Skip to content

Adaptation Case Study: War of the Worlds

MEGA SPOILERS War of the Worlds by HG Wells was one of my favourite books as a child. Like many popular novels, there have been many, many adaptations of it – stretching across the mediums, too. With this in mind then, I’m going to take a look at a book which captured the imagination of the public, starting incredibly before space travel was even possible. Enjoy…

War of the Worlds, pt 1the beginning of Orson Welles’ infamous 1938 radio broadcast which had people literally running for the hills! [More parts available via Youtube]

I first listened to this broadcast as part of a media studies A Level project. I’d heard people really had thought the martians were arriving when they heard it back in 1938, but couldn’t really relate; like most teenagers, my POV was the *only one* that did or could exist. However this proved a real eye opener: I suddenly realised that people in what I called “the olden days” were at the mercy of their media, quite literally – there wasn’t the same opportunity to cross reference, there was the BBC or bust and if they said the aliens were coming, THE ALIENS WERE COMING. Still a really well put-together broadcast I think, if you haven’t been able to listen to it, do.

War of The Worlds – straight story Reading by Orson Welles & Richard Burton from SpokenVersequite a thrill to hear Orson Welles actually reading the text, even if he does sound a little bored!

I don’t know when this was recorded, presumably after the 1938 broadcast. I’d never heard it before the weekend – perhaps it was before Jeff Wayne’s War of the Worlds (below), prompting him to hire Richard Burton? Pure speculation on my part, though.

War of the Worlds1953 version trailer

I saw this movie when my friend Helen brought it from a car boot sale on video for 20p and we watched it together. I hadn’t left primary school, so I suppose I was about ten. It’s quite faithful to the book, though the location changes from London to California and the protagonist is a physicist instead of a journalist; what’s more his girlfriend, whom in the book he famously sees setting off on the boat without him, is a woman, Sylvia, he actually meets at the crash site instead. Overall I was satisfied by the adaptation as a child and found parts of it quite scary; however, due to the incredible leaps forward in technology in the last twenty years – particulary CGI – the monsters, space ship, etc now look quite dated. Despite this however, the actual storytelling still works for me.

Jeff Wayne’s War Of The Worlds – “Thunderchild”a fan vid, comprising of Justin Hayward singing “Forever Autumn” as well

Perhaps one of the mnost interesting adaptations, due to the fact one doesn’t always see books reimagined as a prog rock offering. I was lucky enough to see Jeff Wayne and his orchestra perform this at the Bournemouth International Centre last year, having listened to the recording numerous times during my childhood and teens. Jeff Wayne takes a very “traditional” look at War of the Worlds, restoring the unnamed journalist and even the priest who attempts to drive back the creatures with the power of God. Whilst not fantastic music by any stretch of the imagination (not to mention horribly repetitive at times), Wayne does I think capture the drama of the novel with a combination of music, F/X and media, the icing on the cake being *that* Richard Burton narration – restored for the noughties by using an actor’s moving lips over Burton’s own holograph face which seems to “loom” over the proceedings for the audience. The youtube clip is a fan vid of one of my favourite parts of the whole proceedings, “Thunderchild” (from about 5 mins in, after “Forever Autumn”), which has the so-called “Voice of Humanity” describing the boat outrunning the machines, taking the Journalist’s girlfriend away from him, but at least to safety; this is one of my favourite parts of the whole book, so I was thrilled to see the original artiste from the recording at the BIC, Chris Thompson, singing this. (Apparently there is a computer game too, though I’ve never seen/played it).

Spielberg’s War of the Worlds Trailer with French subtitles, this blog IS international you know

I didn’t bother going to see Spielberg’s “War of the Worlds” at the cinema; I mistakenly believed it would be just *another* retelling of the Journalist’s journey. I ended up watching it when I’d just had Wee Girl – and couldn’t believe the liberties taken with the source material; Josh Friedman and Spielberg must have had nerves of steel to mess with such a classic. But I for one really thought it paid off. The goal completely changes; instead of the Journalist merely trying to survive whilst documenting the apocalypse, Tom Cruise’s absent father must take his children to his Ex in Boston, by hook or by crook. This neatly side steps the whole Deus Ex Machina of the aliens being defeated by the cold virus and introduces a whole set of new problems for the characters involved, most of which really worked – especially when Tom Cruise is forced to choose between his children on the hill. The real jewel in the crown though has to be the adaptation of the priest to the Apocalypto who threatens Cruise and his daughter’s survival in the cellar by being completely nuts and trying to take on the creatures, whom Cruise is forced to kill to protect his child.

And finally, just for fun:

War of The Worlds in 30 seconds – with bunnies. SYLVIA!

A surprisingly well done parody of the 1953 version.
Have you seen/heard any of these versions – what did you think of them? What makes a “successful” adaptation in your eyes? Over to you…

Share this:

5 thoughts on “Adaptation Case Study: War of the Worlds”

  1. Ha – I'd not seen the Bunnies version. That's my new favourite!

    I've seen all of the versions you mentioned and either like or love them. I know a lot of people get arsey about adaptations of their favourite stuff (says the comic-book nerd) but I think the whole purpose of an adaptation is to re-invent the source material for a different medium/different audience.

    I think the most recent version by Spielberg has both real strengths and weaknesses, I like the arc you talked about but feel they over-egged that he's a 'bad dad' to begin with. I definitely agree that making the journey personal made the story more suitable for film and that the invasion/deus ex machina then just becomes the context for it. I overheard a lot of grumbling on the way out of the cinema from folks who wanted a big climactic shoot-out with the aliens instead. Can't please everyone I suppose.

  2. I admit the only version of WotW I've actually seen is Spielberg's, but like you, I think it's great! When I stop and think about all the great moments, it's hard to believe they're all in one movie!

    My favourite scene is probably the ar situation. They're driving along and the car is taken from them. That whole moment keeps me on the edge of my seat. The raw violence of it all – it's no longer about keeping the car, but just getting everyone away from there.

    A very powerful scene that really makes me want to jump in there and help hit people!

    Gotta love it!

  3. As a nipper I loved Jeff Wayne’s version, although I’m in no doubt Richard Burton’s voice could have convinced me the moon was made of cheese and politicians are honest. Spielberg’s effort got off to a good start, as I recall, but by the end I was repeatedly plunging a scalpel into my thigh.

    RE: you mentioning Friedman & Spielberg, there was also a second writer, David Koepp, to blame/attribute the license taken with Wells’ story.

    Josh Friedman said:

    “I wrote the first three drafts of WOTW for Steven Spielberg and Tom Cruise in late '02 and early '03. We handed the script in to Paramount and the previous regime (NO ONE remains) did not greenlight the movie. I had no more steps in my contract and there wasn't much talk about paying me to do more work. I left and went on to other projects. After some months David Koepp was hired and rewrote me. After MI-3 was delayed Cruise's schedule opened up and the movie was greenlit. The fellas went off and made the movie in record speed.”

    The studio subsequently put Koepp up for a sole credit and it went into arbitration with Friedman eventually getting his credit.

  4. I am conflicted when it comes to Speilberg's WotW. There's a lot about it that I like and (with the exception of some staggering plot holes) I think the first two acts are pretty damned good. However, I think it all falls apart in the third act at the point that they meet Tim Robbin's character (which was not only the priest but also the infantryman as well). The pacing went out of the window and, unlike you, I don't think it sidestepped the Deus Ex Machina problem at all – I think it highlighted how pathetic it was even more. And, in terms of how they redid elements of the story, introduced an even bigger fucking plothole. The ending made no sense except in so far that, hey, it ties in with Well's original ending. And look – the ex's house in Boston somehow survived intact as did all her family and Cruise and his kiddies arrived just in time for tea. Please!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *