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

Revisiting the War of the Worlds

During the run-up to this month’s Wild Wild West Con, I was talking to one of my co-workers about how Victorian science influenced early science fiction novels. During our conversation, The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells came up. We spoke a little bit about the famous Orson Welles radio version and the 1953 George Pal film. He also mentioned the Jeff Wayne musical version. As it turns out, I remember seeing ads for this album when it was released, but I never actually listened to it. What’s more, even though the story of The War of the Worlds is well known and almost a part of the collective subconscious, I had never actually read the original novel. I decided it was time to rectify both omissions.

As I say, the story of the novel is familiar and there were, in fact, few surprises. The story is somewhat sparse and very personal, which allows a reader to transport it in time and place. It’s easy to visualize the events happening in your own time to you. This is likely helped because Wells never names his protagonist. Despite all this, I found the novel fit very well in its Victorian period. It loses a little something when it’s transported out of that. I think some of it is that the Martian war machines seem all that more awesome when most people only have horses and buggies for transportation. Also, the story is set in Victorian England at the height of England’s colonial power, so it seems especially frightening to see it brought to its knees so readily.

If anything, one of the elements I did find surprising about the novel is that it appears that the entire Martian invasion is focused on England. It’s never explicitly said Martian vehicles weren’t landing in other places, but we never hear that they are either. It makes an eerie view of the world that a single, powerful country could be attacked like that and the world would be unwilling to come to its aid. There is danger in big colonial powers alienating everyone else! Especially, given that another surprise of the novel is that the Martian War Machines prove to be somewhat vulnerable to the weapons of the time. A massed worldwide front seems like it could have stopped the Martian invasion.

A real weakness of the novel is the way the women get shoved into the background. Our protagonist’s wife is sent off to live with the protagonist’s cousin—then it turns out he may have placed her in greater danger for doing that. The only other women in the novel are a pair encountered by the protagonist’s brother. While one woman is somewhat resourceful, the other is a hysterical mess. This is where the Jeff Wayne musical version does a decent job improving on the original. The protagonist’s wife is given a name. They’re already separated at the start of the story and part of the story is his attempt to get to her. Even then circumstances keep them apart.

In the novel, our protagonist encounters a curate, basically an assistant parson, and the two cower together in an abandoned house. In the album, the curate is now a full parson and he has a wife named Beth, who has one of the album’s greatest songs. I was impressed that the album and the novel generally follow each other pretty well. The album’s music reminds me of works by some of my favorite contemporary steampunk bands. Another high point of the album is Richard Burton’s narration, which mostly follows Wells’s narrative.

One of my big takeaways after reading the novel was that many stories could be told based on the events of The War of the Worlds. One could tell stories set in other countries, or tell a story about the rest of the world watching the attack on Britain and reacting. It seems the protagonist’s wife has a great untold story that could make an outstanding steampunk novel. Of course, there have been a few sequels such as Garrett P. Serviss’s Edison’s Conquest of Mars, and even Jeff Wayne suggests a sequel of sorts that could make a fascinating story.