Wednesday, April 25, 2012

W is for Wells, Welles and The War of the Worlds

So for today’s “W” post I want to talk about one of the most interesting literature-related stories I’ve ever heard . . .

In 1898, H. G. Wells wrote The War of the Worlds, one of the first novels ever to depict a battle between humans and an alien race – sometimes known as “invasion literature”. He uses the novel as a platform to discuss many of his political opinions on subjects including imperialism, unquestioning faith in military technology, evolutionary theory and the continuation of the human species. Here’s a brief synopsis:
It begins with a series of seemingly mundane reports about odd atmospheric disturbances taking place on Mars to the arrival of Martians just outside of London. At first the Martians seem laughable, hardly able to move in Earth's comparatively heavy gravity even enough to raise themselves out of the pit created when their spaceship landed. But soon the Martians reveal their true nature as death machines 100-feet tall rise up from the pit and begin laying waste to the surrounding land. Wells quickly moves the story from the countryside to the evacuation of London itself and the loss of all hope as England's military suffers defeat after defeat. With horror his narrator describes how the Martians suck the blood from living humans for sustenance, and how it's clear that man is not being conquered so much a corralled.
Needless to say, it’s a fascinating story, and the movie adaptations (particular that of Tom Cruise) didn’t do the book justice. However, one adaptation managed to capture the terror of an alien attack perfectly . . .

On October 30, 1938, actor/director Orson Welles did a radio broadcast for the Mercury Theater on the Air over the Columbia Broadcasting System, featuring Wells’ The War of the Worlds. It was presented to the audience as a news bulletin imitation. And was apparently very realistic.

The series was a “sustaining show”, meaning that there were almost no commercial interruptions during the broadcast. As people tuned in at various points throughout the show, missing the key introduction at the beginning of the program, many were convinced that the faux new reports were actually real, and widespread hysteria quickly ensued. Many fled their homes, terrified that the Martians were on their way. Panicked listeners began calling the studios in terror, and when they were assured that everything was fine, began to outrage at an intended “cover-up”.

CBS came under heavy fire after the incident. Though they argued that there were several announcements informing listeners that it was merely a performance, they still received a good deal of public censure.

Two years later, Orson Welles interviewed H. G. Wells about the event and ensuing panic. Wells admitted that he’d been shocked by the public reaction. But I’m not. I think it demonstrates a genuine fear of alien invasions – perhaps developed in response to our ever expanding technological and scientific progress. Each step bringing us further out into the reaches of space, and conceivably bringing whatever’s out there closer and closer to Earth. 

It just goes to show how fiction – or in this case, science fiction – can shake up our lives and teach us something about ourselves. Never underestimate the power of a good performance.

And when it comes to alien invasions, I always keep in mind the immortal words of Mad-Eye Moody, “Constant vigilance.”
This post is part of the Blogging A through Z Challenge 2012. My theme is (in case you didn’t already guess) science fiction. Stay tuned for the rest of the alphabet, and if you’d like to check in on the rest of the participants, simply click here.


  1. Oh, so true - great fiction, if presented in the right manner, can change lives. Just look at what J. K. Rowling has done not only to the YA genre, but to millions of people around the world. Because of her, most of us dream about casting spells, flying on a broom, and catching the golden snitch. The fact we even know what a golden snitch is, is case-in-point!

    And I agree - I think people are almost hoping for there to be proof of life on other planets. That's why we flock to the theaters whenever a good sci-fi / scary movie has been released (Most recent War of the Worlds, Signs, I Am Number Four, Alien, etc.)...we all love the shock and awe - not to mention, the possibility of the reality.

    Great W topic!

  2. I don't think the same thing would happen today. I reckon we are desensitised to a lot.

  3. From a purely literary point of view, I think it's such a great story that so many people were drawn in!

  4. I am convinced, they walk among us...

  5. I still find this to be one of the most fascinating anecdotes of pop culture history, and would itself make a fascinating story.

  6. I really enjoyed reading War of the Worlds a few years back. And like you said, the movie adaptation didn't come anywhere as close to capturing the novel's sense of doom. What I loved the most was the surprise ending, and the depiction of "dead london."

  7. Love this! The War of the Worlds is seriously one of my hubby's fav books and then of course the movie. I love Jade's comment "they walk among us..." LOL!

  8. I wasn't a fan of the Tom Cruise movie, but I love the book. I liked THE TIME MACHINE more, though.

  9. Love War of the Worlds! It's one of my fav alien related things.

  10. Erin – I sometimes look at sci-fi books and movies as research and preparation for potential alien invasions, apocalypses, the day machines become self-aware, or time travel is invented. I need to be prepared.

    Lynda – That’s very sad, but probably true.

    Annalisa – Agreed! It just goes to show the power of a good story.

    Jade Oak Marsh – Just look at the neighbors if you need proof…

    Tony – Never thought of it before, but you know, someone should make a movie based on these events. THAT would be awesome.

    Michael – I know! Dead London, what an awesome image. Makes me think of dead New York in the I am Legend film.

    Mina – I approve of your husband’s taste!

    Joshua – It’s a tough call. Alien invasion vs. time travel. Two of my FAVORITE subjects.

  11. Nice post! I remember reading that the first time (years and years after it came out), and still really enjoying it.

  12. The radio broadcast was a stroke of genius.

  13. Have you ever heard the broadcast? It really is fantastic. And, having heard it, it really makes me wonder, because it was quite clearly announced at several points that it was a performance. There are commercials for Camel's cigarettes and everything and always a reminder that it was a performance.

    I think the real issue is that people were already afraid. The Germans were invading parts of Europe, and the radio show allowed a release for those fears.

    It's a great story, though. Even more than 100 years later.

  14. The War of the Worlds is an interesting book. Certainly illuminates how people thought of aliens--and Mars--back during that time period.

    The Golden Eagle
    The Eagle's Aerial Perspective

  15. The broadcast is available online, I'd certainly recommend a listen if you haven't heard it. Part of the hysteria that people had was because folks that just tuned in during the show hears the reports of aliens and then started freaking out. On top of that, if I recall correctly, the format was one where the performance was a fake newscast interupting a concert - so again, folks just tuning in and hearin music only to have it interrupted with all the invasion talk just freaked people out. Some people anyway, I think the level of hysteria of the public has been exaggerated a bit over the years.

  16. Among the earliest reads I can remember. I love Mr. Wells. :)

  17. Great choices! I've always thought the story aobut the radio broadcast was hilarious - but I wonder how peole would react now if it was real! :)

  18. I love War of the Worlds. As a child, I listened to recordings of HG Wells performance. Great post!

  19. I have a recording on the War of the Worlds radio show and I used to play it for my students every year. It's a pretty awesome recording.

  20. I think what I like best about this story is that it was sudden: just one day the aliens appeared. It gives me hope that one day they might just appear for real. Hope it won't be as invaders bent on our destruction like in this book of course, but at the rate we're going we have about no chance of being the ones to make contact, we're waiting to be found, I'd like to think that could happen 'any day now'.

  21. I read THE WAR OF THE WORLDS when I was about 9 or 10, and it has always been a favorite. It would be good if someone would do a film adaptation that's actually faithful to the story and time period of the original novel.