Study Guide

The War of the Worlds Introduction

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The War of the Worlds Introduction

Imagine you're an average citizen, chilling in 1938. Your hobbies include standard 1938-ish things: worrying about the lingering effects of the Great Depression, dancing to Benny Goodman tunes, and listening to the radio. So: you're chilling in your living room after a long day, and you decide to zone out to the radio news broadcast.

But on this night—Halloween of 1938—the news coming out of the radio is terrifying. Strange things are afoot, not at the Circle K, but in the area of Grover's Mill, New Jersey. A strange capsule-looking thing has landed. Minutes later, this capsule as hatched. Shortly after that, the creatures that have emerged from this capsule are frying everything in their path (humans included) with heat rays.

You pace in circles. You start sweating bullets. You debate hiding under the bed. In short: you panic.

*Record scratch noise*

Wait—what does this scenario have to do with a Victorian-era book called The War of the Worlds? A ton, actually. Because, just as your circa-1938 alter-ego decides to start nailing boards over the windows to avoid death-by-heat-ray, the radio announcer says:

"You are listening to a CBS presentation of Orson Welles and the Mercury Theatre of the Air, in an original dramatization of The War of the Worlds by H. G. Wells. The performance will continue after a brief intermission." (Source)

Yup. H.G. Wells' 1898 alien invasion novel is a source of evergreen horror. Not only did Orson Welles' radio play cause an infamous mass panic among the radio-listening American public forty years after the book was published, but it scared the pants off the movie-going public in 1953 (winning a Best Visual Effects Oscar in the process) and went on to become a Steven Spielberg-directed fright-fest in 2005.

Yeah. The War of the Worlds is the gift that keeps on giving (you nightmares).

It's easy to understand why people keep adapting this story. The premise is deceptively simple: aliens arrive, aliens create human s'mores with their handy-dandy heat-ray technology, humankind panics, aliens die off.

But underneath this summer blockbuster plot lies an intricate dissection of Victorian current events and a deep philosophical inquiry into human nature. H.G. Wells compares the alien invasion to British colonialism, and muses over how much technology is too much technology...and he also muses over the difference between humans and animals, the innate human drive to conquer, and whether or not humankind is worth saving.

Sounds deep? It is.

But don't worry: H.G. Wells delivers these Big Thoughts wrapped in a plot that's equal parts rollicking adventure and Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark. It's no surprise that Orson Welles and Steven Spielberg both adored this book enough to adapt it: we think this novel falls halfway between the highfalutin' artiness of Citizen Kane and the popcorn-munching pleasure of Jaws.

What is The War of the Worlds About and Why Should I Care?

We have to hand it to ol' H.G. The dude basically created the blueprint for every single alien-invasion story that would follow The War of the Worlds...and then burned that blueprint.

Creating A Genre

Let's tackle the easy part of that statement first: the whole "creating the blueprint" thing. The War of the Worlds is widely accepted as being, if not the first, at least the best-first alien invasion novel. H.G. Wells wrote the outline for the plot we'd come to associate with everything from Independence Day to Invasion of the Body-Snatchers. Attack The Block to Ender's Game... Pacific Rim to The Puppet Masters to The Blob to Starship Troopers to Men In Black...

The list goes on, and on, and on.

Seriously—you can thank The War of the World's any time you're reading a book/watching a movie/TV show with a plot that looks even a bit like this:

  • Aliens show up.
  • Are they friendly?
  • Whoops—nope. They're killing people.
  • Run away! Run away!
  • Ah, phew: aliens are dead.
  • Maybe humans should forget their differences?

Because that, folks, is the outline that H.G. Wells sets forth in The War of the Worlds.

Complicating A Genre

But here's where H.G. Wells gets next-level, and where The War of the Worlds becomes much deeper than, say, Independence Day. Where Independence Day has humans acting heroically and saving the world, The War of the Worlds has aliens dying because...they get sick.

Yeah. The War of the Worlds is all fear, no heroism. Us humans are shown as being panicky creatures totally incapable of stopping an alien invasion in its tracks. There's no "rah rah for humankind!" moment. There's only terror...and then viruses and bacteria make the aliens cough to death. (Or something like that.)

In other words, it's the rare alien invasion story that actually portrays humans as absolutely defenseless. Not only that, but it also suggests that humans' activities on Earth—you know, colonizing other countries willy-nilly—isn't all that different from flying around the solar system wreaking havoc. There's no lasting feeling that we're the good guys: in fact, Wells goes out of his way to suggest that, given half a chance, humans would be doing the exact same thing as the Martians.

That's what we mean when we say that H.G. effectively burns the genre blueprints he creates. Because in our humble opinion, no alien invasion story is quite so philosophical and introspective as The War of The Worlds. After all, how many alien stories do you read that make you feel less secure in your faith in humanity?

But Wells is just a genius like that.

The War of the Worlds Resources


Check out this great BBC website to learn more about the historical context surrounding Wells' War of the Worlds.

Victorians and Science
Check out the VictorianWeb for some scholarly articles on Victorian-era England and science. There's even a full section on technology.

Movie or TV Productions

The War of the Worlds (1953)
Let's be honest: if you watch a movie from the 1950s, you're probably not going to be astounded by the special effects. And this movie makes some serious changes from the book. For one thing, it takes place in California. For another, it features a love story. But in all honesty, it's a fair movie version and many of the changes are pretty standard. In fact, most versions update the story to the storyteller's own place and time, and adding a love story is jus the usual for a Hollywood movie. However, this movie version also (for some reason) changes the ridiculous curate into a heroic pastor and trades in the tripods for flying machines, which we think are unforgivable changes. Sigh.

The Night That Panicked America (1975)
We said that the Orson Welles adaptation of The War of the Worlds from 1938 was big news. Here's the proof: they made a movie about it.

The War of the Worlds (2005)
There were actually three film versions of The War of the Worlds in 2005, but the version by Spielberg is the only one we really care about. (If you want to see why, here's a review of one of the other versions, which is very clear about how terrible it is.) As with most adaptations, Spielberg's is updated. In this version, the Martian invasion of 2005 takes place in – of all places – New Jersey). There's also a change in focus, because who really wants to follow around a narrator who is so moody? Instead of the 1953 version's focus on a love story, this version adds a family issue that is totally outside of the book. Also, instead of eating blood, the Martians seem to spray it over the landscape, which is very confusing. But aside from those few gigantic changes, it keeps pretty close to the book, including some of its narration.

Historical Documents

Complete Text of The War of the Worlds
It can be hard to read books online (our eyes get tired sometimes), but having the whole text in an electronic format makes it a cinch to look things up. You could, for instance, easily count how many times the phrase "Black Smoke" is used. (The answer is 25, of which seven are regular references to smoke and eighteen are references to the Martians' chemical weapon.) Now, having an electronic version makes it easier to look up info like that, but you still have to do some analysis. You know, what does it mean that "Black Smoke" gets mentioned so many times? Or that "Heat-Ray" gets 40 mentions?

Time Magazine Article on the Welles Radio Adaptation
This article is from November 7, 1938, about one week after Orson Welles' radio adaptation of The War of the Worlds. They talk about the ridiculous ensuing panic.

Time Article on Princeton Panic Study
Several researchers at Princeton were interested in mass media and mass panic, and the opportunity to study one such panic fell into their laps with Orson Welles' radio adaptation of The War of the Worlds. Hadley Cantril (and others) wrote a book about their study, The Invasion from Mars. This Time article gives an overview of their book.


Discussion of Orson Welles' Adaptation
Here's a little discussion of Orson Welles' adaptation of The War of the Worlds and the panic that it caused. Bonus: watch some interviews with people who actually panicked.

Welles Apologizes
After the nation panicked, Welles publicly apologized for playing a prank on them. Although what he actually said is closer to "the book is forty years old now, if you haven't read it yet, that's not my fault." Should've known better, folks.

An Interactive Book of The War of the Worlds
Don't run out and buy an iPad just for this (unless you wanted an excuse to anyway), but we found this trailer for an interactive book version of The War of the Worlds, and it looks kind of cool. Now you're not just reading about the Martian Heat-Ray, you're using it. Actually, that sounds kind of gruesome.


Orson Welles's Mercury Theatre Adaptation -- October 30, 1938
This is perhaps the most famous adaptation of The War of the Worlds. It's updated to 1938 and has a very realistic style – it even starts with a musical show that is interrupted by breaking news of aliens landing in Grover's Mill, New Jersey. Because it was so realistic (and because there were no commercials during the show and only three mentions that it was fiction), it caused something of a panic. There have been several other radio versions of The War of the Worlds, but this is the most famous, so famous that The Simpsons used it in their Halloween story "The Day the Earth Looked Stupid" in Treehouse of Horror XVII.

Radiolab on The War of the Worlds
Now, you could track down all the radio versions of The War of the Worlds and see how they differ and research their histories… or you could listen to this hour-long episode of the public radio show Radiolab, which is all about the radio adaptations and mass hysteria.

H.G. Wells Meets Orson Welles
Wells and Welles meet (on the radio) and briefly discuss The War of the Worlds and the panic that resulted from the radio adaptation.

BBC H.G. Wells Radio Archive
Listen to this recordings of Wells. He talks about topics like war, technology, our place in the world, and how humans are similar to animals.

Jeff Wayne's Musical Version of The War of the Worlds
The title really says it all here. In 1978, Jeff Wayne released a prog rock (short for "progressive rock," and if you don't know that, you should thank your lucky stars) musical version of The War of the Worlds. We might not be huge fans of prog rock, but the album does include several famous people (Richard Burton as the narrator) and is kind of fun. If you listened to the other radio adaptations and thought "this just needs more synthesizer," then this musical version is for you.

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