Steven Spielberg knows his aliens. That's why it was probably only a matter of time before he got around to adapting H.G. Wells's god-king of little-green-men stories, The War of the Worlds. He made some significant changes to the novel—mostly by updating the time and setting—but in the end they only prove how durable Wells's story can be. It works just as well in the go-go 21st Century as it did in among the frilly-shirts-and-doilies set of the 19th Century. Wells was a genius, but Spielberg's not too shabby himself. If anyone can update this story for us millennials, it's this guy.
As with a lot of literary adaptations, this version keeps the same basic structure of the novel while changing around a whole bunch of the details. Here's the gist: aliens invade on giant tripods and nothing we do can stop them… until they're wiped out by the common cold. The basic beats of the story stay the same, from the first appearance of the Martians towering above us to the appearance of the red Martian weed in the landscape to the confrontation with a crazed homeowner to the finale where a weary narrator finally makes it home to his wife.
Wells wanted to show us the horrors of modern warfare infused with a bit of humility at our eventual salvation. (God gets full props for the win.) Spielberg duplicates that by keeping the focus on one narrator (Tom Cruise), an ordinary Jersey boy who sees it all unfold before him. He doesn't have any guns or big armies in his camp, so we feel his helplessness.
Plus, that focus on a single Joe Shmoe in an alien-ravaged world gives us a sense of how the destruction of the entire planet can affect us where we live and breathe. The Martians destroy people, houses, even trains and ferries as they try to escape. Spielberg uses his great big effects budget to deliver all of that, but we only see it from Cruise's perspective, which maintains that personal touch in what appears to be universal Armageddon. If we see the end of the world from that perspective, we understand what it might feel like (read: horrifying. We're still having nightmares about that icky gooey red stuff). Wells knew it, Spielberg knows it and both of them help us feel it just the teensiest little bit.
"Is it the terrorists?!" Dakota Fanning asks fearfully when the first attack comes. That pretty much nails the differences on the head. Spielberg moves the story from the 19th century—when all the cool kids were talking about global wars between massive empires—to the 21st—when a few guys flew planes into our buildings, bringing a city to its knees and sending an entire nation into a state of barely controlled panic.
Hence the move from Jolly Olde England to suburban New Jersey, where hapless civilians run for their lives while the Martians mow everything down in front of them. The military only shows up sporadically, and when they do, they take it on the chin just like everyone else. Rambo ain't comin' to the rescue here. America may be an empire, but these aliens can squash it like a bug (before they're squashed by a very different one). By setting it in the modern world, Spielberg really connects us to the drama, making us feel like we're there now instead of watching something taking place centuries ago, when England was in charge.
He also finds a way of applying Wells's scary-scary Martians to the anxieties we felt after 9/11. The Martians attack indiscriminately, just like al-Qaeda has. They target civilians—in a train and on a ferry, just like terrorists typically do in our world. And he captures the blind fear and panic so often felt in the face of an enemy whose motives no sane human being could ever grasp. Suddenly, that futzy old novel written so long ago looks as up-to-date as the latest headlines… and yet it's still fundamentally Wells's story. See? We told you Mr. Spielberg knows what he's doing.
Spielberg added a more personal touch, too, that brought a lot of Wells's themes home. In the book, the narrator was all by himself. Here, Cruise's Joe Normal has a couple of kids with him, one of whom he loses for most of the film and one of whom he has to keep safe. Spielberg loves cute, cuddly families, and by putting cute cuddly families in danger of being vaporized, he emphasizes the random and unthinking destruction of the Martians. They're not shooting tanks or razing military targets—they're trying to wipe Dakota Fanning off the planet and that's not cool. That's true to Wells, but he never showed it in such stark terms as Spielberg does in this scene.
If this story works for any age, well then it should work for the Cold War, right? And that's just the spin that George Pal puts on the Wells classic in his 1953 adaptation, in which aliens touch down in midcentury America and promptly reduce the country to a smoking rubble pile.
War of the Worlds hit the small screen in 1988 when creator Greg Strangis serialized the story. Think of this adaptation as the sort-of-sequel to the George Pal version.
Then, in 2005, two more adaptations came out, both of which were overshadowed by Spielberg's blockbuster. C. Thomas Howell headlined a pretty lackluster version, and director Timothy Hines did a rather faithful, if rather dreadful adaptation, set in the 19th century, like Wells's original story.
So, Shmoopers, what did you think of Spielberg's 21st-century update of a 19th-century story? Shmoop amongst yourselves.