“No one would have believed in the last years of the nineteenth century that this world was being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man’s and yet as mortal as his own; that as men busied themselves about their various concerns they were scrutinized and studied, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinize the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water.”
So begins Herbert George Wells’ 1898 masterpiece, The War of the Worlds, a tale of Martian invaders taking Earth by storm and very nearly succeeding in conquering it completely. It’s a terrifying novel with a rather bleak (or reassuring, depending on how you look at it) message: humans are unimportant in the grand scheme of things, and try as they might, they aren’t really in control. There is only one human victory in the novel, and it comes at a terrible price, when the warship Thunder Child takes out a Martian tripod at the expense of its own crew. But even this small victory does nothing to slow the invasion. The ultimate victory comes as a result of Nature winning the day, striking down the Martians with unfamiliar bacteria while the human race has all but given up.
Hollywood loves this story, but they hate the message. Every so often, we get an adaptation of the story with varying degrees of success, but the filmmakers always feel the need to add an element of human victory to the story to make audiences feel better. Sometimes this works (such as in Independence Day) and other times, it feels forced (like in Spielberg’s War of the Worlds). And so I find myself wondering if such an adaptation that would preserve the spirit of Wells’ original prose could actually succeed, or if such a story can only exist in its original novel form.
To do that, we need to examine some of its Hollywood iterations and ask a few questions.
What genre is it?
Science fiction, definitely, but that’s too broad. Based on the tone and structure, the best description would be horror. There are many alien invasion films, such as the Ray Harryhausen classic Earth vs. the Flying Saucers from 1956 or the Tim Burton spoof Mars Attacks from 1996, but for the story to be considered a War of the Worlds remake, it needs to have that horror element. The classic 1953 version, directed by Byron Haskin, probably captures this the best in terms of overall mood. The color palette, music, and ominous lighting really work well in creating an apocalyptic landscape that, while not as hollow and bleak as Wells’, achieves real terror as opposed to the colorful adventures that we see more often. Spielberg’s 2005 version tries, somewhat successfully, to tap into the creep factor of the original story as well, but it’s unevenly done. The absolute best version to capture this tone isn’t a movie at all. Orson Welles’ legendary 1938 radio play spoke to audiences so profoundly that, as the story goes, many felt they were hearing a legitimate news broadcast. I tend to think this is exaggerated, but the influence of that radio adaptation is still felt today.
Now, I mentioned Independence Day earlier, and while it isn’t technically a remake of Wells’ story, the broad strokes do line up. For example, the “basement scene” of the original novel lines up with the Area 51 sequence. Both are subterranean locations that act as the character’s last stand against the aliens before the virus (one computer, one natural) defeats them. Also, Independence Day spends a lot of time in the post-apocalyptic landscape of the devastated America with the characters reflecting on their own fragility. Most other alien invasion stories have the humans defeating the aliens mid-invasion before the destruction can really achieve totality. The only real element missing is that essential “scare” element. So, while it is definitely an outlier, I still consider it part of the War of the Worlds narrative.
What is the setting?
Wells set the novel in his own time and place: London at the end of the nineteenth century. Hollywood has almost always set the story in the present day and age (and have almost always transposed the setting to America). As much as I’d love to see the story done in its original setting with a horse-powered military going up against giant robotic tripods, I think the story should be set in a contemporary time and place. Its purpose is to shock people out of their complacency and their own sense of superiority, and such a story only works if it’s set in the present. Because the present age is one of nuclear weapons of catastrophic destructive power, making the invading force seem actually threatening is becoming harder and harder. In that sense, I think Independence Day succeeds the most brilliantly because, prior to the big bang at the end, it does a good job of demonstrating how ineffectual our best weaponry is against the alien ships, which Wells would have appreciated. If this story is to be done faithfully, there can’t be any heroic military victories. Brute force has to fail completely against the superior foe.
What About the Characters?
This is a tricky one. Wells’ main character, Dude Man (not his name, but it’s better than Unnamed Protagonist) is meant to be both a vessel for the reader to inhabit and a mouthpiece for Wells’ own philosophical musings. In terms of character, he’s pretty flat. But it works in the context of the story. He’s an Everyperson. He doesn’t have a complex backstory or unresolved angst. He doesn’t have a melodramatic personal quest apart from getting to his wife and staying alive. He faces trials, but through his actions, we learn about all of humanity, not just him personally. We see through his eyes, staring in shock at the shattered cities and mangled bodies he staggers through at length. We don’t want to get to know him as much as we want to get to a safe place while camping out inside his head.
This is difficult for Hollywood and, admittedly, for audiences as well. The character can only really work in a novel. In film, we need something meatier. Spielberg went too far, perhaps, giving the characters too much angst and family drama which watered down the story’s bigger themes. Independence Day finds a decent medium, populating its story with stock characters, but we’re given just enough about each that we like all of them. The 1953 film takes a simpler tactic, setting up the differences in personality which determine how character interactions play out (she screams, he fights, and he explains things out loud in a calm voice: check). A new adaptation would need to balance this, creating a character we liked without drawing focus from the thematic core of the story. After all, it’s not the protagonist’s story. It’s humanity’s story.
So, can the story be adapted faithfully?
Yes, but it would be a marketing nightmare. It would be a philosophically heavy, slow-burning horror film that would eat at our sense of invulnerability and superiority. Definitely not a big summer box office juggernaut. And it would probably not be fun enough for a fall release. It’s no wonder studios haven’t wanted to gamble on such a film. Telling the story as Wells did would depress and horrify its audience. And while there is a market for such films (Requiem for a Dream, for example, is magnificent, but it makes me never want to be around humans ever again), it would never be a big hit. So, what we need is an indie studio to make this film so the eight of us in the world who actually want this film to be made can enjoy it. But I doubt that will happen. *holds out hope for Ridley Scott to do it, drawing inspiration from the part of his brain that gave us Alien and Blade Runner, but doesn’t hold his breath*
So let us be content with the movies we have. There’s even a kooky two-season TV series from the 80’s that sort of continues the story from the 1953 film version. It’s goofy, but it’s not bad. There’s also a musical, if you can believe it. It’s pretty rad.
The novel succeeds in ways film can’t (or hasn’t yet) and so its descent into obsolescence has not yet begun, which is cool. It exists in multiple forms and each form has its own strengths. The 1953 film is a classic just as much as the original novel. And I can’t recommend it enough.
So, read it! And watch it! And listen to it! And marathon it! They’re all good. Just know that no matter how many times Hollywood adapts it, they’ll never be able to really duplicate the helpless terror of the novel. In that sense, the novel is protected by its own genius. Safe. For now.
And so, I will leave you to your reading and such while I go watch Independence Day for the eight millionth time, because sometimes it’s nice when the humans win. Sometimes.