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Movie Adaptations of the War of the Worlds

Updated on January 19, 2017
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War of the Worlds 1953 Theatrical Release Poster.War of the Worlds 2005 Theatrical Release Poster.
War of the Worlds 1953 Theatrical Release Poster.
War of the Worlds 1953 Theatrical Release Poster. | Source
War of the Worlds 2005 Theatrical Release Poster.
War of the Worlds 2005 Theatrical Release Poster. | Source

Movie Adaptations of the War of the Worlds

This article contains spoilers for The War of the Worlds novel and motion pictures. There have been five movies based on the H.G. Wells 1898 novel, The War of the Worlds. The most well known of these movies are “The War of the Worlds” (1953), directed by Byron Haskin, and “War of the Worlds” (2005) directed by Steven Spielberg. They were big budget movies that used state of the art special effects. These two adaptations were set in the present. The setting for “War of the Worlds” (2005), directed by David Michael Latt, was in the present. It was made for about a million dollars. The 1953 version was made for about two million dollars. The setting for “The War of the Worlds” (2005), directed by Timothy Hines, was 1900. Timothy Hines also directed “War of the Worlds: The True Story” (2012) a pseudo-documentary about the 1900 Martian invasion. This article will focus on the Byron Haskin and Steven Spielberg films.

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The Elements

The Steven Spielberg used more elements from the book than the Byron Haskin version. The Steven Spielberg film included the alien vegetation, the river, the ferry, and the aliens using humans for food. One element missing from the Spielberg version was the attempt to communicate with the aliens. The Haskin version followed the book closely at the beginning of the movie. These elements included seeing the first Martian cylinder arrive, the cylinder unscrewing, the attempt to communicate with the Martians, and the army surrounding the site of the second cylinder. All of the movie adaptations have the same reason for the alien demise.

Mars

The planet Mars, the origin of the invaders in the novel War of the World, as well as some movie adaptations.
The planet Mars, the origin of the invaders in the novel War of the World, as well as some movie adaptations. | Source

The Story Flow and Perspective

The book has a similar story flow to the movie “Gone with the Wind”. The movie “Gone with the Wind” reaches a climax shortly before the intermission then the rest of the movie deals with the aftermath. The book The War of the Worlds reaches its climax at the end of book one. The rest of the novel deals with the aftermath. The Byron Haskin and Steven Spielberg versions used the more familiar melodramatic flow. The flow is character presentation, build to an early climax, a relative lull, then building to the final climax and resolution.

The book is written in flashback with the author writing six years after the war. The perspective is from the main character, present at the first landing zone, and a relative in London. The main character is an educated observer who gives accurate information. In the book’s epilogue the author speculates on what might happen in the next Martian invasion. Had the book been written in current times readers would be eagerly expecting The War of the Worlds II. In 2008 C. Thomas Howell directed the straight to video “War of the Worlds 2: The Next Wave”.

The 1953 Byron Haskin version also has a dual perspective. One perspective is from the main protagonist, a knowledgeable observer. The other perspective is from The Narrator who gives the prologue, epilogue, and fills in the blanks during the movie. The 2005 Steven Spielberg version had the perspective of the main protagonist. Except for the epilogue the only reliable information the audience received was what the main protagonist saw. In one scene the main protagonist overhears two men in the crowd talking. One man said Europe wasn’t touched and the other man retorted Europe got it worse. This established the little the main protagonist heard was unreliable.

War of the Worlds sequel?

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The Characters and the Life and Times

In the book H.G. Wells positions the main protagonist so he gets to closely observe the Martians. The book gives many details about the Martians including how they reproduced and what they ate on Mars. In the 1953 Byron Haskin and 2005 Steven Spielberg versions there were only fleeting glimpses of the Martians. In the 1953 version there was a look at Martian blood under a microscope. This gave a hint of what would undo the Martians.

The book’s main protagonist is good at observation, analysis, and survival but does little to attempt to deal with the Martian invaders. In the end he presents himself as a target to the Martians. The main protagonist has a wife that he sends to what he hopes is a safe place near the beginning of the book. Her fate is not learned until after the Martians die.

The 1953 movie’s main protagonist is Dr. Clayton Forrester. He is an educated observer and gives the police at the first landing site some useful advice. He, along with other scientists, is trying to find a way to counter the Martians. With a combination of happenstance and courage he does wound one of the Martians and damage a piece of Martian equipment. He brings a sample of Martian technology and blood to the group of scientists for study. His efforts in the end are futile. As a result of the Martian landing Dr. Forrester meets Sylvia Van Buren. They fall in love and stay together through most of the movie. They get separated during the rush of the evacuation. Dr. Forrester finds her just before the Martians close in. This is a typical romance movie formula; boy meets girl, they fall in love, something separates them, boy finds girl just in the nick of time, and they live happily ever after.

The 2005 Spielberg movie’s main protagonist is Ray Ferrier. He is mechanically inclined and has a blue collar job. His observations are limited since he wants to avoid aliens and humans. A reporter in a mobile news crew appears in one scene and gives Ray, and the audience, the only reliable information he receives outside of what he witnesses. Near the end of the movie, when he has no choice, he destroys one of the machines. Later he points out to an army squad leader an alien machine’s defensive shield is down. Ray Ferrier is divorced and lives alone. His ex-spouse drops off his children, teenager Robbie and 10-year old Rachel, before her and her husband leave for Boston. When the aliens invade his focus is to reunite his children with their mother.

Robbie and Rachel are typical children. They make it clear they don’t want to be with their father. They do not put their emotional quirks aside when the aliens invade. This makes Ray Ferrier’s dire situation worse.

In contrast the 1953 movie characters were all adults. The main characters were people trying to do their best to deal with the situation. While one could question their judgment one could certainly understand their actions. The movie contained two attempts by characters to communicate with the Martians. The first attempt was when the cylinder opened. In the book this communication attempt occurred after the Martians emerged from the cylinder and after they apparently killed one man. In the 1953 movie the second attempt to communicate was when Pastor Dr. Matthew Collins approached the Martian machines in an attempt to avert the war. In the 2005 Spielberg movie there was no attempt to communicate with the aliens.

The main protagonist spent time with two characters in the book. One character was The Curate. The protagonist and The Curate found themselves stuck in a house in close proximity with the Martians. The Curate lost his sanity and the protagonist killed him with a single blow to the head with the butt of a meat cleaver. The other character was The Artilleryman. The protagonist first encountered The Artilleryman soon after the first battle with the Martians. The Artilleryman survived that battle by luck. He then rejoined his artillery battery where he reported what happened to the battery’s commander. The protagonist met The Artilleryman again after the Martians crushed all organized resistance. At this second meeting The Artilleryman laid out a plan to counter the Martians. The plan made some sense but The Artilleryman made only a token effort to fulfill his plan. The protagonist met The Artilleryman in the morning and left him that night.

The 1953 movie did not have The Curate or The Artilleryman. It did include the house scene. This is where Dr. Forrester fights the Martians. The 2005 Spielberg movie combined The Curate and The Artilleryman into one character, Harlan Ogilvy. In the book Ogilvy was the name of one of the characters who tried to communicate with the Martians.

In the 1953 movie when the cylinder opened one of the three men present immediately saw a chance to make money. When the civilization was in panic to escape from the Martians there were looters. One looter attempted to bribe his way onto a truck but a man on the truck told him money was no good any more as the man pushed the looter off the truck. Human on human violence consisted of pushes and punches. In the 2005 Spielberg movie Ray Ferrier brought a handgun with him when he left his house. Ferrier threatened a mob with his handgun. One member of the mob put his gun to Ferrier’s head. Another member of the mob picked up Ferrier’s gun and shot the gun wielding mob member. Ogilvy had a firearm. Ferrier kills him in a planned act of murder. In all the versions the soldiers fought bravely. This established the humans were routed by superior technology not human cowardice.

From the 1906 French edition of H.G. Wells' “War of the Worlds"
From the 1906 French edition of H.G. Wells' “War of the Worlds" | Source

Combat and Technology

In the book the Martian machines were large, agile, tripods. The Martians used two weapons, the heat ray and poison gas. The British Army fought the Martians with their artillery. The fighting was lopsided but not one sided. The protagonist witnessed the destruction of one tripod and the damaging of another. His relative witnessed a battle between the tripods and a Royal Navy ship. The ship destroyed two of the tripods before the tripods destroyed it. The protagonist noted how the Martians changed their tactics after British artillery damaged a tripod.

Any machine that could be destroyed by 19th century weapons would be no match for a mid-20th century army. U.S. Army soldiers had gear to protect against poison gas attacks. In the 1953 movie the Martian machines were sleek hovering craft. An energy shield made them invulnerable to attack, including an attack by an atomic bomb. They still had the heat ray but they also had a green disintegration ray. The Martians had no need to change their tactics. In the book and the 1953 movie the only human tactic was direct attacks on the Martian machines.

In the 2005 Spielberg movie the alien machines were prepositioned untold centuries earlier. The aliens were inserted into their machines by an energy beam. The tripods then rose from the ground. They had protective energy shields. Their weapon was a twin set of heat rays. The battles the audience witnessed were one sided. They were also direct attacks on the alien tripods. Ray Ferrier destroyed a machine in a method reminiscent of how Luke Skywalker destroyed one of the Imperial Crawlers in “The Empire Strikes Back”. At the end of the movie, with the alien crew deathly ill, an army squad disables one of the tripods.

Closing Observations

When H.G. Wells wrote The War of the Worlds little was known of the planet Venus. Life, possibly sophisticated life, seemed plausible. The main protagonist assumed the Martians would attempt to settle the planet Venus. The 1953 movie begins with a travelogue of the planets. The narrator mentions the other planets in the solar system and eliminates them as possible homes for the Martians. The narrator fails to mention Venus. In 1953 Venus was still largely a mystery. Life, possibly intelligent life, on Mars was believed possible. At the beginning of the 21st Century we had sent probes to visit every planet in the solar system, except Pluto. We had landed probes on Mars and Venus. The plot for the 2005 Spielberg movie left the home world of the invaders a mystery.

It is tempting to view the differences in the characters, and their family situations, in the book and the two big screen movies as a reflection of how society has changed. A better way to view these differences is the purpose of the versions. The book gives a view of how life on other planets may differ from life on Earth. The book also gives a view of possible future weapons. Within 20 years of its publishing armies deployed; heat rays in the form of flamethrowers, poison gas, and fighting machines in the form of tanks. The 1953 movie was a science fiction melodrama. Steven Spielberg having a subplot involving a divorced man and the strained relationship with his children may be an indicator of how far the science fiction genre has come. Together the original novel and the contemporary movie versions show how much has changed over the last 100 years.

1953 vs 2005

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    • bradmasterOCcal profile image

      bradmasterOCcal 12 months ago from Orange County California

      The Spielberg 2005 was the worse version of War of the Worlds.

      Spielberg is a hit and miss person, and he misses more than he hits.

      Adding the kids is always a bummer for Sci Fi. It distracted instead of adding to the movie.

      The alien craft and the aliens weren't better either.

      Even Tom Cruise couldn't make it better.

      It was interesting that the 1953 main characters played a cameo.

      Thumbs down on Spielberg.

    • Robert Sacchi profile image
      Author

      Robert Sacchi 12 months ago

      Thank you. You bring up good points. The "Spielberg glow" is definitely a hit or miss. Adding children to Science Fiction is a big risk. It is hard to think of a science fiction movie where a child isn't a distraction at best. I read in imdb a military advisor told the film makers of the 1953 movie the vehicles described in the original book wouldn't be a credibile threat to a modern army.

    • Au fait profile image

      C E Clark 11 months ago from North Texas

      I saw the 1953 version a couple of times in black and white. We didn't have a color TV when I was a kid. I think I saw this version twice. I always laughed when I watched it, especially when that alien crashed his spaceship at the end and this strange huge hand-like thing came out of the ship and walked a few steps and then collapsed.

      You always write such excellent reviews!

    • bradmasterOCcal profile image

      bradmasterOCcal 11 months ago from Orange County California

      I can't imagine how I could appreciate the 1953 version in black and white.

      And 2005 Spielberg just didn't capture the essence of the story.

      I like Tom Cruise but not this version, it was scattered, and it relied too much on Fx.

    • Robert Sacchi profile image
      Author

      Robert Sacchi 11 months ago

      We already had color TV when I watched it for the first time. Black and White would seem to put the damper on some of the effects. The story itself was good when compared to much of the competition in the '50s. Did you ever get to see it in color Au Fait?

      I think the approach to the 2005 Spielberg was a mistake. I think if he did the story from the reporter's point of view it would have made a better movie and as bradmaserOCcal wrote may have captured the essence of the story.

      Thank you Au fait and bradmasteroCcal for reading and the feedback.

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