Saturday, August 24, 2013

Quasar Dragon Spotlight On . . . The War of the Worlds.

The story of The War of the Worlds begins not with H. G. Wells, but with Giovanni Schiaparelli's 1893 publication, La vita sul pianeta Marte (Life on Mars) and his earlier articles about his observations of the red planet. A talented astronomer, Schiaparelli was nevertheless fooled by optical illusions, caused by the limited technology of the era and imperfections of the human eye, and believed that he saw seas and channels.

The America astronomer Percival Lowell would compound the error and take Schiaparelli's "channels" to be  "canals" built by intelligent life. He speculated that the canals were used to bring water from the ice caps, that Mars was a dying planet and that a desperate civilization was trying to survive.  He posited many of these hypotheses in his 1896 book Mars.

Fresh off a string of successful science fiction novels, The Time Machine (1895), The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896), and The Invisible Man (1897), H. G. Wells turned to Mars. Inspired by the science of the day, Wells asked himself the simple question, "What if this dying Martian civilization had the technology to reach Earth?" And the The War of the Worlds was born.

As virtually everyone knows, The War of the Worlds tells the story of an invasion by seemingly unstoppable army of Martians and their fighting-machines (an obvious inspiration for the Star Wars At-At, At-St).  Go ahead and give the book a quick read, it's quite good and practically microscopic when compared to most modern genre novels.  While not quite the first alien invasion story, it was the first truly popular.

The story would likely end there if it were not for the legendary 1938 Radio Adaptation (MP3 download) by Orson Welles and Mercury Theater. This adaptation, very loosely modeled after radio news bulletins of the time.  Despite announcements that it was an adaptation of The War of the Worlds there was a small panic at the time, though nothing at all like the sensationalist media reports of the time.  However, the media sensation over the the alleged panic would ensure that Well's masterpiece would remain in the public's mind for generations.  And it's timing, at the very beginning of the Golden Age of Science Fiction, would ensure that alien invasion stories, formerly rather rare, would become a dime a dozen.

Though The War of the Worlds has been adapted many times and in many formats (Movies, Television, Comic Books, Video Games, etc.) only two adaptations bear mentioning, and unfortunately both are still under copyright so links will be to Wikipedia). 

In 1953, Hollywood made its first film version of The War of the Worlds. This big budget film, directed by George Pal, was a popular and critical success, despite it's many deviations from the classic novel.  The film featured some of the best special effects of the 1950s, with Forbidden Planet being its only serious rival. Although this film is still copyrighted, the Lux Radio Theater adaptation (MP3 download) of the film adaptation is legally available.

The next, and most recent, big budget adaptation came in 2005 with the Steven Spielberg adaptation being reasonably successful, despite being weighed down by poor casting and an utterly unnecessary dysfunctional family sub-plot.  The special effects of this film certainly carried the sub-par storyline.This is the end of the adaptaions for now, but there will likely be many more adaptations in the future.  Each drifting further and further from the original greatness.

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