Revisiting The War of the Worlds

Peter J. Beck discusses the history of H.G. Wells’ iconic sci-fi novel, and how it continues to resonate in popular culture
Peter J. Beck, The War of the Worlds: From H. G. Wells to Orson Welles, Jeff Wayne, Steven Spielberg & Beyond (Bloomsbury, 2016)
Peter J. Beck, The War of the Worlds: From H. G. Wells to Orson Welles, Jeff Wayne, Steven Spielberg & Beyond (Bloomsbury, 2016)

What inspired you to write the book?

I have lived in Woking since 1971. Over time I became increasingly aware of the town’s links with H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds. Woking is the place where he researched, wrote and set the book. My house is located within one mile or so of both Horsell Common, where Wells’ Martians landed, and 141 Maybury Road, the house where Wells wrote the story.  Apart from walking the trail of the story and reading his books, during the late 1980s I began researching Wells’ correspondence, most notably that held by archives at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin, and Yale University Library. This research was basically undertaken out of personal interest rather than with a view to publication, since as a professor of history my principal areas of research and publication were the history of British foreign policy and international organisation. RAE pressures – my membership of the RAE History panel for the 1992 and 1996 RAEs made me acutely aware of these – left no time for other research topics. However, I taught a course at Kingston University on ‘Literature, Art and War 1860-1920’, and introduced The War of the Worlds as one of the war scare set texts alongside The Battle of Dorking. I began to write up my research about Wells’ The War of the Worlds only in 2012 after finishing two contracted books: Using history, making British policy: the Treasury and the Foreign Office, 1950-76 (2006) and Presenting History: Past and Present (2012). A further source of inspiration was my membership of a Woking Task Group set up in 2013 to organise a programme of events celebrating Wells’ links with Woking in 2016, a year marking the 150th anniversary of his birth and the 70th anniversary of his death. I represented the H.G. Wells Society on this task group.

In brief, what began as a small-scale local history project became a much wider historical and literary study of Wells’ The War of the Worlds with particular regard to the role of place and time. In turn, the way in which the story inspired numerous adaptations – these include the 2005 Steven Spielberg/Tom Cruise film and Jeff Wayne’s musical extravaganza – and has had an extremely active afterlife following its publication as a serial (1897) and a book (1898) led me to structure the project as a biography of the book.

H. G. Wells
H. G. Wells

Why do you think The War of the Worlds continues to fascinate us?

Ever since its publication The War of the Worlds has never been out of print.  In addition, the book has been extensively translated and adapted for a wide range of multimedia formats. Henceforth we can expect more editions and adaptations of the story with the expiration of copyright in January 2017. The War of the Worlds has continually showed its ability to appeal to new and diverse audiences. Indeed, today many people first access the story through, say, film, television or music, and then often move on to read the tie-in book.  For most readers, the story about a Martian invasion of Britain proves an excellent read, an exciting sci-fi page-turner written by an author represented as one of the founders of science fiction and widely praised for his prescience when discussing the future and raising such fantasy counterfactuals as ‘Is there life on Mars?’ or ‘What if the Martians invaded earth?’. Wells’ storyline, though written during the late nineteenth century and set during the early twentieth century, still talks to today’s twenty-first century world. For many The War of the Worlds’ enduring resonance derives from its timeless focus upon the impact of a foreign invasion and war upon society through a storyline touching upon such perennial themes as complacency about national security; the need to take account of the unexpected; the ferocity of aggressive imperialism; the devastation and mass panic prompted by a sudden invasion; and the impact of science and technology upon weapons and warfare. Moreover, throughout its lifetime The War of the Worlds, written at a time when the media was talking about a ‘Mars boom’, has been acknowledged as a key text in the cultural history of Mars. Thus, it proves a popular reference point for the media when reporting the ongoing exploration of Mars. For example, in 2011 Wells’ The War of the Worlds featured in the Press Kit prepared by NASA for the launch of the Mars robot rover currently seeking evidence of past and present life on Mars.

How does Wells’ text fit within the broader context of his life and career?

When lecturing during the past year or so about Wells and The War of the Worlds, my audiences are invariably surprised when told how young Wells was (i.e. 29 years old) when writing the book. Indeed, when writing the story, he was frequently represented in the press as a new young writer still making his name in the challenging literary world.  Thus, Wells wrote hard and fast seeking fame and fortune; indeed, he admitted that while living in Woking (1895-96) he was writing 7,000 words a day as compared to the usual 1,000. While in Woking he completed The Island of Dr. Moreau, wrote The War of the Worlds, The Wheels of Chance, The Wonderful Visit and much of The Invisible Man, and began writing both When the Sleeper Wakes and Love and Mr Lewisham. This period made his name and fortune.  Having flirted yet again with bankruptcy at the start of 1895, Wells’ 1896 earnings amounted to circa £125,000 in present-day terms. Despite aspiring to publish mainstream novels – Love and Mr. Lewisham (1900) was his first such novel – Wells realised that writing what he called “scientific romances” was his most prudent initial strategy. The War of the Worlds was a product also of ‘the Early Wells’, the writer responsible for both a series of scientific romances and an extensive range of journalism and short stories. Soon this gave way to the ‘Later Wells’, a phase frequently dated as commencing with Love and Mr Lewisham (1900) and characterised by publications adopting a more overtly propagandist approach.

The War of the Worlds drew upon Wells’ personal experience, scientific knowledge, creative imaginative skills, and strong sense of time and place. An influential element was topography, since mental maps of places he had lived in or visited provided Wells with the geographical framework within which to set his tale and apply his imaginative and writing skills.”

What can The War of the Worlds reveal to us about the cultural and historical influences that produced it?

The War of the Worlds drew upon Wells’ personal experience, scientific knowledge, creative imaginative skills, and strong sense of time and place. An influential element was topography, since mental maps of places he had lived in or visited provided Wells with the geographical framework within which to set his tale and apply his imaginative and writing skills. Relating the story of a Martian invasion conducted with highly advanced weapons technology in the peaceful English countryside, The War of the Worlds offers readers engaging evocations of place. Despite imagining a war between two worlds launched from another planet, the story’s action is firmly rooted in London and Surrey, places that Wells knew well. Nor is this all, since the book exhibits a strong sense of time in terms of contextualising the story. Reflecting upon, highlighting and exploring the late nineteenth century British mindset in a vivid and engaging manner, The War of the Worlds proves – to quote Brian Aldiss – ‘a compendium of many nineteenth-century concerns’.  In many respects, Wells can be viewed still as an ‘angry young man’ – he used such a descriptor for himself – strongly critical of prevailing modes of thought concerning, say, evolution, imperialism, religion, science and technology.  Wells was very much a fin de siècle writer, but his mental map, his view of the world, comprised many layers, including also family background, education, political values, and the domestic and external environment within which he lived. As a result, fin de siècle themes need to be viewed alongside a range of other factors, especially the Mars boom of the 1890s and contemporary debates about imperialism.

“Wells was very much a fin de siècle writer, but his mental map, his view of the world, comprised many layers, including also family background, education, political values, and the domestic and external environment within which he lived. As a result, fin de siècle themes need to be viewed alongside a range of other factors, especially the Mars boom of the 1890s and contemporary debates about imperialism.”

In what ways do you think The War of the Worlds connects to broader traditions of dystopian writing or invasion narratives?

George Orwell
George Orwell

Like The Time Machine, The Island of Doctor Moreau and The Invisible Man, The War of the Worlds offers vivid dystopian visions of the future.  When drafting this response, I had just read Utopias and Dystopias in the fiction of H.G. Wells and William Morris (Palgrave, 2016), a book edited by Emelyne Godfrey and prefaced by an authoritative foreword penned by the eminent Wellsian scholar, Patrick Parrinder. Placing Wells in the utopian tradition stretching back to Thomas More and Jonathan Swift, Parrinder moves on to assert that ‘it is Wells … who stands behind the twentieth century dystopias of Zamyatin, Huxley and Orwell as well as virtually the whole of modern science fiction’. I don’t think I could put the situation any better.  Following on from this quote it is worth noting that one young reader enthused by the originality and sheer literary brilliance of Wells’ early work was George Orwell, whose dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) was to prove as ground-breaking a text as The War of the Worlds. During Wells’ later years the two writers had a somewhat problematic relationship, but Orwell’s admiration of Wells’ early writing was unaffected. Significantly during the 1970s Paramount commissioned Anthony Burgess, the author of the dystopian novel The Clockwork Orange (1962), to write a film script for a remake of George Pal’s film of The War of the Worlds, but the project proved abortive.

“Placing Wells in the utopian tradition stretching back to Thomas More and Jonathan Swift, Parrinder moves on to assert that ‘it is Wells … who stands behind the twentieth century dystopias of Zamyatin, Huxley and Orwell as well as virtually the whole of modern science fiction’. I don’t think I could put the situation any better.”

The War of the Worlds, though easy to represent as a highly original text, can be seen also as part of an ongoing scaremongering literary tradition given renewed impetus by Chesney’s The Battle of Dorking.  But Wells offered readers something more than just another ‘bolt from the blue’ story. Apart from producing a much praised work of literature – the literary quality of many war scare stories, especially William Le Queux’s bestsellers, left much to be desired – Wells’ masterstroke was to introduce an interplanetary dimension. The War of the Worlds’ originality lay in a shift from maritime and terrestrial threats to a sudden and unexpected invasion conducted by hostile beings from another world, an aerial bolt from beyond the blue. Unsurprisingly Wells is credited with inspiring and originating the alien invasion literary sub-genre.

Orson Welles
Orson Welles

How does your book help us to rethink Orson Welles’ infamous The War of the Worlds radio broadcast?

Orson Welles’ claims regarding the hysteria and mass panic prompted by his 1938 radio drama make a good story. For many people today this engaging line provides still the preferred version of events, especially as this interpretation has gained substance through repetition, most notably in recent books such as by Alan Gallop and a 2013 PBS [Public Broadcasting Service] documentary marking the programme’s 75th anniversary. Revisionist views, pointing to the exaggerated claims advanced about the programme’s impact, have emerged in recent decades, but struggled to override the traditional line, as evidenced by the fact that the 2013 PBS documentary paid minimal attention to revisionists. My book chapter covering this episode moves on from outlining what happened to stress the need both to treat the Orson Welles’s line more critically and to acknowledge the merits of revisionist accounts. Today, there appears an unbridgeable divide between academic and lay perceptions regarding the Orson Welles’ broadcast, but clearly the popular image thereof is deeply ingrained. Indeed the myth has grown exponentially over the years, and in many respects revisionists can be seen as engaged in a losing battle if they think they are capable of changing it. At the same time Orson Welles’ radio drama has played a major role in giving continuing visibility to H.G. Wells in general and The War of the Worlds in particular, while providing illuminating insights into the way in which Wells’ writings touched upon latent apocalyptic fears as well as into popular psychology.  In turn, the continuing academic, media and popular focus upon the 1938 programme, including the multimedia adaptations based upon Orson Welles’ template, has proved instrumental in prompting new generations across the world to access the book inspiring the radio drama.

Could you talk a little bit about the sheer range of direct adaptations that Wells’ text has inspired?

When researching and writing about The War of the Worlds as a serial and a book, I soon came to appreciate the story’s often overlooked afterlife.  Indeed, over one century on from its initial publication it seems to have an increasingly active afterlife through adaptation for use in a wide range of multimedia formats. Notwithstanding its strong sense of time and place centred upon late Victorian London and Surrey, The War of the Worlds has proved exceptionally adaptable. Thus, the story has been reimagined and retold frequently through alternative audio-visual and literary formats normally set in different locations and time periods appropriate to the prevailing moods of the day. The storyline’s plasticity means that its alien invasion template, though applied by Wells to late Victorian London and Surrey, could be set anywhere – for example, Boston, Braga, Buffalo, Lisbon, Los Angeles, New York, Providence, Quito, Rio de Janeiro, and Santiago have suffered the same fate as London – and in any time period.

Steven Spielberg's adaptation of The War of the Worlds (2005)
Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of The War of the Worlds (2005)

In turn, each new adaptation marks recognition of the literary quality and originality of Wells’ genre-defining storyline. In particular, adaptations show that Wells’ strong sense of time and place was both a strength, such as in terms of enhancing the story’s realism, and a weakness in enabling Wells’ text to be rewritten for alternative locations and periods just by switching the landing point, the Martians’ target and the date of the invasion. In certain cases, like the 2005 Steven Spielberg film, even the Martians were written out of the storyline to be replaced by anonymous alien invaders. Adaptations reflect also the timeless character of a storyline reconfigured repeatedly in different media to reflect contemporary scenarios, such as the threat of world war during the late 1930s in the case of Orson Welles’ radio drama, Cold War paranoia during the early 1950s for George Pal’s film, and post-9/11 trauma for Spielberg’s film.

“Adaptations reflect also the timeless character of a storyline reconfigured repeatedly in different media to reflect contemporary scenarios, such as the threat of world war during the late 1930s in the case of Orson Welles’ radio drama, Cold War paranoia during the early 1950s for George Pal’s film, and post-9/11 trauma for Spielberg’s film.”

As a result, the story has continually been taken to new audiences across the world. The book still sells well, but today most people probably access the story first through a film, a television programme or Jeff Wayne’s music CD/show. For example, Professor Simon James, a leading Wellsian scholar based at the University of Durham, admitted that ‘Like many born in the 1970s, my earliest exposure to Wells’ words was through Jeff Wayne’s musical adaptation of The War of the Worlds’.  Henceforth the recent expiration of copyright on Wells’ publications seems likely to boost publications of his work as well as studies and adaptations thereof. For example, Stephen Baxter’s The Massacre of Mankind, a sequel to The War of the Worlds, was published in January 2017, while a television series based on the story is in production by Mammoth Screen.

In what ways does The War of the Worlds inform literature and the wider culture today?

Fuelled by Wells’ vivid imagination and scientific knowledge, The War of the Worlds highlights the originality of his writing and choice of topics.  Wells’ writing, reflecting his gift of narration, possessed a highly visual, even cinematic quality, helping to engage readers.  Wells’ skills as an author of scientific romances, lay in his ability to mix fact and fiction, juxtaposing fantastic scenarios, what he called ‘exercises of the imagination’, with everyday realities and actual places like Horsell Common, Woking and Primrose Hill. For Wells, fantasy only worked if set somewhere very real.

The principal literary legacy of The War of the Worlds arises from its role in supporting Wells’ claim to be one of the founders, even the founder, of science fiction, and particularly the originator of the alien invasion sub-genre. Madox Ford praised Wells for originating ‘a perfectly new brand’ of literature combined with science. Writing at a time when science was beginning to play an increasingly important role in politics, the economy and society, Wells led the way in bridging the gap between science and culture by harnessing the power of his scientific knowledge to literature in order not only to write about his own world, but also to provide a window into alternative worlds.

“Writing at a time when science was beginning to play an increasingly important role in politics, the economy and society, Wells led the way in bridging the gap between science and culture by harnessing the power of his scientific knowledge to literature in order not only to write about his own world, but also to provide a window into alternative worlds.”

Media coverage of recent space exploration concerning Mars, combined with numerous literary and audio-visual adaptations of The War of the Worlds, reaffirm Wells’ prominent place in contemporary popular culture. Indeed, ever since The War of the Worlds was published during the late 1890s, he has proved an influential popular cultural figure, as highlighted by his inclusion as one of the sixty or so people selected to feature on the cover of The Beatles’ iconic ‘Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’ music album.  Writing in the Independent after the death of David Bowie, Simon O’Hagan drew links with Wells such as regards attitudes towards suburbia and space when arguing that ‘Bowie was in some ways the H. G. Wells of the jukebox.’  I have discussed the Bowie-Wells linkage in more detail in a blog published by the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin.

Did you come across any shocks or surprises during your research?

This book developed out of my personal interest in knowing more about Wells, Woking and The War of the Worlds.  As a historian, my principal areas of research and publication was the history of British foreign policy and the presentation of history to different audiences. In effect I parachuted into Wells’ writing with relatively little previous study of his work.  Hence during the research stage I was learning new things about Wells and his publications all the time.  Nevertheless, I was surprised by how young Wells was when residing in Woking during 1895-96, and how he was represented then as a new young writer, not an established mature writer. The new statue of Wells erected in Woking in September 2016 – sixteen members of the Wells family were in attendance – as part of the Wells in Woking 2016 celebrations reflects this point. Likewise, Wells’ love life proved a hitherto unknown dimension as far as I was concerned. It was also revealing to check out how far Wells’ autobiography accurately reflected his life and career.  For instance, in Experiment in Autobiography (1934) he records the wrong date for his first marriage, an error repeated in several biographies of Wells. Although I was aware of some adaptations of Wells’ The War of the Worlds, I was amazed to discover the ever-widening range of multimedia adaptations. Also, as mentioned above, I soon became aware of the debatable nature of the claims made by Orson Welles about the impact of his 1938 radio drama.

What’s next for you?

Having published this book and delivered four talks as part of the ‘Wells in Woking 2016’ programme, I am working to write up at least one of these talks for publication as an article. Otherwise I have no plans to write more about Wells in the near future, but I remain a member of the task group which is remaining in place to ensure that Woking continues to celebrate its Wellsian heritage. Currently I am writing the concluding chapter for an edited book about sport and diplomacy. My future plans centre upon a book about official secrecy and the writing of political memoirs, diaries and biographies.

The War of the Worlds: From H. G. Wells to Orson Welles, Jeff Wayne, Steven Spielberg & Beyond is available from Bloomsbury.


About the Author

Peter J. Beck is Emeritus Professor of International History at Kingston University, UK. His previous publications include Presenting History: Past and Present (2012).

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