When Mars Invaded England

In the twenty years from 1877 until 1897, the planet Mars underwent a dramatic transformation in the public’s consciousness. In 1877, Mars made a particularly close approach to the Earth. The planet’s two moons were discovered and efforts were made to map the planet’s surface in detail. Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli announced the presence of interconnected features that resembled channels. Over the next 20 years, astronomers would continue to study the planet and many, including Schiaparelli, would come to believe those channels were canals engineered by intelligent Martians. In 1897, Pearson’s Magazine serialized The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells.

Wells’ novel captures an image of the Martians very close to that painted by astronomers such as Percival Lowell. He portrayed them as an ancient people using their vast intellect to survive on a desert world. Wells imagined those Martians turning their attention to their lush neighbor, closer to the sun. He then imagines those intelligent, powerful beings pitting themselves against the most powerful nation on Earth at the time. Of course, to Wells, that would be Victorian England. The novel has a timeless quality and it’s not surprising that many people who adapt the story to other media present it in a setting contemporary to the presentation. Orson Welles imagined the Martians landing in Grover’s Mill, New Jersey of 1938 during his radio adaptation. George Pal set his movie in the Cold War of 1953. Steven Spielberg would again update the setting for his 2005 film.

As a fan of steampunk, I’ve always been a little disappointed that none of these mainstream adaptations return to the book’s original Victorian setting. That said, I recently came across an independent film that did just that and it’s pretty good. The movie is War of the Worlds: The True Story directed by Timothy Hines. It presents the story in a form that reminds me of History Channel documentaries and imagines that the Martians really did invade England in the last days of the nineteenth century. The film intercuts stock footage with dramatizations of scenes from the novel and interview segments with “Bertie Wells,” the last survivor of the Martian War. It would be hard to imagine a film adaptation that more faithfully captured the key points of the original novel.

In addition to the faithful adaptation and Victorian setting, I loved Floyd Reichman’s portrayal of the 86-year-old Bertie Wells, supposedly filmed in 1965. I also enjoyed the depiction of the Martian tripods, which you can see in the poster. I thought they were among the coolest versions of the Martian war machines I’ve seen portrayed so far. That noted, the Martians themselves did look like they might be well at home in a 50s B-movie, but they only make a brief appearance. Also, the stock footage did seem to come from a variety of sources over a somewhat longer time period than that covered by the film. Still, as a fan of both the novel and ambitious indie films, I thought the movie did a creditable job.

I gather that this is Timothy Hines’ second attempt to adapt The War of the Worlds. The first attempt was a movie called H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds and it’s a three-hour, word-for-word retelling of the novel. I have not seen this version, but I gather the “historical recreations” from War of the Worlds: The True Story come from the earlier film. Reviews of the earlier film are not kind, but I admire Hines for persevering and recutting the film into a version that, while not perfect, is a lot of fun to watch.

My only complaint about War of the Worlds: The True Story is that I couldn’t obtain a copy of the movie on DVD. I tried to order through the official website. To the credit of the people who run the site, they refunded my money when they couldn’t deliver the DVD. The only way to watch is to stream it from Amazon at: https://www.amazon.com/War-The-Worlds-True-Story/dp/B00HH0VG5E

7 comments on “When Mars Invaded England

  1. DAVID RILEY says:

    I saw this a few years ago. Can’t remember if it ran on SciFi or BBC Channel. A decent approach to the Wells story.

    • I didn’t think this version had been televised, but I could be wrong. There was a version that ran on the History Channel about the same time that took a similar approach called “The Great Martian War 1913-1917.” I haven’t actually seen The Great Martian War, just a few YouTube clips. As I understand, the difference between the two versions is that War of the Worlds: The True Story actually tries to tell the story of the novel. The History Channel version is more an alternate version of World War I with Martians taking inspiration from HG Wells. The latter does sound worth checking out as well.

  2. Great post,
    It is shame that everything comes through Amazon now!!!
    The Science Geek

    • Thank you! I definitely agree about Amazon. What I don’t like is that I “bought” the movie at Amazon, which means I can theoretically watch it whenever I want, but what happens if Amazon goes out of business, or just decides not to have the movie on their servers at some point? All I really bought were longterm streaming rights.

  3. It sounds like the filmmaker had a really interesting approach, but had to revise until it worked.

    • I think that’s right and I think it’s a lesson we writers can take from an experience like this. George Lucas has taken a lot of criticism for tinkering with Star Wars post release and I think it makes people shy of updating their own narrative art — whether it be a movie or a novel. I believe the secret is to pay attention to what the audience is actually saying. Lucas had a movie that people loved, so when he tinkered it was seen as something of a betrayal. If people see an idea they like but don’t think it was as well executed as it could be, I think it’s fair for an author to take another crack at it when the opportunity presents itself. That’s relatively easy for a self-published author, but may take a bit more negotiation if the publishing rights are in the hand of a publisher.

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