Viewing List: War of the Worlds
Article by Doug Gogerty

Most adaptations keep a few particular elements from the original story. For instance, a standard War of the Worlds adaptation should involve a virus being the downfall of otherwise powerful aliens—that is, the aliens should be impervious to all human effort and be brought down by such a tiny, unforeseen entity as a virus. This is the crux of the story.

Oddly enough, most adaptations also include a curate or preacher of some sort that has lost his or her faith. This character adds hopelessness to the human condition under alien rule. While I do not consider this character among the important aspects of the story, it does make this story more compelling and so most screenwriters include this character.

Some aspects, however, are often left out all together. Most adaptations leave out the artilleryman who fights the aliens and interacts with the storyteller. Also left out is the storyteller's brother. These two characters are sometimes combined into one separate character, or in the alternative combined into existing characters such as the storyteller.

Finally, most adaptations omit the three human victories over the alien tripods, most notably leaving the HMS Thunder Child's sacrifice unmentioned. Most movies aim for the shear hopelessness that not even the atom bomb can affect the aliens. Thus, any human victory would wash away this helplessness.

War of the Worlds was written before the First World War, so the weaponry changed greatly between the time it was written and the advent of motion pictures. Thus, most adaptations of the book were updated to modern times. I will review four such film adaptations and attempt to indicate where it strayed from the original story.

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The War of the Worlds (1953), directed by Byron Haskin, starring Gene Barry and Ann Robinson.

In this version, they name the originally unnamed narrator Dr. Clayton Forrester, which is the same name as one of the evil scientists on Mystery Science Theater 3000. Like many characters in this version, Dr. Forrester is an amalgam. He is unmarried like all scientists of his time, but he has Sylvia Van Buren played by Ann Robinson as a love interest. Instead of running to London, our characters run toward Los Angeles. The "curate" in this version is called Pastor Dr. Matthew Collins and is played by Lewis Martin.

This is a very good adaptation of this story. Many things are changed, including naming characters that H.G. Wells left nameless. In the book, the writer's wife is a throw-away character. She is taken to safety, and the pair miraculously meets when it is all over. In this version, the female lead is part of the story, and the two characters survive all of the action together. The weapons used against the invading Martians reflect the most powerful weapons of the day. Thus, they try using an atomic bomb on the Martians without success.

One necessary part of a successful War of the Worlds movie is the feeling of helplessness against the Martians. If the audience believes that there is nothing to be done to stop them, the ending is much more satisfying. This movie does an excellent job of building that suspense. Viewers actually believe that the Martians are invincible. Thus, their downfall is all the more enjoyable.

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Independence Day (1996), directed by Roland Emmeric, starring Will Smith, Bill Pullman, and Jeff Goldblum.

For a long time I avoided this version. A special effects extravaganza has been common fair for summer movies for some time. Moreover, the idea that the "virus" that leads to the downfall of the aliens is a computer virus was a real turn-off for a person who works in computer support. Thus, I thought I would hate it.

They changed the story a great deal in this version, but it is clearly based upon War of the Worlds. There is no troubled curate. There are no tripods. This movie is a character driven action movie.

There are several drawbacks. Because it was a summer blockbuster, several product placement ads were very obvious. In addition, while the computer virus idea was not as horrifically implausible as I had thought, it still was somewhat problematic. In the book, the virus meant death. It does not mean death in this movie; it just makes the aliens more vulnerable. For me, the weakest part of this movie was the alien motivation. Why were they attacking us? The stated excuse in the movie was that they came all this way from wherever to use up our natural resources. I did not find it a compelling reason.

However, the creators of this movie did a very good job in building the hopelessness. They killed off several characters to bring the point home. Further, they did this without using the curate character who was the epitome of lost hope. Thus, the destruction of the aliens is still satisfying. It helps that many of the characters are likeable and you want to see them succeed. It is an action movie for the most part, but it still is entertaining if you like those kinds of movies.

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War of the Worlds (2005), directed by Timothy Hines, starring Anthony Piana and James Lathrop.

This movie was greatly overshadowed by the Spielberg release. It came out several months before, but no one was talking about this version. This version was true to the book. It was set in late 19th century England, and all of the characters were essentially unchanged. The strength of this movie comes from the strength of the book. It does a good job in showing the human futility of fighting against the Martians. The audience can understand the curate's hopeless feeling, and can understand the characters as they run from this invading alien force.

Some of the flaws of this movie also stem from the flaws of the book. The wife character appears at the beginning and reappears at the end. H.G. Wells tells of the adventures of the writer's brother but it is only on shaky ground as to how our narrator knows this. Why does he tell his brother's adventures and not his own wife's? However, at no point did I connect with the characters in this movie.

Because the budget was so low in this movie, the acting was a bit rigid. Thus, I really did not care if they lived or died. Further, the main character had a very obvious fake mustache. With each close-up, I wondered why he had this fake mustache. In the brief London scenes we learn why as the same actor also plays the brother. Thus, to distinguish the pair one has a mustache and the other does not. Why they did not have the character with the least amount of screen time have the mustache is a mystery.

Furthermore, the low budget appeared in other places. The battle of the tripods and the Thunder Child looked horrible. It was clear that the budget was running thin when this scene was created. The tripods looked good and the invisible heat ray deaths were interesting. However, overall it was not worth the three hours it took to watch this movie.

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War of the Worlds (2005), directed by Steven Spielberg, starring Tom Cruise, Dakota Fanning and Justin Chatwin.

I was also avoiding this movie. I normally avoid anything starring Tom Cruise, and thus, I went in thinking I would absolutely hate it. As it turns out, I did not hate it.

This movie starts in modern day New Jersey. When the Martians rise out of the ground, Tom Cruise takes his family on a trip to Massachusetts to meet up with his ex-wife. Thus, the traveling portion of the story is kept. Further, they do meet a man living in his basement who has lost hope. For whatever reason, they name him Ogilvy, and he is played by Tim Robbins.

They do a pretty good job of building the hopelessness of the situation. They even try to explain why the aliens have come and what they intend to do. Further, there are plenty of things to see in this movie. The special effects were well done, as one would expect from a Spielberg movie.

Cruise plays a self-centered jerk. It was a pretty big stretch for him, but he managed to pull it off. One of the problems with this movie is that you do not care about many of the characters. At points in the movie, you wish the aliens would go ahead and kill Tom or his son, Robbie played by Justin Chatwin. His daughter, Dakota Fanning, may or may not earn more audience empathy. She is the key, if you dislike her character, you will probably dislike the movie. If you do not find her too pretentious and precocious then there is a chance you will like the movie.

In their attempt to make the aliens "not Martians" they devised this scheme that the aliens planted their spacecrafts underground. They had been there for "hundreds of years" without our noticing. Then when the time was "right" they would charge up the craft, staff them, and take over. This leads to several problems. One is, why hasn't anyone found one of these things in all these years? Further, if these aliens wanted to use us for food, why not invade earlier? Now, we have some technology to fight back. Why not invade before gunpowder and raise us like cattle?

I will forgive them to a degree for this because in the H.G. Wells original, Martians were using us as food. Thus, they came for that reason. The screenwriter just had a problem trying to take the aliens off Mars and did a terrible job of it. There was a minor attempt to remake the character Robbie the artilleryman of the original story. However, this subplot missed to the detriment of the whole.

This movie is not great. Of the four movies mentioned, I would put this one third. However, it was truer to the original that I anticipated, and that helped the movie out. If the characters were more likeable, this could have been a far better movie. Of course, that would have required hiring a different actor for the lead. Further, if the son's actions were more coherent, that would have also helped. Nevertheless, it was an adequate adaptation.

Thus, if you want a good adaptation of this book by H.G. Wells, you will not go wrong by watching the 1953 movie. It is the gold standard for War of the Worlds movies. If you want pure entertainment and you do not mind a fast and loose interpretation, Independence Day is a good bet. The other two are toss-ups. They are very true to the original story, but they have flaws that make the viewing experience less enjoyable.

Doug Gogerty is a writer and Senior Technical Specialist living in Minnesota. He runs a storytelling blog, Around the Campfire, and is a moderator on the ARWZ Writing Forum.