of America for violent and frightening sequences and disturbing images.

Ray Ferrier is a crane operator at a New Jersey port. His estranged wife Mary Ann leaves their children Robbie and Rachel with Ray for the weekend while she goes to stay with her parents in Boston. Robbie takes his father's car without permission and Ray goes looking for him. An unusual cloud appears. A powerful lightning strike makes all electronic devices, including cars, stop working, forcing Robbie to start going back to his father's house on foot. Ray takes the car to the local mechanic to be repaired.

Ray and his children arrive at the place where the lightning struck. The ground begins to heave and crack and an alien tripod emerges. The tripod blares a loud noise and opens fire on the crowd with a heat ray, vaporizing several people. Ray gathers up his children and manages to escape in the recently repaired car. Ray and his children spend the night at Mary Ann's empty house, loud noises being heard all night.

In the morning, Ray sees a crashed passenger airplane in the street. A reporter shows him footage of tripods emerging from the ground all over the world. One piece of film seems to show an alien entering a tripod during a lightning strike. The reporter says that the invasion must have been planned for a long time, speculating that the tripods had been buried in the ground for thousands of years.

Robbie wants to join in the fight against the alien invaders but Ray insists that they all go to Boston. Their car is surrounded by an angry mob who eventually force them out of it. After surviving more tripod attacks, Ray agrees to allow Robbie to join a group of soldiers fighting against the aliens. The tripods are seen to be invulnerable because they are protected by a force field and all soldiers seem to be wiped out.

A man named Harlan Ogilvy, who wants to take revenge on the aliens who killed his entire family, offers Ray and Rachel shelter in his basement. While they are hiding in Ogilvy's basement, they see the tripods spread a "red weed", in an attempt to make Earth's environment more like that of their own planet. A snake-like mechanical probe and four aliens survey the basement but do not find the three people in it.

Ogilvy suffers a mental breakdown after he sees the aliens harvest a man by taking his blood and tissue. He begins to rant and rave and Ray is reluctantly forced to kill him so that he will not give their position away. Another probe discovers Ray and Rachel while they are sleeping. Ray destroys it with an ax but Rachel is captured when she runs outside. Ray finds an abandoned grenade bandoleer and uses some grenades to attract the aliens attention. As he intended, he is captured too and placed with Rachel and other prisoners in a basement. Ray is selected to be harvested but other prisoners prevent him from being pulled into a tripod. The grenade bandoleer goes inside the tripod, Ray having removed all the pins form the grenades, the tripod explodes and the prisoners escape.

Ray and Rachel arrive in Boston. They see that the "red weed" is dying and that the tripods seem to be acting strangely. Ray notices birds on one tripod, meaning that its force field is no longer working. He tells some soldiers that they can attack it. A dying alien is seen as a hatch on the tripod opens. Ray and Rachel arrive at Mary Ann's parents' house and discover that Robbie is already there. A voice-over informs the audience that, as in all previous versions of The War of the Worlds, the aliens died because of the smallest creatures on the planet, Earth's bacteria and viruses for which they had no immunity.

Other adaptations

A Polish movie called The War of the Worlds: Next Century was released in 1981. As well as Spielberg's version, two independent American movies based on The War of the Worlds were also released in 2005, one set in contemporary America and the other set in Victorian England. Both versions were released direct to DVD.

A syndicated TV series called The War of the Worlds ran in North America between 1988 and 1990. The series uses some elements from Wells' novel but is primarily a sequel to the 1953 movie.

Issues #18 to #39 of Marvel Comics' Amazing Stories, published between 1973 and 1976, continue the story of H.G. Wells' The War of the Worlds. As a result of their failed invasion attempt in the 19th century, the Martians learn about Earth's bacteria and viruses. Armed with their new knowledge, the Martians return in the 21st century and successfully conquer the world. Inevitably, humans rise up in resistance against them.

Jeff Wayne's Musical Version of The War of the Worlds is a prog rock concept album by American-born musician Jeff Wayne. It was originally released as a set of two LPs in June 1978. The tracks include both songs and instrumentals with some spoken word narration to move the story along. The voice of the narrator was provided by British actor Richard Burton. The influence of classical music on the album is evident, a string quartet features prominently in the opening track. The album was a commercial success on its initial release, reaching number 5 in the album charts in Britain and number 1 in Australia, and continues to sell steadily today. A remixed version of "The Eve of the War", the album's opening track, reached number 3 in the British singles chart in 1989. Live stage shows based on the album toured the UK and Ireland in 2006, Australia and New Zealand in 2007 and several European countries in 2008.

See also

  • The Invisible Man — another creation of H.G. Wells
  • Ghostwatch a 1992 BBC TV drama which was mistaken for a live broadcast by many viewers
  • Without Warning a 1994 CBS TV drama about an alien attack on Earth, presented in the form of a live breaking news broadcast
  • The Simpsons: Treehouse of Horror XVII which spoofs the panic caused by Orson Welles' 1938 The War of the Worlds in the segment "The Day the Earth Looked Stupid"
  • Invaders from Mars - a Doctor Who audio adventure which centers on the events of Orson Welles' 1933 radio adaptation of The War of the Worlds

External links

See the article on The War of the Worlds on Fandom's Literature wiki.