Sunday, 6 April 2014

The War of the Worlds: The Old and the New

I remember I was in Grade 5 when I first read a (abridged) version of H.G. Wells' incredible novel The War of the Worlds. I was quickly hooked in and fascinated by the whole idea. When I heard there was a movie based on it I was keen to see it, and I've seen it quite a few times since. Even more exciting was finding out Steven Spielberg was making another version. I didn't get a chance to see that one until last fall.

Now to be fair I have been somewhat critical of the fact that both George Pal and Steven Spielberg's adaptations modernized the story and placed it in America. In fact one of my dream projects if I were to ever become a director is a rendition that actually uses the original book's setting of Victorian England. Still, both the 1953 film and the original H.G. Wells novel captured my imagination. 

More recently, I recall being really excited when I heard the Nostalgia Critic was planning to do an "Old vs. New" of War of the Worlds. As I later found out, that never happened, largely because according to him he couldn't get enough material to make a decision which film won. To be fair there are things I liked about both but they also had their flaws. I'm not going to make any statements about which one is better, but I am interested in discussing and comparing both films.

Now it's been a while since I've read the book in full, but neither George Pal or Steven Spielberg stick strictly to Wells' narrative. You can definitely see its influence on both, but they are quite a bit different. Pal's film uses a similar setup and employs several moments reminiscent of the original book. 

For instance, the original novel had a segment where the narrator was stranded in an abandoned house after one of the Martians' cylinders crashes into it, and he has to keep quiet without being noticed. A similar sequence is in the movie, but it happens shortly after the Martians begin their invasion (whereas in the book they had completely decimated England and this happened towards the end). 

Similarly, the Spielberg version also preserved certain details from the book, but also took the story in a few new directions. One thing worth noting is that the central character is an ordinary man caught up in the chaos that ensues from the war, which is actually much closer to the book (which was told from the point of view of an unnamed journalist). 

In both cases, there are strong deviations, some of which work, others not so much. I remember in Spielberg's version being pleasantly surprised to see the inclusion of the red weed, a detail omitted from the 1953 movie.

However, that's not to say the Spielberg version was any closer to the book than the George Pal version. While there may have been more obvious parallels, there were some drastic changes. For instance, the setup is quite a bit different here. In the book (and Pal's version), the Martians first arrive in a large capsule. There's actually a fair bit of time spent detailing the curiosity experienced by the characters over this encounter as they try to figure out what is going on, before seeing a door beginning to unscrew itself. The "lid" finally comes off and we encounter the Martians' chief weapon, the heat ray. There is still some time between the initial appearance of the heat ray and the first encounter with any of the machines.

Spielberg's version happens much more quickly. The aliens (which aren't explicitly stated to be from Mars, probably because we know a lot more about the planet now than Wells did in the Victorion period) instead arrive in some sort of beaming device that looks like bolts of lightning, followed by one of the fighting machines suddenly coming up from the ground and attacking everyone present.

Another change, one which really pissed me off, about the Spielberg version was he omitted one of the most important parts of the book, and I felt like his justification was incredibly weak. Quite simply, the book had an important catalyst in the role of a warship called the Thunder Child. When Wells wrote his book, this was the most powerful technology the military had to offer, and it is a crucial part of the story (although the narrator himself isn't actually present when it happens, but simply relates his brother's account of those events).

The point of that scene was that the most powerful weaponry available ultimately fails to do more than stall the Martian invaders, which marks the point where mankind seemingly loses all hope of defeating them. Granted, the Thunder Child does not actually appear in the 1953 version either, but has a rough equivalent in the form of the atomic bomb, which essentially serves the same purpose as the last hope for mankind that ultimately proves futile.

Spielberg's film has all the setup, with crowds of panicked people pushing and shoving to get on boats to escape, and the Martians cut them off, but no Thunder Child. According to IMDB, this was because the Thunder Child was a British warship. That seems like a lame excuse, since last I checked America had a pretty solid navy, and I don't see why they couldn't just have an American warship with the same name. Even if they wanted to restrict the perspective to the central character they could have at least shown part of it, since he was in a position to glimpse such a conflict, even if the actual outcome was only revealed later.

The George Pal version also had some major changes from the original book. The most obvious would be that the fighting machines are shown flying instead of walking on tripods like the book and the Spielberg version (although this was allegedly for practical reasons, mainly because Pal wasn't sure how to animate the legs, and it is alluded to briefly with three beam-like things being visible under one of the machines in one shot).

The other major change is in the nature of the protagonist. The book described the military's efforts to combat the Martians, but it was also told from the perspective of a journalist who spends most of the story just trying to survive. Any information he gave of the army were either instances where he was present to witness it or him relating other people's accounts of those events. Pal's film changes this slightly, having the protagonist being a scientist who works with the military. He never actually manages to find a solution to stop the Martians, but he does make an effort.

It is interesting that, with all the changes, both versions still preserve the ending of the original book. In the Wells novel, all of mankind's greatest weapons have failed, and the Martians have taken over the Earth. The narrator is left to a mostly abandoned England, populated only by extremely sparse groups of survivors. Eventually, he becomes depressed and finds himself willing to allow himself to be killed by the Martians, but as he arrives, he finds that they're all dead. After everything humanity could do has failed, the Martians were finally killed by bacteria, which we have grown accustomed to but which the their bodies couldn't handle.

Now let's stop talking about the book for now and just discuss the two films on their own merits. George Pal's version may have some dated effects (though I'd say the models still look pretty good), but I've always found it did have a sort of strange charm. It also has a certain amount of significance as one of the films to play a role in launching the "alien invasion" subgenre of science fiction, which would become insanely popular during the 50's and still carry on to the present day. Spielberg's version manages to do a reasonable job of capturing the general chaos of the book, but I still feel the Pal version wins over. I'm not entirely sure why.


  1. You may be interested in a relatively obscure film The Great Martian War 1913 - 1917 - - its a faux documentary re-setting War Of The Worlds into the early 20th century replacing WW1. Probably as close to a period piece as you will get. Pretty good film. If I recall correctly the film was made by the History Channel so the documentary feel/style is spot-on

    1. I actually did see that one on TV once. It was an interesting take the story and the documentary style did have a sense of authenticity to it. The bleak ending was also an interesting touch, taking the cosmic horror aspects of the original story to new levels.