[I originally posted this to my personal blog on the Wizards Community about a year ago. It turned out to be the one and only post I ever made there, and it’s unlikely I’ll start using it again now that I’m keeping this one up. Such as it is. In any event, I’m reposting here in an effort to consolidate my online universe. And to save myself the effort of putting together a real post today. No, just joking about that last point; I’m going to try to get another post up later today. Or tomorrow. Or the next day.]

I have opinions on many things, and am generally pretty good about sharing them (if “good” is really the right term). One opinion I’ve held for a long time, but I don’t recall really sharing, relates to The War of the Worlds. I walked Horsell Common just outside Woking yesterday (the site at which H.G. Wells had the first martian spacecraft land, thereby making it the site of the first alien invasion ever publicly imagined by mankind), and my kids’ curiosity has led me to put on the Jeff Wayne version this afternoon. So no better time than the present to share this thought.

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There has never been a good movie version of The War of the Worlds. OK, so that part is hardly revolutionary. But I know why, and I can pin it down to three specific reasons.

The first is not insurmountable, but it does lead to the others. The film tradition for this story is to retell it as a modern tale–the martians invade today. But guess what: the concept of alien invasion is so cliched now that this diminishes the classic into the same category as Independence Day or a thousand other action-adventure SF tales. A turn-of-the-century setting would help this story stand out from the crowd and let it stand on its own merits, insulating it from inevitable comparison to other films that might frankly do the alien invasion action thriller thing better. WotW isn’t really an action thriller, despite many thrilling scenes, and setting it in its proper time and place would let it better be what it really is. Plus it would just be really cool to see the alien invasion theme juxtaposed on Wells’s Victorian England instead of the usual modern America.

The second mistake is the most egregious, and it follows from the first: In pitting the martians against the modern military, filmmakers lack the vision to make them threatening without making them invulnerable. So it’s invulnerable they are, and nothing we can throw at them does any good.

This is a serious flaw. Wells’s aliens were distinctly NOT invulnerable, even to the military technology of 1889. Humanity was seriously outmatched, and every battle was won easily by the martians. But the Thunderchild destroyed multiple tripods before the martians melted her valiant heart, and in doing so achieved a level of drama the films have never matched. When Spielberg’s military continues to throw itself at the martians despite knowing that nothing works, well, that’s just futility. When the Thunderchild charges the tripods in the Thames estuary, taking two of them down so the refugee steamers can escape, that’s heroism of the highest order. The tripods are just killable enough that heroism makes a difference, but their victory is just certain enough that the heroism is true heroism. Wells walks the line perfectly. It doesn’t seem like that’s rocket science, but no filmmaker has managed to follow him along that line.

The third issue relates to a serious flaw in the original story, one that a careful scriptwriter ought to be able to address, but none ever has. Wells explores all of humanity’s countermeasures to the invasion: military action, science, human endeavor, heroism, and God, and finds them all lacking; in the end it’s the common cold that kills off the martians. This is basically a deus-ex-machina ending, but Wells at least foreshadows it in the early passages of the novel. I don’t think any of the film versions even bother to foreshadow, let alone improve the storytelling. I posit that setting the film in its native 1898 would make it easier to do so; at least in that context the study of bacteria was as cutting-edge as many other of the story’s concepts, so there’d be some reason to spend a little time on it.

So there you go: my thoughts on how to fix the film woes of War of the Worlds. Sure would like to see such a version in my lifetime. How would you fix it?

 

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