September 14 – War of the Worlds, Three+ Ways

//September 14 – War of the Worlds, Three+ Ways
September 14 – War of the Worlds, Three+ Ways 2016-10-31T18:33:04-04:00


Must read and listen to

Wells, H. G. 1995 (1897). The War of the Worlds. New York: Oxford.

Welles, O. 1938. Orson Welles’ “War of the Worlds.” Larchmont, N.Y.: Longines Symphonette Society. (on

Pick one of two below

Lyndon, B. 1953. The War of the Worlds. Hollywood, Calif.: Paramount. (Available on Amazon and iTunes)

Spielberg, S. 2005. War of the Worlds. Universal City, CA: DreamWorks Home Entertainment. (Available on Amazon and iTunes)

Theory and Commentary

Pooley, J., & Socolow, M. J. (2013, October 28). The myth of the war of the worlds panic. Slate.

Additional Materials

Marshall, C. (2016, September 8). Things to Come, the 1936 Sci-Fi Film Written by H.G. Wells, Accurately Predicts the World’s Very Dark FutureOpen Culture. (on

Carl Sagan’s Cosmos E05 – Blues for a Red Planet

Go to 3:00 for a reading from War of the Worlds (accompanied by Holst’s “Mars” from The Planets)

Early Illustrations of WotW from Open Cultre

From the 1897 Edition

By Artist Henrique Alvim Corrêa


Essay 1: What is Science Fiction?

Student Essays: What is Science Fiction?

Wikipedia article on Definition of science fiction with chronological history


  1. Sigrid von wendel September 12, 2016 at 6:40 pm - Reply

    1. In the 2005 film adaptation of War of the Worlds, the heat ray instantly cremates humans, turning them into a fine grey dust reminiscent of the dust that covered parts of Manhattan after 9/11. In the original novel and radio adaptation, however, the Heat Ray leaves corpses “charred and distorted beyond recognition” (p.27). [in radio version: “burned and distorted beyond all possible recognition (radio broadcast, 19:30)] How can we account for this difference in deaths? In what ways are these differences a reflection of warfare in the respective times that each work was made? More broadly, what other works of science fiction introduce new ways of dying, and what are their metaphorical meanings?

    2. Wells’ book and its adaptations minimize the power, agency, and overall importance of humankind. Humans do nothing specific to provoke the Martians and are unable to defeat them. In the 2005 film adaptation, humankind has been doomed from the beginning as the Martians have buried machinery on the earth before human existence. Is there anyway that humankind could have avoided this fate? What can humankind do to avoid or survive future Martian invasion?

    3. In the beginning of the book, Wells makes repeated reference to heather. He walks through it, runs through in, hides in it. He describes the tripod walking through the heather (p48) and how it is blackened by destruction (p72). At the end of the book, Wells makes similarly repeated mentions of the Martian’s red weed that has grown over the countryside (p.187) and landmarks like Waterloo Bridge (p.187). What is the comparative significance of these two plants? In what ways do they represent natural world, or a changes in nature? More generally, how does Wells’ descriptions of nature evolve throughout the book?

    P.S. How did the wife survive?

  2. Johnathan Peter McCauley September 12, 2016 at 7:24 pm - Reply

    In paragraph 4, Chapter One, of H.G. Wells’ version of War of the Worlds, a few compelling lines explain much of the macrocosmic motivation for the Martian’s invasion of Earth. It also justifies the foreign species’ assumed intellectual superiority and ruthlessness:
    “The immediate pressure of necessity has brightened their intellects, enlarged their powers, and hardened their hearts.”
    My question regarding this passage is about the underlined portion above. In times of need, humans, granted not all humans, rise to the occasion. This notion of rising to the occasion is taken to the extreme by H.G. Wells when he characterizes the Martians as having no other choice but to invade Earth (being the brightened, powerful, hardened beings they are). The circumstances of their failing world forced their hand. Should we expect to come to that point as humans on Earth? If the conditions of Earth force our hand, will we experience the immediate pressure of necessity, experience an exponential progress, and pioneer a genocidal mission to another planet? My question is mainly about the parallels between the Martians and us unsuspecting Earthlings. If the roles were (or will be) reversed, would we invade and conquer? It only takes a few flips through a history textbook to think quite assuredly: yes.

    Question 2 spirals off the above question: Is this morally right? Or is this morally reprehensible? In quest of prolonging one’s own species, can one reasonably promote a life-disregarding mission such as the one the aliens take in all versions of War of the Worlds? If not, should the remaining population make like an old dog and crawl under the porch? Sorry for the sad analogy, but seriously! Facing the brink of extinction, I see, realistically (kind of), only two other possible options beyond conquer or die:
    3 – the Martians could have fixed their own planet. Given the detailed faux-scientific description of H.G Wells’ Mars, it doesn’t seem the Martians can make use of this option.
    4 – show up on the doorstep of another planet with one’s tail between their legs and beg for admittance onto the new planet. This option would probably result in some kind of Lord-Bondsman relationship that the occupants of the inferior planet (the one that is expiring) would be the Bondsmen, the inferiors, the slaves of the rulers of the new planet (the healthier one). Are there any other options?

    Minutes 52:00-56:00 in Spielberg’s War of the Worlds movie critiques the notion of humanity rising to the occasion. In this scene, Tom Cruise & Co. are the only ones in a working vehicle driving toward the Hudson ferry. Quickly, the other humans outside the vehicle turn on them and attempt to seize control of the minivan. Guns are drawn. People are injured and killed. Ultimately, we are confronted with the same question as previously raised about the aliens: at what point do the means of self-preservation outweigh the ends? We are confronted with this question again at 1:25:00 in the movie when Tom Cruise murders the man who owns the house they are staying in. He does this, “to protect my daughter” because the man is suffering from a psychological breakdown while digging in the dirt. Is self-preservation justifiable no matter what the cost? Or should we think more seriously about the morality of putting one’s own life (or species) above the perpetuation of another?

  3. spaul September 14, 2016 at 5:05 pm - Reply

    1. In spite of its title, there is no real war to speak of in War of the Worlds, save for a few mostly hopeless battles. The fate of this war is determined before it really begins. It is a parable about two other wars that the invaded have no chance of winning. Like the human race has dominated lesser animals through evolution and progress, the race is easily overcome by the invaders. Wells writes, as the artilleryman, “This isn’t a war…It was never a war, any more than there’s war between men and ants.” (p. 155)

    Wells repeatedly refers to humans as helpless animals or insects in this new equation (i.e. p 175, the earth is crushed “as a boy might crush an anthill;” p. 147 “I was no longer a master, but an animal among the animals, under the Martian heel.”) There is also a parallel allegory: one commenting upon the Imperialist tendencies of the time, and how easily and systematically forces destroyed less armed nations. The only mention of this tyranny specifically is in the first chapter, but the themes are prevalent throughout. He writes, “The Tasmanians, in spite of their human likeness were entirely swept out of existence in a war of extermination waged by European immigrants in the space of fifty years. Are we such apostles of mercy as to complain if the Martians warred in the same spirit,” (p.9) While science and evolution is what damns humanity in the text, it is also what ultimately saves it. Is there also a parallel conclusion we can draw about the results of imperialism for invading troops? What is the force that would ultimately stop their reign?

    2. The radio broadcast and the 2005 film, while mostly following the timeline of the novel, end at two points that are distinct from it. The broadcast ends before the Martians’ death, when the future of humanity is dismal and bleak; while the film ends with their death and the reuniting of a family, but without panning back out to society, and the larger consequences and aftermath of invasion. The film begins and ends as a familial drama, and the reunion at the end nicely wraps up this narrative that was imposed upon the text. The end of the broadcast is less clear cut, with the protagonist reflecting in his old study upon the ruination of the world. What led Orson Welles to make the cut there? What effect does that have on the narrative? Are the ending ruminations of the narrator in the text imperative to the story?

    3. All three adaptations I am looking at highlight the dismissal and denial authorities and common people treated initial accounts of the irregularities that warned of the destruction that was to come. At the start of the radio broadcast, listeners are assured an earthquake “is probably a meteorite of unusual size and its arrival at this particular time is merely a coincidence, ” and that experts do not believe there is life on Mars. Tom Cruise as Ray turns off the channel when he sees reports of strange lightening. In the text, even faced with accounts of the Martians, most people who did not witness the impact remain unmoved. And yet, the panic myth erupted from a radio show airing of this fictional story. Does humanity in reality veer towards mass panic or denial?

    Has there been a morality shift since the time of the text’s publication? Does the prevalence of more immediate internet access change this scenario from even 2005, before the advent of the iPhone?

  4. Ryne September 14, 2016 at 5:19 pm - Reply

    1. One of the most interesting philosophical questions about alien invasion narratives, in my opinion, is the question of how much are humans projecting the the violent and colonial tendencies of the human race onto aliens? Do we believe this is universal (in the most literal sense of the world) because scarcity makes this inevitable? Are there alternatives?

    2. The 1953 movie and novel, as well as large parts of the radio broadcast, are from the perspective of scientists. The 2005 film is focuses on an everyman with a family played by Tom Cruise. All have themes of hopelessness, but other than the Tom Cruise movie, the protagonists at least have some understanding of what’s going on due to their scientific background. How does an everyman as a protagonist change the tones of the work? Does it make us feel more hopeless because of a lack of understanding of what’s going on? Or does the perspective of a scientist who knows what’s going on and understands how outmatched humanity is make it more hopeless? For the latter part, I’m thinking about how in the 1953 movie, the attempt to find a scientific weapon to fight the aliens is ruined by the looters, in what’s probably the most depressing scene of that movie. In that scene we’re kind of teased with the possibility that humanity has agency in the war for their salvation, only to destroy that hope themselves.

    3. The treatment of religion in the 1953 film is really confusing. First we have the priest who reasons that the Martians as more technologically advanced, must be “nearer to God” and tries to communicate with them peacefully. The way he’s acting in the moment looks mad, and I believe the audience is supposed to feel “No, you fool!” as he goes out and is obliterated. I felt during that scene that this was some kind of indictment of religion having nothing to offer in this situation, since his faith is rewarded with annihilation. But then at the end, everyone holes up in the church and is saved. Not only that, the closing narration says that humans were saved by the small organisms that “God in his wisdom saw fit to place” on the earth. Everyone discovers that they’re saved to the sound of church bells, as well. Why is there this strong pro-religion aspect at the end, but it gets a priest who looks kind of crazy at the beginning of the film killed? Does the ending imply god is specifically the protector of humanity and the Martians are further from god than humans are?

    Sidenote: It is so interesting that Mars is the subject of many invasion narratives. One the one hand it’s because we’ve known for a long time that Mars is the most similar planet to ours, so we’ve had a greater fascination for life on Mars than other planets. On the other hand Mars is the Roman god of war, and I wonder if that informs the violence we associate with the beings of Mars. The reason I thought of this is because the full title of the Mars piece in Holst’s Planets Suite is “Mars, the Bringer of War”

  5. Matthew Dischner September 14, 2016 at 6:42 pm - Reply

    It was surprising to me to see how many aspects of War of the Worlds stayed the same as it moved across decades and mediums. Previously, my only experience with the story was the book and the 2005 film. And while much of the film, minor plot point wise, differs from the original novel, it was interesting seeing how much more faithful some of the previous adaptations were. Yet at the same time, some aspects of the 2005 film specifically call on parts of 1953 film, or the radio play, that were not present in the original text. The question, then, is how do we judge an adaptation of an adaptation, and is there a “definitive” version of the story?

    Besides the technological level of the humans on Earth, what aspects of the 1953 movie are unique to its time period? I found very little of it to seem particularly unique and, other than the use of the atomic bomb, I felt the movie could easily have been set pre WWII and no one would have noticed. Was there a Cold War or post WWII message in their specifically, or is any message an accident of adaptation?

    In which adaptation is humanities situation more dire (ignoring the fact that the Martians are doomed)? Is it more dramatic to see older technology swept aside (like in the original) or to see modern technology do nothing as well (like in the modern versions). Could the military in the 2005 movie have defeated the invaders of the original book? Which makes for a better story? I tend to find the idea of an 1890s military fighting back alien invaders a more tragic idea.

  6. Ivan Martinez September 14, 2016 at 7:57 pm - Reply

    How pleasing to be able to finally speak with confidence when using the names H.G. Wells and Orson Wells! Before, when someone asked me about the play or the book’s authorship I would respond only “Wells”, which orally counts for both answers. But now we can have an educated discussion on the War of the Word’s evolution, or perhaps just the opposite process, over time:

    As we discussed in class, science fiction often times serves to articulate fears that we share as a society. And in looking into War of the Worlds and it’s different adaptations over time we can see this dynamic play out. As Carl Sagan explains, at the time when H.G. wrote the O.G. War of the Worlds was a time of advancements in the exploration of our immediacies on the solar system. For the first time, humanity was able to examine the surface of the red planet, and as astrologists peered , they saw shapes which caused them to consider the frightening possibility of having to announce to the world that we had just observed our neighbors for the first time.

    The general public, however, was not at all aware of these advancements. Carl Sagan describes this in his show Cosmos “Wells’ novel captured the popular imagination in the late-Victorian era. This was a time when the automobile was a novelty, when the pace of life was still largely determined by the speed of the horse. Into this world, H.G. Wells introduced an interplanetary fantasy with spaceships, ray-guns, and implacable aliens. These were original and disquieting possibilities”. (Cosmos S01E03)

    Sagan also comments on the progression to the Orson Welles (under-heard, overblown) mythical radioplay: “40 years later, this fantasy was still able to frighten millions in war-jittery America when it was dramatized for radio by a young Orson Welles” (Cosmos S01E03). Regardless of it’s audience ratings, I think the radio-play is the best adaptation. Listening to it actually creeped me out, which the 1953 movie totally didn’t. It’s the most faithful to the original, and the smartest adaptation: to turn everything into a radio commentary is brilliant and sounds super legit and it does not break your suspended reality like fake movie explosions and rudimentary camera tricks of the first film.

    But if I’m going to criticize the Byron Haskin film so much, I have to bring out, the fact that of all the versions we have seen, War of the Worlds (1953) is the best example of how sci-fi films articulate present-day (of their production, that is) fears in their themes. In this version, radiation is a constant and the futile arms escalation up to the “a-bomb 10 times bigger that anything we ever used” carries the plot. But I don’t know, I don’t like movies from the fifties. Between the archaic technology and the male oppression I can’t take it seriously.

    Actually I’m watching the Tom Cruise one right now and at least the first act is pretty great. Spielberg sure knows how to follow a scaffolding. But what were we scared of in 2005? When I was 15 and went to see it? Oh, yeah, that New York was going to suffer another attack. A bigger one this time; one so epic it affected everyone, even working class Tom Cruise and his little Dakota Fanning. I remember those fears.

  7. jexcell September 14, 2016 at 9:55 pm - Reply

    In each of the three formats of The War of the Worlds, suspense plays an important role in the narrative arc. In the original novel, the narrator warns us from the opening page of the magnitude of the disaster he is about to relate. This portent is replicated in the openings of both the radio broadcast and the 1953 film, but from there, the use of suspense varies widely. In the novel, there are nearly three chapters of relative inaction following the incineration of the first humans to approach the cylinder. Even after the machine-driven attacks begin in earnest, there are quiet interludes during which the narrator paddles downriver and describes the movements of his brother during the attacks. This contrasts drastically with both the radio and film versions of the story, in which the action follows quickly after the revelation of the aliens’ hostile intentions. In the radio broadcast, suspense is built with the use of musical interludes and radio silence when the broadcasters are unable to transmit. In the film, suspenseful moments are relayed more visually, with several long shots of smoke which slowly clears to reveal the aliens and their imperviousness to human weaponry. Which of these three methods seems to create the most suspenseful atmosphere, or, do they simply each display the form of suspense best-suited to their medium?

    I personally found the radio broadcast to be the most engaging and emotionally effective way to relate this story. The broadcast-within-a-broadcast, transmitting events as they occurred, provided the narrative with an immediacy that did not come across as strongly to me in either the book or film. Was this a result of the medium alone, or would there be a way to reimagine the story in film or book format that would create a similar effect? How would that change the story in either case?

    In both the original novel and the radio broadcast, the destruction, as far as we know, is confined to England and New York, respectively. In the 1953 film version, on the other hand, the U.S. is reportedly the last nation standing, and shots are shown of a shattered Eiffel Tower, a crumbling Taj Mahal. This difference, combined with other elements of patriotism and faith in the power of the bomb that appear only in the film, seem to me to be a result of the influence of World War II on the story. Does globalizing the crisis increase our investment in the outcome, or merely dilute the immediate, personal urgency of the narrative as portrayed in the localized versions that preceded it?

  8. alee September 14, 2016 at 10:24 pm - Reply

    How does the War of the Worlds portray technological progress? In the prologue to War of the Worlds, the Martians are described as: an “intellects…unsympathetic (3).” The Martians are framed as more technologically advanced than humans and watch us as we might watch the microbes in a drop of water. In the novel, Wells makes the effort to differentiate the Martians from human in terms of their biology and evolutionary history. This is important for two reasons – first because it take the human out of the center of the universe and asks the reader/viewer/listener to imagine an entirely different way of becoming, but also because it removes the alien from the story line of the human – their future does not have to be our future; their use of technology does not have to be ours. In the 1953 version of the film, the priest has confidence walking toward the alien beings because he believes: “If they are more advanced, they should be nearer the Creator.” This one line calls into question what it means to be advanced. Depending on what we take to be our static metric of “near to the Creator” either technological advancement does not bring us nearer to the Creator or being nearer to the Creator gives you a manifest destiny to destroy other creatures. These two questions of technological progress and taking an alien view of humans and how we might define “advanced” asks the question of the relationship between “advanced” and “technological progress.”

    In each incarnation of the War of the Worlds (1897), (1938), (1953), and (2005), the point-of-view and the scientific language used in each one changes. In Wells’ novel, the narrator is a doctor but this is revealed only later. In Welles’ radio drama the POV is from the newscaster, the military general, and then finally the astrophysicist. This latter POV is also used in the first film version in 1953. In 2005, however, our main character is a plucky dockworker – the everyman. The scientific language also changes from casual usage of “spectroscopy” and biological terminology to almost no scientific language in 2005’s version. Focusing on these two variables – the changing POV and scientific language – how does War of the Worlds mobilize science as a legitimizing force in different ways through the four incarnations?

    Why has War of the Worlds continued to stay in the imagination and limelight of Hollywood? Why has this particular story been revisited over so many decades? I would choose to look at this film in the vein of the horror films and ask what fear is represented in the Martians that makes it such a compelling story – and one that is adaptable to so many different times in history. What is the scariest part in each incarnation?

  9. sshirk September 14, 2016 at 10:24 pm - Reply

    1. How does the perception of religion change between the novel and the 1953 film? Wells seems to have some contradictory ideas about religion in the novel, including both the narrator’s disdain for the pastor while also having him pray, and the eventual destruction of the Martians apparently coming at God’s hand. The presentation of religion is remarkably different in the 1953 film – what does this say about changing world attitudes of the time?

    2. The narration in the radio broadcast is present tense, whereas in the novel it is past tense. Would the radio drama be as compelling if it were told in the same way as the novel?

    3. Each iteration of War of the Worlds takes place in the time and place it was created, and because of that each one has different themes. The last film was released in 2006, and already the world looks very different from how it did then. How might a new version of the story present itself? What themes would it be likely to focus on? In what ways would it be different, and how would it be the same?

  10. cpeterson September 14, 2016 at 10:27 pm - Reply

    1. In the radio adaptation, the humans’ weapons can harm the tripods, but in the film 2005 version the shields are completely impervious to our attacks. In both cases the aliens die without our attacking. All we had to do was survive long enough for them to die out. So what is the role of agency in science fiction? Is there ultimately no agency in deciding our fate? Or is there a shift? Does this change in humans’ level of agency speak to a larger cultural shift in our understanding of agency?

    2. In the radio adaptation, the scholars discuss the “parabolic mirror of unknown composition” as the source of the heat ray. But this is discussed only as a conjecture. In the 2005 film adaptation, Ray discusses the lightning phenomenon with two young men he encounters. They go back and forth about explanations they have heard. One of them says he heard they were caused by solar flares. His friend replies, “The sun does not cause lighting.” Does science fiction necessarily involve science that is not fully understood? If we understood alien technology would we have fundamentally divorced ourselves from the genre?

    3. Heat rays become plasma rays. Charred bodies become atomized bodies. Transportation by metal cylinder becomes transportation by lightning. Across the history of science fiction, our technology gives us greater and greater power, so our alien counterparts’ power grows accordingly. Blade Runner’s AI is less sophisticated than iRobots. What does the progression of technology in science fiction point toward? With examples of films like Lucy and Transcendence, power leads to a loss of humanity. Can the trend of technological progress count serve as a window to understanding science fiction’s purpose? How does this compare the the progressions in other genres? What will the science fiction of the future look like?

  11. jpetinos September 21, 2016 at 8:35 pm - Reply

    1) In Chapter 16, the protagonist’s brother, who is trying to leave London, witnesses a man who in his haste drop his gold on the ground. The man rejects help as he fumbles and tries to gather up his lost money, and this distraction leads him to be run over and killed by a rushing carriage.

    How does The War of the Worlds explore significance and value assigned to features of our man-made society? How does the significance or value of these features change as the story unfolds, or how is it in tension with a crumbling society? What does Wells offer regarding the value we currently give to wealth, fame, or prestige?

    2) The following exchange takes place in Chapter Thirteen:

    “Why are these things permitted? What sins have we done? The morning service was over, I was walking through the roads to clear my brain for the afternoon, and then — fire, earthquake, death! As if it were Sodom and Gomorrah! All our work undone, all the work —— What are these Martians?”

    “What are we?” I answered, clearing my throat.”

    How does The War of the Worlds point to a tension between the arrival of extraterrestrials and certain organized religion? How might it resolve this tension?
    3) Ursula Le Guin writes:

    “Finally when we’re done with it, we may find—if it’s a good novel—that we’re a bit different from what we were before we read it, that we have been changed a little, as if by having met a new face, crossed a street we never crossed before. But it’s very hard to say just what we learned, how we were changed.”

    The War of the Worlds examines thematic material such as societal value in a fragile and dynamic society, the role of humans as a dominant species, and how humans treat smaller animals. How do these questions, along with others, illustrate the function of fiction, particularly science fiction, referenced above?

  12. Sophie December 20, 2016 at 5:02 pm - Reply

    1) In H.G. Wells’ “The War of the Worlds,” I must ask, when does the protagonist sleep!?! He is awake up until page 133 and I, as a reader, am completely exhausted for him by the time he finally mentions closing his eyes.

    2) The different versions of “War of the Worlds” bring up an interesting question -what happens during catastrophe when people of opposing societies are forced together? Do they become alike or do they remain ‘other’ amongst themselves, although together against the ‘alien’ unknown?

    3) In Wells’ book, what can we make of the switch to the brother’s perspective? How does this stylistic choice aid the story as a whole?

    4) Also, how does curate serve as a foil to the narrator?

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