The Wars of the Worlds: The Many Afterlives of an 1897 Mars-Attacks Novel
Rhum and Clay's new production of The War of the Worlds stars Julian Spooner, Gina Isaac, Matt Wells, and Jess Mabel Jones. Photo by Jamie MacMillan
They’re coming for you—the Martians, that is. Although some say the Communists or Al-Qaeda are to blame. Actually, scratch that—I’m now receiving word that it is, in fact, the Germans whose armies are taking our city by storm. Or perhaps the real threat all along has been the news itself, beamed directly into our ever-credulous brains through our radios, our televisions, our phones.
Each of these historically specific paranoias has found a ready blueprint in H.G. Wells’1897 tale of alien invasion, The War of the Worlds. Wells' novel ranks among the most influential and most frequently adapted science fiction stories of all time, having conquered the realms of television, the big screen, radio, videogames, theater, animation, comics, rock opera, and even outer space itself. As Stanford Live prepares to host the U.S. premiere of Rhum and Clay Theatre Company’s critically acclaimed play The War of the Worlds on October 28 and 29, let’s take a lightspeed tour through the dozens of vessels by which Wells’ tale has invaded our ears, eyes, and minds over the years.
Wells' novel relates, with grim plausibility, the crash-landing arrival and brutal procession of Martian armies through England. The aliens seek to destroy humanity and take up residence on our resource-rich planet. The invaders’ superior technology—giant tripod fighting machines, toxic black smoke, and a lethal heat ray—seems to give them an unbeatable edge. In a third-act twist, though, the newcomers are mutely slain by Earth’s bacteria, to which they have no immunity.
From day one, Wells’ story was a critical and popular sensation. The near-apocalyptic narrative struck a chord with anxious fin-de-siècle readers, many of whom believed the world was going to end when the year 1899 did. War of the World’s specific doomsday scenario of imperialist takeover was particularly resonant for a British audience nervous about the precarity of their own bloated empire—and about an increasingly powerful Germany just across the Channel.
Brazilian artist Henrique Alvim Corrêa illustrated the 1906 French edition of H.G. Wells' The War of the Worlds. Above, Thunder Child battling a Martian fighting-machine. Public Domain
The novel has never been out of print since. (You can even find a digital copy on Mars: War of the Worlds was selected for inclusion on a multimedia DVD that NASA deposited on the Red Planet in 2008.) So, too, has the story dominated the silver screen, time and again. The earliest of these cinematic adaptations was a 1953 film directed by Byron Haskins and produced by George Pal. This smash-hit movie modernized Wells' source material, transplanting the action from Victorian England to 1950s Southern California, adding a touch of Cold War unease (the military unsuccessfully deploys an atomic bomb against the aliens), and making use of the cutting-edge cinemagic of technicolor, sound, and Oscar-winning special effects.
Half a century (and several minor TV and film adaptations) later, the early 2000s saw yet another slew of standout screen productions of War of the Worlds. A 2005 blockbuster directed by Steven Spielberg brought Wells’ story to new heights of horror with computerized special effects and a contemporary New York City setting whose destruction from above eerily evoked the September 11 terror attacks of four years prior.
The parallels between real-life and science fictional disaster are also at the center of a 2013 pseudo-documentary called The Great Martian War 1913-1917. This History Channel–style film interweaves CGI and fictional interviews with actual archival footage of World War I to present an alternate history of that conflict: here, the Allied Powers battle the Martians rather than the Germans. And, over a century after the original novel’s publication, screenwriters’ interest in Wells’ story shows no sign of letting up: a French-Anglo TV adaptation debuted in 2019 and is set to air its third season in 2022.
One of the most faithful—and best-known—iterations of the novel comes in an untraditional package: Jeff Wayne’s prog-rock opera. First recorded as an album in 1978 with narration from Richard Burton, Wayne’s musical has also toured many times as a live show since 2006, featuring lasers, pyrotechnics, and a 35-foot-tall Martian war machine.
Film director and radio announcer Orson Welles created perhaps one of the most well-known adaptations of H.G. Welles' The War of the Worlds by adapting the novel for radio with a script that sounded like a live broadcast. Public Domain
But the take on War of the Worlds that is perhaps most legendary features no visual magic at all—no technology, indeed, but the humble radio. When Orson Welles transformed the other Wells’ book into a radio play on Halloween eve in 1938, he created a media sensation that launched his future career as a master of spectacle. Welles designed his script to sound like a real radio broadcast, periodically interrupting the evening’s scheduled music program with a series of increasingly dire news bulletins about Martians landing in New Jersey. This faux-documentary style, legend has it, sparked a mass panic among listeners, who allegedly mistook its fiction for fact. (It’s likely, however, that newspapers—eager to torpedo the reputation of the radio, their media competitor—exaggerated the extent of the ensuing chaos.)
Welles' truthy-but-fictional broadcast, and audiences’ supposed willingness to believe everything they heard through the relatively new medium of the radio, serves as the jumping-off point for Rhum and Clay’s new stage production of The War of the Worlds. The play deftly mashes up archival radio recordings with live soundscapes and video to toggle between the night of the 1938 broadcast and the weeks leading up to the 2016 American presidential election—our own era’s object lesson in fake news.
“There’s a massive parallel between twenty-four-hour news and the Internet, and what the radio was at that time to a 1930s audience,” says Julian Spooner, who co-directs and performs in the play. In both cases, news consumers “experience something live without actually being there. And that [distance] adds an element of anxiety and hysteria.”
The play follows wannabe journalist Mina as she travels to Grover’s Mill, New Jersey, the real town where Welles’ fictional extraterrestrials touched down. Her goal is to create a podcast—that newest incarnation of the radio—about a hotly disputed family feud that blossomed on the night of the 1938 broadcast. But, as a shape-shifting Orson Welles reminds us throughout the play, nothing is what it seems in Grover’s Mill—or elsewhere in an America as thirsty for juicy Internet conspiracy theories as it is for the truth.
This theme of media literacy during moments of crisis has gained a renewed poignancy since 2020, Spooner notes. The COVID-19 pandemic and the twentieth anniversary of 9/11 have found many of us doomscrolling through our newsfeeds more than ever before, bombarded by conflicting accounts of reality. The most sensationalistic story often wins our attention, at least initially.
At its core, the play is about precisely that conundrum of humanity’s thrall to good yarns. “Stories can increase empathy. But they can also be the thing that thousands of people go to war for,” that spur disastrous misunderstandings within families and nations alike, says Spooner. This susceptibility to narrative is a trait we must learn to live with, and to live with more intelligently, because it isn’t going anywhere. “Stories are the cornerstone of our identities as humans. They’re the key to what we believe about ourselves.”
Chelsea Davis is a writer and radio producer from San Francisco. Her essays on film, literature, and culture have appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Literary Hub, Electric Literature, and the Public Domain Review, among other venues. She holds a PhD in English Literature from Stanford. More of her work can be found on her website: chelseamdavis.net
The War of the Worlds
Rhum and Clay Theatre Company
written with Isley Lynn
Thu, October 28
Fri, October 29
Bing Concert hall