Deconstructing Herbert: The War of the Worlds on Film

Article excerpt

Herbert George Wells (1866-1946), author of The War of the Worlds (1898), was a person of his times-as are we all. Embedded in a society's cultural constructions, situated in particular moments in history, individuals inevitably reflect their contexts, even when rebelling against them. This phenomenon, of course, affects film adaptations, especially those produced by a different generation than that of the source text. The 2005 adaptation of The War of the Worlds dramatically illustrates how a postmodern context affects and redirects a modernist text.

Like any adapting filmmaker, Steven Spielberg (my abbreviation for both the director and writers Josh Friedman and David Koepp) elucidates a great deal about the generation to which he appeals, a generation very different from that in which the source text was written. Unlike Wells's unnamed protagonist-a highly educated, happily married, childless English philosopher whose servant brings him tea-the film's Tom Cruise plays Ray Ferrier, a divorced New Jersey dockworker insouciantly oblivious to the allergies and interests of his children-until alien attacks disrupt his working-class world.

In 2005, of course, an attack on city-dwelling civilians elicits specific fears, and Spielberg inserts several allusions to the 9/11/01 horror: a crashed airplane in the midst of a housing development; personal belongings falling from the sky; gray ash from disintegrated human flesh filling the air; and, most explicitly, homemade placards on walls and fences advertising loved ones missing since the fall of the Twin Towers. As explosions devastate the neighborhood, Ray's son and daughter both ask, at different moments, "Is it terrorists?" Ironically, the son's question leads to one of the few laugh lines of the whole film: when Ray answers "This came from someplace else," his panicking son yells, "What? Like Europe?" Because "Europe" functions for Americans as an icon of civilized refinement and artistic sophistication, the idea of Europeans attacking blue-collar row houses in New Jersey generated sniggers in many movie theaters.

Ironically, H. G. Wells wrote The War of the Worlds at a time of increasing English fears about attacking Europeans. In 1871, influenced by recent Prussian aggression, Sir George Tomkyns Chesney published a best-selling story about the Germans overpowering the much weaker English army. Called The Battle of Dorking, the popular fictional tale led to a plethora of publications about future wars and their gruesome consequences: a publishing rage that lasted well into the twentieth century (see Clarke 30-63). It may be no coincidence that when Wells wrote The War of the Worlds in the midst of this craze, he had the first Martian cylinder land near "Woking," a place similar in sound to "Dorking."

Whether or not he thought of this phonic echo, Wells places in his novel many of the fears and attitudes, discoveries and technologies of his own day. Writing during the so-called '"golden age' of the machine gun" he has the army use it against the invaders (McConnell, Wells 160, nt. 9). He criticizes his era's imperialist exuberance by suggesting parallels between English colonialism and the Martian invasion. And, most relevant of all, Mars had come into unusually close proximity to Earth not long before Wells began writing The War of the Worlds. In the novel's first chapter he mentions the 1894 discovery of "canali" (translated into English as "canals") on the red planet: a discovery that led to numerous speculations in his day about life on Mars (Wells 126).

In 2005, of course, Mars no longer operates as a possible origin of extraterrestrials. Star Trek and Star Wars movies took us-at warp speed-to places "where no one has gone before": outside the Milky Way. As screenwriter David Koepp noted in an interview, "We've been to Mars [...] there's nothing there." He therefore had the alien invaders seem to come "from somewhere far away, and they don't seem to want to tell us where they're from. …