Wells' story speaks to America's current fears.
By CARLA MEYER
The otherworldly visitors are either tentacled and wild-eyed or streamlined and robotlike. What's uniform about major adaptations of H.G. Wells' 1898 book "The War of the Worlds" -- the latest directed by Steven Spielberg and starring Tom Cruise, opens Wednesday -- is that they are made in uncertain times.
Orson Welles' celebrated national radio broadcast, on Oct. 30, 1938, remains the most famous version of Wells' book. Playing into a prevailing sense of unease, Welles' play unfolded as a series of news reports about Martians landing in the real town of Grovers Mill, N.J. Believing these were actual news flashes, some listeners clogged telephone lines, scrambled into cars to flee and took up arms against the imaginary invaders.
Compared to today
In our cynical age, when even "reality" shows are manipulated, it's hard to imagine a time when folks were so gullible. Didn't they notice the smooth speech patterns of the supposedly rattled correspondents? Or wonder how everyone on the broadcast, in the midst of evading Martian heat rays, managed to be equipped with microphones and transmitters? But the broadcast was only part of it.
"There was a lot of fear building up toward World War II, and people were very anxious about it," Alex Lubertozzi, co-editor of "The Complete War of the Worlds," a 2001 special edition of Wells' book, said by phone from his home in Illinois. The Munich Pact ceding part of Czechoslovakia to Hitler had been signed just a month earlier. Some of Welles' listeners were sure the radio reports were mistaken, and that it was the Germans, and not the Martians, who had invaded.
The bogeymen of the 1953 film "The War of the Worlds" clearly were not just the aliens who created a giant pit in Los Angeles. The Communist scare of the 1950s informed this movie, too, along with countless other, less accomplished 1950s sci-fi films. In the 1953 "War of the Worlds," the atom bomb is considered as a means of killing the Martians, who are impervious to any other show of force.
"Filmmakers try, if they are successful, to capture the mood, or the zeitgeist, of what people are feeling," said Scott Simmon, a University of California-Davis English professor and a film historian.
Starting in New Jersey and charting its characters' run for their lives up the Eastern Seaboard, Spielberg's new vision of Wells' story speaks to current fears. Veteran alien chronicler Spielberg couldn't make another "E.T." or "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" today, Simmon said, because "it's not as friendly an era for the unknown."
The events of Sept. 11, 2001, gave Americans a sense of devastation and vulnerability that hadn't been experienced since Pearl Harbor, Lubertozzi said, adding that Spielberg is making his big-budget sci-fi horror film now because audiences will be able to respond to it.
"Most people didn't have a real-life event to compare ['War of the Worlds'] to before 9/11," Lubertozzi said.
Kathleen Kennedy, a producer on Spielberg's "War of the Worlds," agreed that Wells' theme of "what it feels like to be occupied and displaced" resonates today, but says that isn't why Spielberg made the movie.
"What inspired him to do it was that it would be a fun, escapist movie," she said by phone from New York.
But escapism is only part of it, Simmon said. "The appeal of all adventure films is that people don't want to feel powerless, so stories are told where individuals can possibly make a difference against unknown forces," he said.
Holding one's ground in the face of what seem to be insurmountable forces is a concept director Timothy Hines understands. The independent filmmaker's modern-day version of "The War of the Worlds," set in Seattle, was two months away from principal photography when Sept. 11 shelved his plans.
"We'd had airplanes falling out of the sky and buildings blowing up," Hines said by telephone from Seattle. Wary of evoking such images just after the terrorist attacks, Hines revised his script into a faithful period adaptation of Wells' book. Then he found out Spielberg was planning his own version.
"Imagine that you're making this movie that you've been wanting to make since you were 10 years old and the most successful director in the world is making the same movie," Hines said, still incredulous. Hines proceeded anyway, and his low-budget "H.G. Wells' The War of the Worlds," shot in England and in Washington state, has just came out on DVD.
"Because my version is so different, I don't see it as competition with [Spielberg's] film," Hines said. "And, obviously, I [didn't] have 200 gazillion dollars."
The thrust of Wells' book transcends its setting, Hines said. "Ultimately, the message is one against complacency ... and to beware of hubris."
No adaptation of Wells' novel has matched the author's subversiveness. Still, regardless of Wells' inversion of the political structure of Victorian England, his highly descriptive, mostly clear-eyed account of chaos and destruction, rendered via a lone, nameless Everyman narrator, lends itself easily to interpreters' visions.
The 1953 film gave its scientist protagonist (played by Gene Barry) a love interest and even made time for a square dance between the landing of the space vessel and emergence of the aliens. The Spielberg version's hero is a workaday Joe (Cruise) and single dad who must protect his kids (Dakota Fanning and Justin Chatwin) from what's happening because all means of communication have been dismantled.
"Steven wanted to make a very scary movie about [someone] isolated by a lack of information, and for the audience to feel they were in the position the character is in," Kennedy said.