Wells – War of the Worlds

One of HG Wells’ earliest – and probably most successful – stories, this short novel has captured the imagination since its first publication in 1897 and has been adapted for film and radio broadcast on a number of occasions, most famously by Orson Welles in the mid-1930s. It’s written in a dry, journalistic, non-sensationalist style from the point of view of an unnamed narrator, who finds himself separated from his family and in the path of the invading Martians. It’s a quietly thrilling read, if you can imagine such a thing – it’s really very exciting, but the excitement is tempered by the feeling that the narrator really is putting his life on the line.
Of course, science now tells us that “the chances of anything coming from Mars are a million to one” – or less, although NASA have not yet ruled out the possibility of residual microbial life in the Martian soil. So why is the story still so popular?
Quite aside from being very well written – I can’t pick holes in it like I did with the Conan Doyle recently, and I’ve tried – there are certain themes in the story which still seem to resonate. Firstly, it was long held as a criticism of Britain’s imperialist tendencies, and its treatment of the original inhabitants of new colonies was something held up for particular discussion. Indeed, Wells himself likens it to the fate of the dodo at the end of Chapter 1 – and we all know how that ended up.
Secondly, it is also read as a thinly disguised attack on the arrogance of humanity as a species; the assertion that we are “higher” than the animals because we are made in God’s image is shown to be fallacious, as the Martians – in spite of the obstructions of gravity and lack of an opposable thumb – take no time at all to devastate huge swathes of Surrey and Sussex. Indeed, it is a virus or bacteria to which they have no immunity which takes its toll against the invaders, but by the time they succumb to that, England is ruined. I find this haunting, as it reminds me of the devastating effects of smallpox in the Americas when the Conquistadors brought it over with them from Europe.
For me, the best adaptation of the book will always be Jeff Wayne’s concept album, featuring Richard Burton as the narrator (as well as David Essex as the artilleryman and Phil Lynott as the curate – huge stars at the time it was recorded). In fact, I find it difficult to read the first couple of paragraphs without hearing Burton’s voice and singing the opening chords in my head. It really works – and I’m both surprised and secretly pleased that it was not successfully repeated for any other novels. War of the Worlds gets away with it.

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