Yesterday I looked at H.G. Wells' classic The War of the Worlds. So, today, I naturally start with the films, right? No way. I love audio and, in a time before T.V., there used to be more dramas on the radio. In fact, the director of Citizen Kane and Touch of Evil produced an audio version for Halloween!
The War of the Worlds (1938) By: Orson Welles and the Mercury Theatre on the Air
A news broadcast interrupts its main news to report several blue flashes on Mars. Scientists speculate about the causes, but the broadcast continues to some dancing music. They cut back to a meteorite that eventually crashes in New Jersey. Creatures emerge and, as the citizens make gestures of peace, the aliens set up a mirror device. The line cuts. The next report is about sixty people being incinerated and the New Jersey militia is mobilizing.
If all that sounds fairly familiar, that's because it is nearly the exact chain of events that occurs in the novel. The difference is the presentation. The terror is in the invasion of normalcy and it is invading the listener's life. We don't even have a main narrative until the last twenty minutes, but it all works to great effect.
Professor Richard Pierson is a scientist who initially dismisses speculation about life on Mars. We hear only snippets from him at the start before he takes over reading from his journal at the end. This character is played by the great Orson Welles and despite his limited appearance, he is much more relatable than the narrator from the novel.
Those that aren't killed, flee into the night. This audio is not kind to any of its characters, though the novel wasn't very kind either.
Foes from Another World!
We get less of a description of the martians, but they seem more powerful. THe description of how they look is similar to the novel. They are certainly more threatening in their mystery. Their weapons also appear more powerful than the novel as they tear apart and resist the modern weapons of war.
War Torn Atmosphere
It feels fantastic to sit back and pretend it's Halloween Eve (October 30th) in 1938. You hear the martians invade and the cameras go dead. You hear the grim reports of the destruction of the heat rays and the ominous advance of the black smoke. This is a relic of the golden age of radio, before television and film all but destroyed the medium, and it is a jewel of the era.
In the End
It isn't until the last twenty minutes that we switch back to out protagonist reading his journal to the public. We get the encounter with the artilleryman updated to being a militiaman. The end is largely the same, though somewhat updated and abridged. It is still great including the gravitas Welles himself brings to the performance.
Orson Welles preserves the most compelling parts of H.G. Wells' classic by adapting them to 1938 America. This is a much condensed story, but it definitely eliminates the excess while keeping the core of the story alive. When originally broadcast, this caused many people to panic aneven flee the Eastern seaboard despite the warnings of it being a dramatization. Many later updated broadcasts even caused their own panics. Is it better than the novel? This is my favorite version of The War of Worlds. All the drama and excitement, but none of the excess or forced messages that we'll see tomorrow.
Tomorrow, I take a look at the first film version from 1953...