The War of the Worlds: From H. G. Wells to Orson Welles, Jeff Wayne, Steven Spielberg & Beyond

I saw this book acknowledged in Stephen Baxter’s The Massacre of Mankind, so, in a moment of rare impulse book buying and reading, I bought it and read it immediately.

Review: The War of the Worlds: From H. G. Wells to Orson Welles, Jeff Wayne, Steven Spielberg & Beyond, Peter J. Beck, 2016.The War of the Worlds

In 1895, H. G. Wells moved to Woking, Surrey. He was almost thirty, a journalist and writer on the make. Plagued by a kidney and liver injured playing football and with lungs that occasionally bled from the foul air of London, he wasn’t sure how much time he had left.

And he had bills to pay and a new wife, his second, to support.

His reputation wasn’t secure. The Time Machine had been critically acclaimed, but The Island of Dr. Moreau was not popular with readers or critics.

When he left Woking after finishing the first version of The War of the Worlds, his reputation was secured, and he became a writer with an international following. Money followed which was a good thing because he would need it for all his many mistresses and illegitimate children. (Wells’ stated cure for writer’s block was sex twice a day and that often was not with his wife.)

What Beck and publisher Bloomsbury Academic present is a literary biography of Wells’ novel and all its multimedia adaptations that followed

Beck’s book is a model of how to combine academic trappings and readability. The chapters are clearly introduced and followed by conclusions. The book is full of footnotes, maps, tables, a bibliography, and index. Yet the prose is free of jargon, full of information, and the repetition kept to a minimum if you want to read it cover to cover rather than just go to a particular section.

And the kindle edition works well in accessing all these functions, even accessing footnoted websites.

First off, there are multiple versions of The War of the Worlds.

Wells’ tale first appeared serialized in 1896 in Pearson’s Magazine. Wells originally conceived a 75,000 word story, but the publisher wanted only 50,000.

Next up the story was serialized in America in The Cosmopolitan Magazine and two newspapers, the New York Evening Journal and Boston Sunday Post. All three included more material that Wells planned on putting in the book publication. The newspapers, in what would become an enduring trend in adapting Wells’ novel, localized the setting for their readers. Now the tripods, with accompanying illustrations, menaced Boston Hall and the Brooklyn Bridge. Wells’ narrator, “the man from Woking”, became “the man from Irvington” or “the man from Concord”. These were not pirated editions. Wells had sold his rights to the newspapers, but he was not pleased with the unauthorized changes.

In 1898, the book edition came out, but Wells tinkered with the tale, as he often did with earlier works he thought had been too hurriedly written, for the next few editions. The 1924 edition is considered the definitive one and used for reprints.

There are obvious influences of the time on Wells’ tale: the future war story (though Wells’ invaders aren’t bested by any man) and fin de siècle nervousness about whether human progress could continue.

But there are some less obvious ones.

Lovers of the English countryside like Wells feared London and its suburbs would swallow it. Would modernity destroy, as Richard Jefferies’ hinted in After London, that green and pleasant land? Wells turned modern technology, in the form of the Martian, loose on England’s land.

Wells found Woking and its surrounding countryside not only an escape from foul London but also a place to go on the walks he loved and his “cyclomania”. (Wells’ earlier novel, The Wheels of Chance, features a bicyclist as hero.)

But Woking had a peculiar place in the English mind. It was not only an early commuter suburb where most of the population hopped a train to work in London. It was a necropolis.

The London Necropolis and National Mausoleum Company built a large cemetery there to alleviate the lack of burial ground in London, and the country’s first crematorium was built there. The local football team was nicknamed “the Cremators”, and town boosters asked that the crematorium and cemetery not be mentioned in promotional literature.

The burning countryside around Woking in Wells’ story may have brought the crematorium to mind in readers, and London being called “a city of the dead” may also have brought Woking to mind.

I’ve mistakenly said that Wells started the science fiction tradition of authors destroying their hometowns. That’s not true. Woking was not his hometown. Bromley was, but, on his bicycle rides and looking out the window of his study on Maybury Hill (where his narrator also lives), Wells took great delight in fictionally destroying the countryside and vexing his neighbors with Martians.

And the countryside of the tale is very faithful to the historical Woking and environs. Beck even concludes his book by looking at the ways that “heritage efforts” have sought to mark the places of the tale and Wells’ life in the area.

Wells’ story, of course, has elements of Darwinism and socialism and capitalizes on the contemporary interest about Mars and its hypothetical inhabitants. And there is Wells’ characteristic tendency, noted by George Orwell, to shake the reader out of complacency and show that things can change very quickly, and for the worse, even in the heart of the world’s greatest empire.

The initial germs for the story, besides Wells’ early speculation on humanity’s future in his essay “The Extinction of Man” and his tale of “The Stolen Bacillus” and British imperialism (the references in the novel to the fate of the Tasmanians), were a chance remark by his older brother about Earth being invaded by “a vastly superior Power” and Forbes Dawson’s 1895 novel A Sensational Trance with its vision of a depopulated London.

Beck talks about the many radio adaptations of Wells’ story besides Orson Welles’ famous version. There were several adaptations in the US and UK as well as in Brazil, Chile, Ecuador, and Portugal.

Following the work of Robert Bartholomew, Beck comes down on the revisionist side about the alleged panic in 1938 following Welles’ broadcast. He mostly blames the sloppy research underlying sociologist Robert Cantril’s 1940 book The Invasion from Mars: A Study in the Psychology of Panics and newspapers eager to castigate radio as a bad news source.

Beck summarizes the history of movie and tv adaptations of Wells’ story including some obscure post-Steven Spielberg ones.

Besides Wells novel, I was also interested in the story behind Jeff Wayne’s musical adaptation of which I’ve very fond. Beck is informative on the subject.

Beck also looks at the many works of fiction and comic books which have adapted parts of Wells’ story or alluded to it.

Definitely recommended for those interested in Wells or this novel.



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