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Posts Tagged ‘George Pal’

I am given to understand that there were some grumbles that the TV schedule for the festive season just past was in some way sub-standard, with rather fewer ‘treats’ than people have become used to. It may not come as a surprise if I reveal that I am not the kind of person to be particularly stimulated by Christmas specials of Call the Midwife, Strictly Come Dancing or (God help us) Michael MacIntyre’s Big Show, and lavish all-star Christie adaptations don’t really do it for me either. However, on reflection, I must admit to a little surprise and mild disappointment, for at one point all the signs were that one of the BBC’s Christmas offerings was going to be a new adaptation of The War of the Worlds.

Now, when I think about it, I’m actually quietly certain that this thing is going to be a disappointment to me whenever it actually appears, because the BBC, which is usually pretty faithful when it comes to bringing Jane Austen or Anthony Trollope to the screen, has historically shown no such fidelity when it comes to classic genre fiction – see, for instance, the atrocious version of The Day of the Triffids they inflicted on the world at Christmas 2009. But such is my fondness for The War of the Worlds that I will stay optimistic until it actually arrives.

I should make this clear – The War of the Worlds, the novel? Love it. The radio version? Love it. The concept album? Love it. Stephen Baxter’s authorised sequel? Love it. The Spielberg movie? I can appreciate its merits. The 1980s TV show – well, now, let’s be sensible. I watched pretty much the whole first season, which many would say was going above and beyond the call of duty. One of the (many) problems with the War of the Worlds TV show is that it’s operating two steps removed from H.G. Wells, in that it is basically a small-screen sequel to the 1953 movie produced by George Pal and directed by Byron Haskin. You will not be terribly surprised to learn that I really like this movie, too, even though it has an extremely liberal attitude towards the source novel.

After a slightly frantic set of credits, the film gets underway, as any self-respecting iteration of The War of the Worlds must, with the famous ‘No-one would have believed…’ passage from the book, updated to reflect the film’s 1950s setting. Through the wonders of gorgeous special effects and rather dubious astronomical exposition, we learn that the planet Mars is dying, and its inhabitants have only one option when it comes to migrating to another planet – it’s Earth or bust!

Everyone on Earth is oblivious to this, of course, even after what seems to be a rather unusual meteorite lands in the California hills. The locals are delighted, thinking that their ship has come in and a new tourist attraction has arrived, but rugged scientist Clayton Forrester (Gene Barry) is less convinced – the new arrival seems to be radioactive, and didn’t behave like a normal meteorite. He goes off to the local square dance with impressively-banged local girl Sylvia (Ann Robinson – not that one) to pass the time while the rock cools down.

Needless to say, the town is in for a surprise, for the meteorite unscrews and a death ray on a stalk proceeds to obliterate the locals left to keep an eye on it, while a powerful magnetic field knocks out the town’s electricity. The army is called in, with a view to containing the Martian invaders – for other Martian cylinders have begun landing all over the world, with reports of chaos and destruction filtering through – and the kindly local priest makes a brave attempt to establish peaceful contact with the aliens. Naturally, the Martians smoke him. The US military aren’t about to let this sort of behaviour carry on unchecked, and unleash their might at the alien war machines, only to find them impervious to earthly weapons. The authorities are forced into a desperate, futile rear-guard action as the Martians expand their terrestrial dominion, and all seems hopeless for the human race…

My general feeling about both The War of the Worlds and The Time Machine are that they are foundation stones of science fiction, but also books which are now sort of dated: both of them are driven by social and philosophical concerns and are indeed essentially topical satire – of the British class system, in the case of The Time Machine, and the British empire with The War of the Worlds. Unsurprisingly, the satirical and allegorical element of the novel does not survive into the film, which is instead almost as pure a piece of Red Scare thrill-mongering as you can find. It is telling that, for all the indications that this is a global catastrophe (we are shown the Eiffel Tower toppling, and Martian war machines in front of a ruined Taj Mahal), there is not one mention of the Martians attacking the Soviet Union, or indeed that the USSR even exists. Wells’ concerns have been extracted and replaced by those of 1950s Hollywood.

I could easily fill the rest of this piece by cataloguing all the other numerous and comprehensive differences between the original novel and this adaptation: most obviously, there is the shift in setting, from southern England in the early 20th century to California in the 1950s, and there’s also the fact that the Martians in this movie cruise around in sleek manta-ray hovercraft, rather than the iconic tripedal fighting machines of the book. It’s really the case that virtually none of the specifics of the novel’s plot survive into the film, which concerns itself almost exclusively with the first half of the book.

This concerns the initial Martian landings, their crushing of the forces sent against them, and the panic and chaos that convulses human society. Other than the conclusion, the second half of the novel – which deals with the Martian occupation of England, and goes into slightly more detail about their nature and technology – is entirely absent. This is no doubt partly due to the technical limitations of the period – it’s hard to imagine how the special effects of the 1950s could have rendered the spread of the red weed, for instance – but Wells’ more philosophical musings are not really the stuff of an American sci-fi movie, while in another key respect the film is entirely at odds with Wells’ conception.

Whether you consider the end of The War of the Worlds to be an outrageous deus ex machina or a subtly-foreshadowed denouement entirely of a piece with the rest of the book is probably a matter of personal taste, but it survives in the movie more-or-less intact. However, Wells intent has been comprehensively subverted, in another fundamental change. Wells’ atheism is discarded, and – like many classic SF movies from this period – the themes of the film are presented in almost spiritual terms. People take refuge in churches; there are many references to prayer and miracles; when one boffin gravely announces the Martians will conquer the world in six days, Ann Robinson reminds us all that this was the same length of time it took to create it. In short, the film is basically reminding the audience that technological superiority is all very well, but victory only comes by the grace of God – the death of the Martians here isn’t simply a matter of biological process, but presented as divine intervention. The end of the film, with church bells tolling and a grateful population flocking to give thanks, appears to have been an influence on at least two other films – the film version of Day of the Triffids, and the British catastrophe movie The Day the Earth Caught Fire.

It seems, therefore, that very little of the actual substance of the novel survives into this adaptation. Why, then, am I so fond of it? Well, quite apart from the fact it often has a kind of hokey charm unique to itself, it’s also the case that while the film changes virtually every detail of the book, it captures its tone and spirit with an accuracy which is hugely impressive. The Martian onslaught against the US army, death rays slashing in all directions as the human guns fail to hit their targets, is absolutely of a piece with the novel; the eerie scenes with Forrester and Sylvia trapped in a ruined house, Martians all around them, are also closely inspired by the similar section in the book. The climactic sequence depicting the breakdown of law and order and near-rioting in the streets as the Martians advance on downtown Los Angeles also catch the essence of Wells’ description of ‘the rout of civilisation… the massacre of mankind’ extraordinarily well, in the circumstances.

In the end I’m almost moved to describe the movie of The War of the Worlds not so much as an adaptation as a cover version – it retains only the most basic outline of Wells’ book, changing virtually every detail of narrative and theme. And yet it also seems to have locked onto the most vivid and powerful segments of the story and retained them, in terms of their emotional impact and effectiveness. It’s a fairly irregular way to go about adapting a book, but the result is a movie that still somehow does credit to the source material. Not many adaptations of classic SF novels stand up as well as this one.

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