The War of the Worlds by H. G. Wells

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The Scientific Romances

(Novels for Students)

The War of the Worlds is the archetype of all B-Grade films which present giant creatures from another world who invade the earth armed with death-ray guns. The imagery of the novel is so vivid that it is no wonder film scenarists have always thought of outer-space invasions in Wellsian terms. Moreover, one grasps from this novel the essential technique of all of Wells’s scientific romances, Dr. Moreau excepted: the pinning of strange events to an everyday locale. The attraction of The Invisible Man lay in placing the astounding dilemma of Griffin within the slow village life of Iping. In The War of the Worlds, the narrator sees the effects of the Martian invasion on a village in Woking, a place familiar to Wells because he once retreated there to convalesce from illness. Wells wrote in his autobiography of bicycling about the district and “marking down suitable places and people for destruction by my Martians.” However, unless one counts Wells’s characteristic chiding of the clergy in the sketch of a curate whose corner on salvation barely tides him over the invasion period, there is no evidence that Wells was writing autobiographically or even thought of his Woking villagers as individuals.

Combined with a faultless adherence to downto- earth physical details is a sense of time; the chronology of invasion is attributable about equally to a boy’s imaginative grasp of war games and to a man’s foreboding vision of terrestrial resistance turned to panic:

About three o’clock there began the thud of a gun at measured intervals from Chertsey to Addlestone. I learnt that the smouldering pine-wood into which the second cylinder had fallen was being shelled in the hope of destroying that object before it opened. It was only about five, however, that a field gun reached Chobham for use against the first body of Martians.

About six in the evening, as I sat at tea with my wife in the summer-house talking vigorously about the battle that was lowering upon us, I heard a muffled detonation from the common, and immediately after a gust of firing. Close on the heels of that came a violent rattling crash, quite close to us, that shook the ground; and, starting out upon the lawn, I saw the tops of the trees about the Oriental College burst into smoky red flame, and the tower of the little church beside it slide down the ruin. The pinnacle of the mosque had vanished, and the roof-line of the college itself looked as if a hundred-ton gun had been at work upon it. One of our chimneys cracked as if a shot had hit it, flew, and a piece of it came clattering down the tiles and made a heap of broken red fragments upon the flowerbed by my study window.

I and my wife stood amazed. Then I realized that the crest of Mayberry Hill must be within range of the Martians’ Heat-Ray now that the college was cleared out of the way.

This extraordinary grasp of moment-to-moment detail made the novel easy prey for Orson Welles when in 1938 he converted it into the script which panicked a national radio audience. Welles changed the setting from a British district to Grover Mill, New Jersey. That he drew from Wells the essential imagery of the invasion can be seen by a comparison of the novel’s description of the Martian emerging from the space-cylinder with that of the radio script. In The War of the Worlds, Wells writes:

A big greyish rounded bulk, the size, perhaps, of a bear, was rising slowly and painfully out of the cylinder. As it bulged up and caught the light, it glistened like wet leather.

Two large dark-coloured eyes were regarding me steadfastly. The mass that framed them, the head of the thing, it was rounded, and had, one might say, a face. There was a mouth under the eyes, the lipless brim of which quivered and panted, and dropped saliva. The whole creature heaved and pulsated convulsively. A lank tentacular appendage gripped the edge of the cylinder, another swayed in the air.

In the scenario, the announcer gasps: “Good heavens, something’s...

(The entire section is 4,097 words.)