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The War of the Worlds - from Radio to Motion Pictures

Short Biography of book and author Original written in 1898 by H G Wells, the romanticist science fiction novel The War of the Worlds, about a Martian invasion and takeover of the Earth, was intended as a quiet social commentary on British Imperialism and colonialism which had led to systematic genocide against indigenous peoples of the lands we took. Yet at the same time, rather pessimistically discussing how our own comfortable lives and attitudes could easily be taken from us within minutes, as mentioned on the review from the website ‘War of the Worlds Invasion: the historical perspective, “He had in mind a warning for his readers, that the comfortable existence they took so much for granted could be removed at a cosmic whim, or indeed by something much more prosaic” ( Ironically though not just Humans, but also the Martians are shown as complacent about their control over our world by the climax of the story, as they are ‘slain, after all man's defences had failed, by the humblest thing that God in His wisdom put upon this earth, Bacteria!’

The book falls into the Modernist era. Sturken & Cartwright suggest modernism as ‘...characterised by the experience of upheaval and change and yet also for optimism and a belief in a better more advanced future...’ (Practices of looking, pg241) I feel that the story reflects this rather well, where upheaval and change are promoted by the arrival of the Martians and then their decimation of people and their world, and optimism and a belief in a better more advanced future, translated by the populous working together in either defence or escape and ultimately the aliens’ demise.

Proposal It is my intent, to use as an example, H.G Wells’ original novelisation of War of the Worlds to explain how science and technology has changed and advanced the way in which it has been presented using audio/visual technology, covering modern and post-modern periods. This will also include the how audience expected and reacted to each of the productions.

On one October evening in 1938, “no one would have known” that mass-hysteria would break out, as hundreds of radio listeners tuned their radios, only to hear from a seemingly authorative voice, “Ladies and gentlemen, we interrupt our program of dance music to bring you a special bulletin from the Intercontinental Radio News. At twenty minutes before eight, Central Time, Professor Farrell of the Mount Jennings Observatory, Chicago, Illinois, reports observing several explosions of incandescent gas, occurring at regular intervals on the planet Mars. The spectroscope indicates the gas to be hydrogen and moving towards the Earth with enormous velocity...". (

If only they had tuned into CBS just minutes earlier, they would have understood that it was only a Mercury Theatre on the Air ‘Radio’ play directed, narrated and acted by Orson Welles, and not an actual invasion from Mars. It was only hours after the broadcast that word of the public outcry against the broadcast was printed in newspapers of the day, with details of the impact panicked phone calls had on police Picture ref (1)

stations, as revealed in the New York Times article the next day; 31st October 1938: “Many Flee Homes to Escape `Gas Raid From Mars'--Phone Calls Swamp Police at Broadcast of Wells Fantasy” (

With radio being the only electronic, wireless source of information communication, entertainment and news broadcasts available in the home at the time (no television in homes), it is easy to see why people would believe what they hear, with no visual representation of it; particularly when presented in news like style. A report in the New York Tribune at the time, as mentioned on the website, reveals this by commenting, "All unwittingly, Mr. Orson Welles and the Mercury Theatre of the Air have made one of the most fascinating and important demonstrations of all time," she wrote. "They have proved that a few effective voices, accompanied by sound effects, can convince masses of people of a totally unreasonable, completely fantastic proposition as to create a nation-wide panic.” ( Also, taking into consideration the heightened anxiety and fear of another World War with an equally oppressive real world force just around the corner in 1939 (a recurring situation throughout the times of every production of The War of the Worlds), this only added to the public’s hysterical reaction to this fictional ‘news’ style broadcast. Picture ref (2)

Then moving forward to 1953 with America again facing yet more fear of possible invasion, ‘Red Scares’ and also nuclear destruction due to the growing Cold War; Producer, George Pal working alongside director Byron Haskin, Picture ref (3)

presents the audience with another retelling of the Classic Martian Invasion story, but this time in full motion picture quality in cinemas and drive-ins. The film also boasts of using special effects with Technicolor. Due to the extensiveness of advertising and film promotion The audience are this time less inclined to take it for real, particularly when considering its visual nature and technological limitations (although still brilliant) at the time. During the 1950s, the motion picture cameras used were extremely large and bulky with 16mm reels. This would have made the film even more expensive and slower to produce. Also, this film would have been limited to the use of miniatures (buildings being destroyed etc)

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painted backdrops, stop motion and even some rather obvious real stock footage “....of roaring jet fighters and thundering artillery” (

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When it came to creation of the pulsating sounds of the Fighting Machines and the heat ray, they accomplished this by recording and manipulating electric guitar feedback. In comparison to the radio production, some of the sound or Foley effects are pretty much the same, it’s just this time the audience are rolling with it rather than being afraid of it. The audience treated this as no more than a science fiction movie. Comparing this to Orson Welles’ radio production, one can see immediately how the audience response is totally different.

The audience or viewer has to specifically make the effort to go to the cinema or drive in to see this movie. It is entertainment. They go for the excitement and therefore are expecting some kind of thrills and spills delivery. George Pal already had reputation as a science fiction producer (When Worlds Collide 1951) and nothing of this films scale had ever been produced in the 30s (Technicolor, ‘talkies’ etc).

Finally, we come to Steven Spielberg’s 2005 production of the same tale. This was produced using digital technology and CGI, big name film star Tom Cruise (...uuurgh!), long running director and producer and of course a gargantuan budget. Also, the way in which it was publicised and promoted has much expanded and changed since the 1953 version to include an official website (, online trailers, poster ads, film magazines and online film databases.

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Since the time of the original film the use of stop motion has largely been replaced in the remake by the use of CGI, blended with live-action for the special effects of the tripod machines and heat-ray blast. Also, as a lot of the film involved the use of CGI during the Tripod attack sequences which couldn’t be seen by the actors, the use pre-visualisations on computer was included in order to allow the actors and crew to see what’s supposedly there on screen, as is revealed by director Steven Spielberg in the production notes on the official War of the Worlds (2005) website, “The pre-viz also allowed the actors to see what wasn't there."I invited the actors over to the computer while we were shooting and showed them the entire sequence,” Spielberg describes”. (

This film has continuation of original story theme with a return to the use of walking tripods as, instead of Floating ray-like Machines and basic same plot line used throughout each interpretation of it. Picture ref (8)

However, it is again set in America (New England this time), so still breaking away from the original setting of Surrey, England, so can only be considered a re-interpretation. Yet, of the two “War of the Worlds” films this is still the closest to the original book.

Due to the big name director and actor, and also combined with up-to-the-minute technology in film making, the audience reaction was one of expectation for thrills and fast-paced action throughout, something that this film accomplishes brilliantly right from start to end. (in my opinion) Summary The War of the Worlds was written as a science fiction adventure; it talked about things that for the human populous were quite unreachable and fanciful. However, the story was picked up and adapted by others who thought it would be good to translate it from its written format, and give it some life (although deviations had been made from the original story). In studying this journey, originated by H G Wells, I can see how the story moves through two creative art periods, Modernism to Post Modernism, and how the productions reflect this in their airings and showings. It starts with audiences being surprised and panicked in the belief that what they were hearing was really happening, and finishes with audiences being again surprised, but in a postmodern way, more sort of wow that was amazing CGI!    

Bibliography Film: Haskin , B (1953) The War of the Worlds, Paramount Pictures, Available on DVD Spielberg, S (2005) War of the Worlds, Amblin, Paramount, Available on DVD

Audio: Welles, O (1938) The War of the Worlds, CBS Radio, CBS, Available on Audiobook

Websites:,8599,1855120,00.html#ixzz0gOFbCreq (accessed 06.03.10) (accessed 06.03.10) (accessed 06.03.10) (accessed 11.03.10) (accessed 14.03.10) (accessed 15.03.10) (accessed 15.03.10) (accessed 15.03.10) (accessed 05.04.10) f67c8ac746c (accessed 19.03.10) (07.04.10) (accessed 09.04.10)

Books: Sturken, M & Cartwright, L (2001) Practices of Looking: An Introduction to Visual Culture, pg241 New York, US: Oxford

Images: Ref (.): As numbered on essay

(1) Orson Welles seen rehearsing his radio depiction of H.G. Wells' classic, The War of the Worlds,,8599,1855120,00.html#ixzz0gOFbCreq

(2) Poster for War Of The Worlds (George Pal, 1953), (3) War of the Worlds VHS Cover, (4) Golden Age TV 'Hell & Bowell’, (5) Haskin , B (1953) The War of the Worlds, Paramount Pictures, Available on DVD (6) Haskin , B (1953) The War of the Worlds, Paramount Pictures, Available on DVD (7) Gallery Image for War of the Worlds (2005) (print screened) (8) Tripod revealed in War Of The Worlds (2005)

The War of the Worlds - from Radio to Motion Pictures  

My article which discusses how science and technology has changed and advanced the way H.G Wells’ original novelisation of War of the Worlds...