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War of the Worlds at 125

2023 marks a mathematically tidy triple anniversary for War of the Worlds.

First published as a book in 1898, H. G. Wells’s classic is now 125 years old. Exactly four decades later, the American filmmaker and radio personality Orson Welles aired his famous on-air adaptation, terrifying the East Coast with fears of an actual Martian invasion. Adding another four decades, 2023 also marks the 45th anniversary of Jeff Wayne’s best-selling rock-opera based on Wells — and released on vinyl in 1978.

Since Orson Welles’s 1938 version coincided with Halloween, here’s an October reflection on some notable permutations of this tale since its 19th-century debut.

“The War of the Worlds,” H. G. Wells (1898) – First appearing as a magazine serial, Wells’s original masterpiece concerns a terrestrial assault by technologically advanced Martians who come crashing down in metal cylinders — a book written before man had even learned how to to fly, much less navigate interplanetary space.

In addition to space travel, Wells anticipates lasers with the deadly Martian heat-ray, and — in their poisonous black gas — the impending chemical warfare of World War I. The book is beautifully written, and its surprise ending remains both impressive and scientifically sound.

Thematically, WotW exhorts kindness to lesser creatures (humans learn what it’s like to be treated as animals); similarly, it indicts British imperialism by putting England on the receiving end of a brutal attempt at colonization. Excitement, science, solid prose, a twist ending and plenty to think about — IMO, a virtually perfect book.

“War of the Worlds,” Orson Welles (1938) – Welles adapted the novel as a live radio show for his weekly program — set up as a series of alleged real-time newscasts from New Jersey; though this was not a deliberate hoax, many listeners assumed it was genuine, inundating roads, train stations and police switchboards. Having sparked some public outrage, this notorious broadcast solidified the reputation of young Welles, who went on to such classic films as Citizen Kane and Touch of Evil.

“The War of the Worlds” directed by Byron Haskin (1953) – Like Welles, this landmark film (observing its 70th anniversary this year) transfers action from England to America. It also modernizes the book with flying machines in place of Martian tripods — along with force fields and an atomic bomb. Produced by George Pal (The 
Time Machine), Haskin’s exciting rendition snagged an Oscar for special effects; in 2011 it was selected for the Library of Congress’s prestigious National Film Registry. The film stars Gene Barry and Ann Robinson, who both get cameos in the 2005 Steven Spielberg version (below).

“Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of the War of the Worlds” (1978) – An intoxicating blend of progressive rock, orchestra and narration, Wayne’s sprawling two-LP take on Wells remains the 40th best-selling album of all time in Great Britain. Lifting huge chunks of Wells’s prose — but adding new material as well — Wayne employs an evocative Richard Burton for his narrator, also calling on such musical personnel as Justin Hayward (Moody Blues), David Essex (“Rock On”), Phil Lynott (Thin Lizzie) and Julie Covington, who originated the title role in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Evita. This album is a masterpiece, having spawned video games, a DVD and several live tours; some of the latter are available to watch on YouTube.

“The War of the Worlds,” directed by Steven Spielberg (2005) – Smart, fast, handsome, scary; you’d expect no less from Spielberg in this modernized version penned by veteran screenwriter David Koepp (Jurassic Park, Mission: Impossible, Spider-Man). Starring Tom Cruise and Dakota Fanning, with narration by Morgan Freeman.

“War of the Worlds: Global Dispatches,” ed. Kevin J. Anderson (2013) – This insanely cool anthology recounts Wells’s Martian invasion as it would’ve been experienced by some of the author’s contemporaries: Picasso, Einstein, Churchill, Twain, Jack London, Teddy Roosevelt, Emily Dickinson and a gaggle of rough-and-tough Texas Rangers — among others. Contributing writers include Robert Silverberg, Connie Willis, David Brin and Gregory Benford.

Plenty to choose from here; but if you still haven’t read the original, start with that. Audible’s version is narrated by the amazing David Tennant.

Say no more.