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. (more…)

Chicago University Press releases the final installment of The Great Movies series

Roger Ebert, The Great Movies IV (Chicago University Press, 2016)
Roger Ebert, The Great Movies IV (Chicago University Press, 2016)
Roger Ebert was more than just an opposable thumb. His television appearances with Gene Siskel and regular dispatches to the Chicago Sun-Times made him one of the most well-known and beloved movie critics in America. The fourth volume of Great Movies, recently published by Chicago University Press, showcases over sixty of Ebert’s reviews spanning the history of cinema. Together in one place, these brief essays offer fresh insights into established classics, and draw attention to noteworthy outliers that deserve a closer look.

Among other things, the collection includes discussions of The Beatles’ Yellow Submarine (released ‘after the Summer of Love but before Woodstock’), and Hiyao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away (written after Ebert’s third viewing). Also included are reviews of Spike Lee’s 25th Hour, Jim Jarmusch’s Mystery Train, and Spielberg’s deceptively simple science-fiction narrative, A.I.: Artificial Intelligence – a film that Kubrick gave to Spielberg when he felt he could not achieve the special-effects required. (more…)

What the hit Netflix show can tell us about our fascination with ’80s nostalgia and American suburban gothic

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The word ‘stranger’ can suggest many things. One antiquated definition, used in the 18th and 19th century, refers to ‘things which are popularly imagined to forebode the coming of an unexpected visitor’ (OED). These ‘things’ might refer to tea leaves floating in a cup, a moth appearing suddenly out of the dark, or candlewax that causes the light of a flame to flicker and die. For viewers of Netflix’s thrilling new drama, Stranger Things, this superstition holds a unique significance.

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Will Self rates the film as an adaptation of Ballard’s vision
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Promotional poster for Ben Wheatley’s High-Rise

Of the film adaptations that had been made of his work during his lifetime, JG Ballard vouchsafed to me that he liked Jonathan Weiss’s version of The Atrocity Exhibition the best. It was hardly a surprising verdict; the movie, released in 2000, eschews any of the easy certainties of narrative for a furious collage of extreme images – urban wastelands, nuclear explosions, penises rhythmically pumping in and out of vaginas – all to the accompaniment of a voice-over comprising near-verbatim passages from the quasi-novel. And as the book is a furious collage of extreme images, the film is of the highest fidelity imaginable.

Ballard also liked Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of Empire of the Sun, although more, one suspects, because of the opportunity he got to be an extra in a party scene that was set in a simulacrum of his parents’ interwar home in Shanghai. So tickled was he by this Möbius-looping of reality and the imagined that Ballard wrote about the episode in another roman-à-clef, The Kindness of Women. When it was announced in the early 1990s that David Cronenberg was to adapt Ballard’s apocalyptic tale of autogeddon, Crash, and moreover set it in Toronto, I was so exercised that I phoned the writer. “You can’t let him do that, Jim,” I protested (or words to that effect). “Crash is one of the great London novels. The city demands that it be set right here!” He was having none of it and gently talked me down: the point of the novel was to describe a global phenomenon, one Ballard termed “the death of affect”. It was quite irrelevant which city the film was set in – the important point was that Cronenberg’s affectless vision and planar cinematography, all lit at operating-theatre strength, strongly resonated with Ballard. (more…)

Tim Crane (TLS) reflects on the life and work of the enigmatic Austrian philosopher
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Ludwig Wittgenstein

Among all twentieth-century thinkers, Ludwig Wittgenstein stands out as the one whose life fascinates almost as much as his work does. Even the life of Martin Heidegger, with his controversial Nazi connections and his later attempt to live the authentic life of a peasant, looks dull and suburban by comparison. Wittgenstein was born in 1889 into one of Austria’s richest families. His father was a self-made industrialist who built his fortune in iron and steel; his mother came from a Prague Jewish family. Ludwig was the youngest of eight siblings – he had three sisters and four brothers. Tragedy hit the family again and again. Three of Ludwig’s brothers committed suicide. The fourth, Paul, was a concert pianist who lost his right arm in the First World War and later commissioned works for the left hand from Ravel, Prokofiev, Paul Hindemith and Erich Korngold. (Music figured significantly in the family’s life: Brahms, Mahler and Richard Strauss were among the composers who heard their works performed at the Wittgenstein house in Vienna.) Ludwig originally studied engineering, first in Berlin and then in Manchester, where he became interested in the design of aeroplane propellors. At this time he developed a deep interest in mathematics and its foundations. Having studied the ground-breaking works of philosophy of mathematics by Bertrand Russell and Gottlob Frege, he visited Frege in Jena who advised him to study with Russell in Cambridge. Wittgenstein turned up, unannounced, at Russell’s rooms in Trinity College in October 1911, and discussed philosophy with Russell regularly over the next few months. Russell wrote to Ottoline Morrell that his “Austrian engineer” was “rather good” but “very argumentative and tiresome”. But Russell was sufficiently impressed to accept Wittgenstein as a student at Cambridge in 1912. Wittgenstein had a huge impact on the intellectual scene there, but throughout his life he claimed to dislike Cambridge and preferred to spend time writing and thinking in remote, isolated places (Norway and Ireland were favourites).

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An abridgement of Simon Critchley’s landmark essay on the 1999 film
Wittgenstein asks a question, which sounds like the first line of a joke: ‘How does one philosopher address another?’ To which the unfunny and perplexing riposte is: ‘Take your time’. Terrence Malick is evidently someone who takes his time. Since his first movie, Badlands, was premiered at the New York Film Festival in 1973, he has directed just two more: Days of Heaven, in 1979, and then nearly a 20 year gap until the long-awaited 1998 movie, The Thin Red Line, which is the topic of this essay.

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A notable precursor to the contemporary zombie movie
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Richard Matheson, I Am Legend
Recently, I picked up a copy of Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend at a second-hand bookstore. Matheson—whose high-concept man vs. truck short story Duel was to launch the career of Steven Spielberg—made a name for himself in the genres of science-fiction, horror and fantasy. His writing spans novels and short stories, alongside work in television and film. I Am Legend, itself no stranger to the silver screen, has been adapted no less than three times, and is, in some ways, a reflective document of post-war American culture. First published in 1954, it laid an early foundation for zombie movies such as George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968) series, and critiques many of the same social and cultural concerns associated with these later films.

“a reflective document of post-war American culture”

The plot revolves around Robert Neville, the ‘last living man on earth’. He navigates a post-apocalyptic landscape where every other man, woman, and child has been converted into zombie-like nocturnal vampires. It is a cautionary tale, negotiating the long-term impact of violence and exploitation in the atomic age.   (more…)