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…

★ ★ ★ ★ ★

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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…

THE BOOK!

Gratuitous and irrelevant Tom pic. Because why not?

 

The War of the Worlds by HG Wells

The Martians are coming!!

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

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…

The story of The War of the Worlds is so well known that it requires very little in the way of blurb. Martians invade and use their vastly superior technology to destroy everything and everyone in their path. The only question is – will they ultimately win, or will they be defeated? On the remote chance that anyone doesn’t know the answer, I won’t say.

The book is far more interesting for what it says about Wells’ world than for the story itself. The unnamed narrator is on the spot when the first Martian spacecraft lands. He sees the creatures emerge and watches as they fiddle about with equipment. Then he’s as surprised and shocked as everyone else when it turns out they’re not here with peaceful intentions and have no desire to communicate with humans. Instead, they set off on a course of massive destruction. The British Army – the greatest army in the world, the army that has defeated and massacred untold thousands of people in its imperial triumphs around the world – is crushed, its best weapons as ineffective against the Martians’ as a native spear against a machine gun. As the narrator wanders the countryside trying to find his wife from whom he’s become separated, he describes the horror of this invasion – death and destruction only the beginning of the Martians’ terrible plan for the inhabitants of earth…

From the 2005 movie

Britain’s psychological relationship with its empire never ceases to fascinate me. When Wells was writing this, the Empire was at its height, seemingly invincible. But already there were signs of cracks appearing – uprisings, demands for self-rule. Plus there was the question of its moral justification, beginning to be debated. Were we bringing civilisation to the barbarian, or exploiting him? Could we even be sure he was a barbarian? Was victory in war still glorious when one side had weapons the other side had never even dreamt of?

Wells turns the whole question on its head by doing the unthinkable – he makes London the centre of the invasion rather than the home of the invaders. He brings onto our village greens, our city streets, our familiar landmarks, the kind of destruction Britain itself had been perpetrating around the world. Invasion! Perhaps Britain’s biggest fear and biggest boast. This tiny island nation with its massive navy, supreme in its confidence that it was able to defend itself against all comers. No invader had set foot on British soil in almost a thousand years. Our naval supremacy was our protection and our pride. But the Martians don’t come across the sea… they come from above. Was it coincidence that Wells was writing at the time that man was about to successfully take to the skies, creating a new threat that would lead eventually to the massive destruction rained down on us in the middle of the twentieth century?

Schiaparelli’s Map of Mars

To us, the idea of invasion from space is almost laughable. We know there’s no life on Mars, or if there is it’s not of the kind that builds spacecraft; and distance alone makes the likelihood of invasion from other solar systems seem negligible. But to the late Victorians, the idea of life on Mars was real. Schiaparelli had seen the ‘canals’ and some scientists believed they were a sign of a technologically advanced species, trying to harness what little water remained on a dying planet. What more likely than that a species who could do that could build spacecraft? And that, seeing the lush blue and green of planet Earth, they would want to colonise it, exploit it, as we exploited other nations?

The whole idea of evolution, Darwinism, was also at the forefront of the late Victorian consciousness. Suddenly it isn’t quite so clear that humanity is the ultimate species, born to dominate all others. Maybe, just maybe, there are other species out there that have evolved further, or faster. And who’s to say they’ll necessarily be peaceful? Evolution is a recurring theme in Wells’ books – he’d already addressed it extensively in both The Island of Doctor Moreau and The Time Machine. In this one, he makes the double suggestion that there may be more evolved species out there in space, and also that ultimately man may not be the most resilient form of life here on earth. Scary stuff for a society that had been so sure of its mastery of all it surveyed!

HG Wells

As a story, I might only rate this one as 3 or 4 stars. It tends to be more description than action and the ending is somewhat anti-climactic for modern tastes. But for what it says about the British psyche of its time it fully deserves its place as a classic and the maximum 5. And I haven’t even talked about how influential it’s been on science fiction in books and films over the last century.

I read the new Oxford World’s Classics edition which includes an interesting and informative foreword and notes by Darryl Jones, who is the Dean of the Faculty of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences at Trinity College Dublin. He goes into much more depth on the themes I’ve mentioned and more, and puts the book into its historical and literary context. I highly recommend these OWC editions – I find the forewords, without being overly long, pack in a lot of information and add a huge amount to my appreciation of the books.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Oxford World’s Classics.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

TBR Thursday 142… on Tuesday!

Episode 142…

Well, I wasn’t proposing to do another TBR post till after the annual FictionFan Awards, but I’ve been on a real reading kick for the last few weeks which means I’m powering through the books I had lined up quicker than expected, and I’ve been the lucky recipient of some fab books that I’d really like to fit in before Christmas. (Tragically this means the TBR has leapt up again to 218, but you know what? I don’t care!)

So here they are…

Magical Crime

Courtesy of NetGalley. One of my favourites of the lighter crime series, starring stage magician Eli Marks. This isn’t due out till January but I won’t be able to wait till then. (Although the blurb makes this sound like a cosy, in truth the books always seem to me a little too gritty to really fall into that category, and they’re always excellently plotted, usually with a nod to Golden Age style. There is lots of humour in them though.)

The Blurb says: What does Eli Marks have up his sleeve this time? Well, let me tell you, no matter the mystery, his sleight of hand always does the trick.

Eli’s trip to London with his uncle Harry quickly turns homicidal when the older magician finds himself accused of murder. Not Uncle Harry! A second slaying does little to take the spotlight off Harry. Instead it’s clear someone is knocking off Harry’s elderly peers in bizarrely effective ways. But who? The odd gets odder when the prime suspect appears to be a bitter performer with a grudge…who committed suicide over thirty years before. While Eli struggles to prove his uncle’s innocence—and keep them both alive—he finds himself embroiled in a battle of his own: a favorite magic routine of his has been ripped off by another hugely popular magician.

What began as a whirlwind vacation to London with girlfriend Megan turns into a fatal and larcenous trip into the dark heart of magic within the city’s oldest magic society, The Magic Circle. No one does intriguing magic and page-turning humor like John Gaspard. Pick it up and see if you can figure out the trick first.

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Classic sci-fi

Courtesy of the publisher. I’ve loved a few of these Oxford World’s Classics issues of some of the greats of science fiction and horror over the last couple of years, because the introductions really enhance the stories by setting them in their literary and historical context. So I begged a copy of this – one I’ve wanted to re-read for a while…

The Blurb says: One of the most important and influential invasion narratives ever written, The War of the Worlds (1897) describes the coming of the Martians, who land in Woking, and make their way remorselessly towards the capital, wreaking chaos, death, and destruction.

The novel is closely associated with anxiety about a possible invasion of Great Britain at the turn of the century, and concerns about imperial expansion and its impact, and it drew on the latest astronomical knowledge to imagine a desert planet, Mars, turning to Earth for its future. The Martians are also evolutionarily superior to mankind.

About the Series For over 100 years Oxford World’s Classics has made available the broadest spectrum of literature from around the globe. Each affordable volume reflects Oxford’s commitment to scholarship, providing the most accurate text plus a wealth of other valuable features, including expert introductions by leading authorities, voluminous notes to clarify the text, up-to-date bibliographies for further study, and much more.

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Gorgeously Factual

Courtesy of Yale University Press. Somehow I always feel the ideal Christmas season requires a lavishly illustrated, gorgeous factual book and this fits the description perfectly. It’s not just pretty pictures though…

The Blurb says: Beginning with new evidence that cites the presence of books in Roman villas and concluding with present day vicissitudes of collecting, this generously illustrated book presents a complete survey of British and Irish country house libraries. Replete with engaging anecdotes about owners and librarians, the book features fascinating information on acquisition bordering on obsession, the process of designing library architecture, and the care (and neglect) of collections. The author also disputes the notion that these libraries were merely for show, arguing that many of them were profoundly scholarly, assembled with meticulous care, and frequently used for intellectual pursuits. For those who love books and the libraries in which they are collected and stored, The Country House Library is an essential volume to own.

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Award-winning Fiction

The Saltire Society’s Literary Awards are Scotland’s premier awards for fiction, non-fiction and poetry. I already had a copy of this one courtesy of the lovely people at Saraband, so was thrilled to hear last week that it has won the award for First Book of the Year 2017. So I really have to bump it up to the top of the TBR… and another gorgeous cover, isn’t it?

The Blurb says: Ian McEwan’s Atonement meets Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth in this extraordinary debut.

A novel set between the past and present with magical realist elements. Goblin is an outcast girl growing up in London during World War 2. After witnessing a shocking event she increasingly takes refuge in a self-constructed but magical imaginary world. Having been rejected by her mother, she leads a feral life amidst the craters of London’s Blitz, and takes comfort in her family of animals, abandoned pets she’s rescued from London’s streets.

In 2011, a chance meeting and an unwanted phone call compels an elderly Goblin to return to London amidst the riots and face the ghosts of her past. Will she discover the truth buried deep in her fractured memory or retreat to the safety of near madness? In Goblin, debut novelist Dundas has constructed an utterly beguiling historical tale with an unforgettable female protagonist at its centre.

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NB All blurbs taken from Goodreads, Amazon UK or NetGalley.

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So…what do you think? Do any of these tempt you?

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The Massacre of Mankind by Stephen Baxter

And still they come..

😐 😐

the-massacre-of-mankindIt’s 1920, thirteen years since the first Martian attack ended in their defeat. Now astronomers have noticed ominous signs on the Red Planet – they’re coming back to try again! But this time England has been expecting them, and has made every effort to prepare…

It’s been a long time since I read The War of the Worlds, but I remember loving it – the descriptions of the Martian ships, the heat ray, the terror of the people, the rather quirky ending. So when I saw this sequel had been endorsed by HG Wells’ estate, I was intrigued. Unfortunately, as so often, I came away from it wishing that sometimes (most times) great books could just be left to stand as they are.

The basic plot of the original is that when the Martians arrive, the humans try everything they can to defeat them, but the Martians are so technologically superior they can overcome any of humanity’s weapons. These repeated failed attempts go on, interspersed by the narrator telling of his own experiences and describing the devastation and fear caused by the attack, until finally something entirely unexpected by either Martian or human comes along to break the cycle.

Baxter replicates this approach. He starts by creating an alternative history, speculating how the First Martian War would have altered the course of the next couple of decades. This is quite fun – WW1 happens very differently, Britain has turned into a kind of martial state, Churchill is involved in the plans to defeat any future Martian attack etc. We also meet the two people through whose eyes we mainly see the story develop – Julie, a journalist and ex-wife to Frank, a doctor and brother of the narrator in the original. At this early stage I was quite enjoying it in a mild kind of way.

war-of-the-worlds
But then the Martians arrived. We attacked them with our little guns. They killed us. We attacked them with bigger guns. They killed us. We attacked them with great big guns. They killed us. We attacked them with their own guns… well, you get the point. Now, as I said, this is pretty much what happened in the original too. But there is one huge, major difference. The original is 208 pages long – this one is listed as 464 according to Goodreads, but my ARC from Amazon Vine actually comes in at roughly 540 largish pages. I’m sure you’ll all have memorised my literary laws – I fear this book fails the first one badly…

FF’s First Law
The length of a book should be determined by the requirements of the story.

Apart from the length issue, I found I hadn’t developed any concern for the major characters. Partly this is because I found the writing a little flat, and the female character rather unappealing. But largely it’s because within the first few chapters the author lets us know through some clumsy foreshadowing that they both survive! And furthermore, that they meet up again after the war and collaborate on this book – hence we know straight away that mankind clearly isn’t massacred after all! Telling me about the sudden deaths of thousands of fictional soldiers I’ve never been introduced to doesn’t have the same emotional impact as would fear for one character I’d grown to care about. (Hmm! Perhaps that should be FF’s Fifth Law…) If memory serves me right, in the original the narrator and, therefore, we were concerned about the whereabouts and welfare of his missing wife.

Stephen Baxter
Stephen Baxter

I’m afraid that by the time I reached page 150 the basic premise (we attack – they kill us) had already been repeated three or four times, and I decided I couldn’t face hundreds more pages. Usually I’d give an abandoned book 1 star, but truthfully this is reasonably well written and the spirit and style of the original have been largely maintained. I didn’t hate it, it was just too long for its content and too repetitive to maintain my interest. Pity.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Orion Publishing Group.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link