Film of the Book: The War of the Worlds

Two versions…

Directed by Byron Haskin and starring Gene Barry (1953)
Directed by Steven Spielberg and starring Tom Cruise (2005)

From the book review:

London, at the tail-end of the nineteenth century, is the largest city on Earth, the centre of the world’s greatest empire; indeed, the centre of the world. As its population grows, its tentacles are spreading out to incorporate the various towns and villages around it into suburbs for the middle classes. A vast swarm of humanity, scurrying busily to and fro, like ants around an ant-heap. A tempting eat-all-you-want buffet for hungry aliens…

You can read the full book review by clicking here.


Film of the Book


In my review of the book, I mentioned that, as a story, I might only have rated it as three or four stars on the grounds that it’s full of description rather than action and the ending is somewhat anti-climactic for modern tastes. But it earns its place as a five-star classic because of the light it sheds on aspects of Wells’ society and the British psyche of the time. Specifically, it gives a commentary on Britain’s relationship with its Empire, on the centuries-old fear of invasion, on questions of Darwinism and evolution and on the contemporary discussion of the relatively newly-discovered “canals” on Mars, suggesting advanced life there. All of these would be difficult to reproduce in a film, I felt, especially since both film versions promptly transplanted the story to America and brought it forward in time! But I hoped that maybe the films would have something else to offer…

Gene Barry and Ann Robinson in Haskin’s version

Haskin’s 1953 film is set in southern California and has a scientist, Dr Clayton Forrester (Gene Barry), as hero, and the time is the then present. To give the story the more human touch a film really needs, Forrester is provided with a love interest, Sylvia, played by Ann Robinson. Empire has gone as a theme, to be replaced by contemporary fears relating to the Cold War and the mass destruction of all-out global nuclear war, and this works reasonably well. There are references to the battle between traditional religious and evolutionary theories and the film gets a little lost in deciding whether Martians, being more advanced, are closer to their Maker, or – and it really glosses over this – are enemies of man’s God as much as man. Let’s just say that the film suggests God plays a significant role in their annihilation. I found it a little messy, but probably wouldn’t have noticed it at all if I hadn’t been comparing to the book.

Tom Cruise and Dakota Fanning in Spielberg’s version

Spielberg’s 2005 version is also set in its present and the location is in and around New York and Boston. Tom Cruise plays a crane operator who just happens to get caught up in events. Spielberg’s humanising involves the rather clichéd story of an absent father suddenly thrust into peril with his two children, giving them all a chance to learn to understand and respect each other better. It’s a bit saccharin, but then it is Spielberg. Spielberg’s updating of the Empire aspect is to throw in a couple of fairly blatant references to 9/11 – “Is it terrorists, Dad?”, planes falling from the sky and tall buildings being destroyed. But there’s no feeling of depth to these references and I actually felt they were in rather poor taste, to be honest. If there’s anything in the film about evolution, I missed it.

Haskin’s Martian – honestly it looks scarier in the film…

Haskin’s aliens are from Mars. It surprised me that this would still have been considered a possibility in 1953 but wikipedia tells me people were still discussing the potential existence of Martians as late as the 1960s. Spielberg gets round the problem by never saying where the aliens come from. By 2005, he’d have had no other option obviously, but it does mean all the stuff about the red weed choking the earth loses its resonance a little. (Mind you, Haskin ignores the red weed completely – special effects budget overspent maybe?) Neither alien looks much like the one in the book, but since it’s basically described as a kind of round, brown blob, I can quite see why the directors both went for something a bit more exciting!

Spielberg’s alien…

Which brings me to the one thing the films both have that the book doesn’t – special effects. I started with Haskin’s version and thought that some of the effects seem a little clunky now, but that others are still great. Apparently it won an Oscar for them and I certainly feel it was well deserved. The destruction of Los Angeles is particularly impressive and the heat ray is suitably terrifying even if it looks not unlike a big flame thrower. The war machines aren’t really like the ones in the book but they’re very good nevertheless. I was glad I’d watched it first though, because not surprisingly Spielberg’s effects are vastly superior. The destruction of New York is brilliant, and the alien machines look just as I imagined them from the book. Plus Spielberg covers the landscape with the creeping red weed which adds to the feeling of horror.

Haskin’s war machine

Both Gene Barry and Tom Cruise turn in fine performances – Barry more cerebral as a scientist, and Tom doing his action man thing, which works for me. Women and girls in both versions are there very much to scream and be saved by brawny men, I fear. But if I’m ever attacked by a Martian, frankly I’ll scream as loud as I can and hope that Tom comes running to my aid (or Gene, I suppose, if Tom’s busy – a girl can’t afford to be choosy in an emergency), so I forgive them. Both films stick fairly closely to the book in terms of the ending, which was a relief but also means they end somewhat less dramatically than films of this type usually do.

Spielberg’s war machine

All-in-all, I enjoyed both films very much for different reasons and would be hard put to recommend one over another. Spielberg for the effects (and Tom), but Haskin for greater depth. For entertainment value, both deserve…

★ ★ ★ ★ ★

* * * * * * *

In the end, though, the final decision is easy.
For the ideas, the depth and the commentary on society’s contemporary concerns…

The Winner in the Book v Film Battle is…


Gratuitous and irrelevant Tom pic. Because why not?


45 thoughts on “Film of the Book: The War of the Worlds

    • Thank you! Yes, I know what you mean – I think it’s because the ending is a bit of an anti-climax. It works in the book, but we really expect something more explosive in a film…

  1. Great post! I also saw the two film adaptations. I have to say I like the older version more, even though the later version had great special effects. I was a little disappointed in the Spielberg film.

    • I enjoyed them pretty much equally, though I think the first one was better in terms of how they handled it. But… well… Tom, you know?? I did think the Spielberg could have been a lot better though if they’d given the plot a bit more depth.

  2. I haven’t seen a movie version or read the book but I love the musical soundtrack with Richard Burton, David Essex and several other well known people.

    • Oh yes, me too! In fact, I almost included it in this post, but it was already getting too long and complicated. But I think it’s so well done and I love both the narration and the music… 😀

    • Thank you! I must say I’ve really enjoyed re-reading the book and then watching the films. I’d seen the Tom Cruise one before but not the earlier one. If you get a chance to read/watch, I hope you enjoy them all again!

  3. I can see why you liked the book better, FictionFan. It’s a bit hard to justice to some of the deeper themes in a film. Special effects can be great, I appreciate the skill they take. But I liked the the book better, too.

    Incidentally, I was on a tour of Universal Studios, and we saw one of the sets for the Spielberg film. No Tom Cruise, though…

    • I often wonder why they adapt so many books instead of writing completely original screenplays – sometimes the two mediums don’t seem to work well together. Both the films were good in their own way and entertaining, but they hadn’t even made much attempt to keep the themes of the book.

      Ooh, fun, but what a pity! Although I often think I probably like the idea of Tom more than I would the actuality, if you know what I mean… 😉

  4. I loved the Gene Barry version, largely because I was a big Gene Barry fan (I doubt many of your commentators would say that!), and I thought the Cruse version was OK, but neither was a patch on the book, In my opinion.

    • Haha! I’m ashamed to say I didn’t even really recognise Gene Barry – I think this might be the first time I’ve seen him! Tom’s version was great for the effects but a bit light otherwise. Definitely the book is the winner this time – no contest.

  5. hahah this was great. I found both film versions of the aliens terrifying, personally (just based on the photos you’ve chosen). Now I’ve always been a Tom Cruise fan, but his antics of late have caused me to believe that his fear of aliens isn’t necessarily acting in these movies, he may truly believe that the alien invasion is just around the corner….

    • Haha – the alien in the older version looked good in the film but somehow that photo made me laugh – it looks as if it’s doing a facepalm! Yes, I try to preserve the memory of the delightful young Tom in my mind and ignore that he seems to have become… well, let’s be kind and just call it “weird” in recent years. He’s still a great actor… or maybe I mean he’s still gorgeous. Somehow those two things get muddled up in my mind… 😉

  6. Spielberg’s version came out during America’s obsession with Dakota Fanning. It’s as if they thought no child actress would stand up by comparison. I will note my greater love of Abigail Breslin in M. Night Shyamalan’s 2002’s Signs. I did enjoy the Fanning sisters as voice actors in My Neighbor Totoro, which was dubbed in English in 2005. They work well together because the characters are sisters, too.

    • I must say my memory of the film from when it was in the cinema was that Dakota Fanning spent the whole time screaming and drove me up the wall. But I realised I’d been totally unfair – she did scream a lot at the beginning, but actually I thought she gave a great performance. I haven’t seen Signs – I don’t really watch many movies at all. And I think this is the only film I’ve seen her in – didn’t even know she had a sister! *suddenly wonders why she feels qualified to do film reviews* 😉

    • Me too! In fact, I thought about including it in this post but realised it was already way too long and complicated with the book and two films. I love both the narration and the music… 😀

  7. I don’t think I’ve seen the Tom version, but your review makes me want to! This was a fascinating book, so it’s only right for somebody to make a movie version of it. But so much time has elapsed since Tom’s version, perhaps we need another update?!

    • I think you’d enjoy the Tom version – it’s good entertainment and the effects are still excellent. I’d like to see someone do a version that sticks more to the original – in Victorian London. Somehow the idea of Martian invasion works better in that era…

  8. Well you’ve done us proud FF by detailing both films for us – like you I think I’d scream quite a lot too and as much as I’d prefer Tom to come to my rescue like you I don’t think in times of peril I would care too much! Interesting to see how the films are adapted to cater for the times they were released, especially as there was a fairly big gap between the two. So although I’m unlikely to watch the films or read the book, I could now blag my way through if in the event they come up in conversation – many thanks 😉

    • I couldn’t decide which one to go for, so it seemed logical to do both – FF logic, that is! 😉 I think even if Gene saved me from the aliens, I’d still be a bit disappointed it wasn’t Tom, but I’d try not to let it show – wouldn’t want to seem ungrateful! Haha – wiki is a great resource for knowing all about books and films I can’t be bothered watching/reading, I’ve found. 😉 Yes, I’d like to see someone do a good version of the original though, set in Victorian London…

    • The book is definitely worth reading if you get time one day. I felt a bit guilty because my memory of the film from when it came out was that Dakota Fanning just spent all her time screaming and really annoyed me, but I realised I’d been really unfair to her – her performance is excellent. I enjoyed the re-watch far more than I was expecting to – thoroughly entertaining!

  9. I haven’t seen the Haskin version, but I’m in complete agreement with everything you said about Tom. I actually read the book because I saw the film and decided I needed to check the source.

    • The Haskin version is good too and maybe gets a bit more of the original book in, though neither of them catch the themes very well, I thought. But I found them both entertaining, and of course, Tom is always an added bonus… *swoons*

  10. Fun post! I’ve never seen either movie nor have I read the book! (Gasp!) I tend to avoid end of the world scenario movies in general. Books I seem to handle a little better. Are you going to make me add another book to my TBR??

    • Oh, I like alien invasion films – though I often think the aliens are probably nicer than humans. Yes!! But, really, it would be better if you read all of HG Wells major sci-fi novels to get the full effect… there’s only 5 of them… 😉

  11. So I’ve only seen the Tom pic – twice actually…. (Why am I starting a sentence with ‘so’? I hate that. Clearly the Tom effect; I’ve gone all girly.) And I love the musical version 🙂 It’s dawning on me that I’ve not read the book – and I really should. Quite like to see the earlier film version too now I come to think about it. But first…. perhaps another viewing of Tom’s version…. It should be fresh in my mind, don’t you think? For purposes of comparison….

    • Haha – I’ve given up the battle against the “So”. It’s become its own tradition. I live the musical one too. Oh, for the good old days of the concept album!

      So… you’re right. You must re-watch it on purely research grounds. And you should probably also watch A Few Good Men and maybe Top Gun too, because it’s important to understand how Tom has developed as an artist over the years…

    • Hahaha – yes! But I must say the Martian seemed a bit scarier in the film than in the stills I could find. I just think it looks as if he’s doing a facepalm… 😉

    • Since I started comparing books and movies, I’ve been amazed at just how many movies started out as books. If you get a chance to read the book, I hope you enjoy it! Thanks for popping by. 🙂

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