‘War Of The Worlds’ Has History Of Freaking Earthlings Out

Before Spielberg and Cruise got to it, 'Worlds' was novel, radio broadcast and B-movie.

Long before the citizens of Earth ever heard of Tom Cruise, Katie Holmes or even Oprah, “War of the Worlds” was scaring the bejesus out of them. From classic novel to B-movie to the radio performance that cemented its status as the grandfather of the modern-day urban legend, “Worlds” possesses a pedigree that will undoubtedly fascinate our neighbors from Mars — whenever, that is, they finally get around to coming over for a visit.

“For me, ‘War of the Worlds’ was always a book I really enjoyed,” said Tom Cruise, sitting down to discuss his newest big-screen blockbuster and its source material. “I felt that the story could be relevant again.”

Just over a century ago, science-fiction pioneer H.G. Wells first told the story of a Martian race fleeing its own dying world. In an attempt to take over what they viewed as a weaker species, the aliens landed in unprepared Victorian England, where their enormous tripod-legged weaponry blazed a trail of catastrophe and carnage. Wells forced the world to seriously consider the concept of aliens, and in an era when significant regions of the world were still unmapped, it was suddenly another planet whose mysteries commanded attention.

“I really have great respect for the book, but not to the extent where I would set the movie in 1898,” director Steven Spielberg said. “I was not going to do a Victorian science-fiction movie; there have been some out there that were successful, and others maybe less successful.”

Seventeen years after the publication of Wells’ book, a very different man with a very similar last name was born in Kenosha, Wisconsin. A child prodigy who would later go on to define the cinematic skills that people like Spielberg still respectfully employ, Orson Welles was a swaggering 23 year old when he punk’d the world, performing “Worlds” to sound like a news broadcast about a Martian invasion taking place in New Jersey.

“Twelve years ago, I bought, at an auction, the last surviving ‘War of the Worlds’ radio script that had not been confiscated by the police department,” Spielberg said of Welles’ controversial 1938 broadcast, which was rumored to cause panicked listeners to commit suicide to avoid the supposedly incoming Martians. “When [the police] raided the Mercury Theater, they destroyed every single radio play; the only copy that survived was at Howard Koch’s house, because Howard Koch wrote it with Orson Welles. Howard Koch had been on a three-day crash schedule to get it ready for air, and he just crashed himself and went to sleep and was not at the theater when his play was performed on the radio.

“I purchased that radio show, and I had a chance to read it, and it was amazing,” Spielberg continued. “It was a real distillation of the novel, which I had read several times starting in college. The first time I read it was 1966, 1967. And so 12 years ago, after I got the radio show, I said, ‘Oh man, this would make an amazing movie.’ ”

Seven years after Wells’ death, and more than a decade after Welles sidestepped a movie adaptation to instead make some clunker called “Citizen Kane,” sci-fi producer George Pal grabbed the “Worlds” baton. Pal’s movie was influenced by the radio broadcast as much as by the original novel; it updated the story once again to use the Martians as a metaphor for the Russians, who were terrifying Cold War America at the time. A lofty subtext, perhaps, but on the surface it was all papier-mâché rocks and little green men like you might expect.

“You know, there are so many surprises in [the 2005 'Worlds'],” Cruise said. “I’ve been on the Internet, and everybody just assumes [we'll have] tripods. There isn’t one message that assumes that we’re doing George Pal’s boomerangs with the green lights on the wingtips. There hasn’t been one mention that maybe there’ll be flying saucers.”

“We don’t go back to the Pal film,” Spielberg said. “We have some obvious homages to the Pal film that audiences will love, but not many. People who know the Pal film will appreciate some of the moments. One great thing that the Pal film did was it created, for its time in 1953, a tremendous sense of tension and dread, contemporary dread. It really made me feel like this event was actually happening. When you look at it today, sure, there are things that are corny. It was a different mindset then.”

The story of how the “Worlds” tale has evolved over the decades is every bit as fascinating as we can expect future incarnations of H.G. Wells’ classic will be. With two of Hollywood’s top talents taking the Martians into the computer-generated age, it has evolved alongside the technology most likely to scare the bejesus out of us, all over again.

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