Multiple film adaptations of “The War of The Worlds” have been made including sequels. The most well-known of these adaptations were released in 1953 and 2005 and diverge from the novel’s storyline while reflecting their respective time periods
Henrique Alvim Corrêa's depiction of the tripods from The War of the Worlds (Source: Wiki Commons)
1. “The War of The Worlds” (1953)
The 1953 film adaptation of “The War of The Worlds” is set in Southern California and includes a much larger emphasis on narrative and characters than the novel.
The film opens with a nameless narrator describing the solar system and the need of Martians to find a new home, quoting near directly from the opening of the novel. After this introduction, the film moves to Dr. Clayton Forrester, a scientist of no specific field, who is on a fishing trip with colleagues in Southern California when what is assumed to be a meteor falls. He travels to the site where he speculates with authorities and meets Sylvia Van Buren. Determined to investigate once the ‘meteor’ has cooled, Forrester goes into town with Sylvia and attends a square dance. Three deputies remain at the site to keep guard and protect civilians, and witness the opening of the cylinder. They attempt to welcome the travelers but are vaporized instead.
At the square dance, the power suddenly shuts off, a man shouts that the phones are down as well, and soon many notice that their watches have stopped. Dr. Forrester realizes an Electro Magnetic Pulse (EMP) has occurred and rushes back to the site of the ‘meteor.’ Seeing the remnants of the vaporized men, and another cylinder falling nearby, the police call in the military and battle begins. There is word that others cylinders have fallen around the world, and that the Martians seem to be working with a coordinated plan. After various failed military attempts, Forrester notes that “if they’re mortal they must have mortal weaknesses.”
Soon, Sylvia and Forrester find themselves trapped in a house in a scene reminiscent of that in the novel when the narrator and his companion, the curate, are confined to the kitchen and scullery of a house crushed by an adjacent cylinder. This is the only scene in the film providing a full view of a Martian being, a bipedal creature with a giant, tri-color eye within its chest. After Sylvia and Forrester escape, Military personnel state they have learned the cylinders are joining together in groups of three, and that there are plans to use an atomic weapon “ten times stronger than anything ever used before” against them. However, this bomb proves ineffective, causing Major General Mann to exclaim, “guns, tanks, bombs, they’re like toys against them!” Scientists calculate that the Martians will conquer the earth within six days, and begin to consider biological warfare. Authorities attempt to evacuate cities, and as the team of scientists attempts to relocate to a lab in the Rocky Mountains, they encounter mobs and lose their vehicles.
Stranded, Forrester begins to search for Sylvia, whom he fears has met a similar fate. While searching for her, Forrester runs into several of his colleagues who have taken refuge in a church, and soon discovers Sylvia. As the sounds of the Martians grow louder and nearer, the two embrace until the noise suddenly ceases. A crowd rushes outside to see the Martian ship has crashed into a building, and a port at the bottom opens. An arm-like appendage slowly reaches out, then stops and turns from the healthy shade of brown to a sickly green. Forrester searches for a pulse and pronounces it dead, blaming a lack of immunity to earthly germs for its death. The rest of the Martians meet a similar fate, and the unnamed narrator returns, reciting nearly verbatim several lines from the final chapter of the novel.
Similarities to Novel
Many parallels can be drawn between the novel and this adaptation. While the diary format has been abandoned, a narrator frames the film with adapted quotes, explaining reasoning and logic of the plot to the viewer just as the novel’s narrator does to his imagined audience.
“No one would have believed in the middle of the twentieth century that human affairs were being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than Man's. Yet, across the gulf of space on the planet Mars, intellects vast and cool and unsypathetic regarded our Earth with envious eyes, and slowly and surely joined their plans against us. Mars is more than 140 million miles from the sun, and for centuries has been in the last status of exhaustion. At night, temperatures drop far below zero even at its equator. Inhabitants of this dying planet looked across space with instruments and intelligences that which we have scarcely dreamed, searching for another world to which they could migrate.” --“The War of The Worlds” (1953)
“No one would have believed in the last years of the nineteenth century that this world was being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man’s….Yet across the gulf of space, minds that are to our minds as ours are to those beasts that perish, intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic, regarded this earth with envious eyes, and slowly and surely drew there plans against us…. The planet Mars, I scarcely need remind the reader, revolves about the sun at a mean distance of 140,000,000 miles, and the light and heat it receives form the sun is barely half of that received by this world….And looking across space with instruments, and intelligences such as we have scarcely dreamed of, they see, at its nearest distance only 35,000,000 of miles sunward of them a morning star of hope.” (41)
The film’s close also features a narrator reciting lines adapted form the novel.
Another relic of the diary format is a voiceover which is revealed to be the voice of a newscaster, who proceeds to state that all radio signals are down as a result of the Martian invasion, “which means these tape recordings I’m making are for the sake of future history…if any.” As well, the Martians’ technology remains largely unchanged, as they still utilize a ‘Heat-Ray,’ depicted as a stream of red sparks, to burn their surroundings. The Martians also travel on earth in ships reminiscent of tripods, which are supported by “invisible legs.”
Further, many scenes in the film parallel those of the novel. Sylvia and Dr. Forrester become trapped, briefly, in a house surrounded by Martian ships, in an abbreviated version of the two weeks the novel’s narrator spends trapped with the unstable Curate in the kitchen of a house that was largely crushed by the crash of a cylinder, and that is now a base of the Martians. In both of these scenes, a tentacle reaches into the room and explores, though in the film it seems to be a machine rather than an appendage.
Significant Differences from Novel
While less evident than the changes of time period and location, many smaller changes impact this film. Absent from this film are the Martian’s “Black Smoke” used in the novel to smoke out humans and the “Red Weed” which invades the landscape of the novel, and that’s wilting foreshadows the Martians’ eventual defeat.
Other changes result from the era in which this film was made. As the first cylinder begins to open, one of the deputies charged with guarding it shouts “its an enemy sneak attack!” The post-World War II mentality is also reflected by less sensitivity to violence and mass death, as well as through cooperation between nations to form an allegiance against the common enemy of the Martians rather than an ‘every man for himself’ mentality.
Finally, technology plays a key role in separating this film from the novel. Faster transportation allows the military to reach the cylinder sites quickly, and advanced science equipment leads to more information about the Martians physicality.
Henrique Alvim Corrêa's depiction of a Martian tripod and the Thunder Child ship from The War of the Worlds (Source: Wiki Commons)
2. “The War of The Worlds” (2005)
This adaptation moves the setting to the Eastern Seaboard of the United States and follows a new cast of characters.
Ray Ferrier arrives home from work to his pregnant ex-wife and her new husband waiting to drop off the children, Robby and Rachel. On television are news reports detailing storms, earthquakes, and Electro Magnetic Pulses (EMPs) in the Ukraine. A few hours later, a large storm is visible in the sky, lightning begins to strike down, and Ray and Rachel rush inside while Robby is still out. Huge bolts of lightning strike the same spot twenty-six times, and once it ceases Ray hurries to locate his son.
At the site of the lightning strike is a huge crack that rapidly begins to spread as the ground shakes, causing buildings to collapse. Mechanical arms spring out of the ground and the body of a tripod rises up and begins to cause havoc, using a heat-ray to vaporize people and buildings. Ray runs towards home and finds his son outside the house, confused. He begins to collect supplies in a hurry, refusing to tell his children what is happening for fear of scaring them. They find a rare working car and head towards his ex-wife’s home, which they find empty. They spend the night and awake to bright flashes and strange sounds. Ray goes outside, sees a plane has crashed in the street, and speaks to members of a news crew who inform him that there are ships (tripods) in cities around the world and that these are protected by invincible shields. The news producer shows Ray footage and explains that the machines seem to have been buried underground, and that the aliens rode down the lightning in capsules.
Ray and his children set out on the road again, this time heading to Boston, where the children’s mother and her new husband are visiting her parents. Along the way they are carjacked and proceed on foot with thousands of others, and soon three tripods emerge. As people flee, Robby attempts to run off in the direction that military vehicles are headed, and despite Ray’s efforts he escapes and runs off. Ray and Rachel find refuge in a basement with a man named Ogilvy, but soon the aliens approach the house in a scene parallel to the novel. After a time Ogilvy appears less and less sensible, filling the roles of both the Curate and the Artilleryman from the novel. Ray looks out the window to observe what’s outside and notices Red Weed growing rampant and extending into the basement. The sounds of the tripods momentarily cease, and a tentacle-like probe enters the basement through a window, searches briefly, and is followed by three aliens, creatures with large heads, bipedal bodies and tentacle-like appendages. Out of site, Ray and Ogilvy fight over a gun while the aliens appear to communicate amongst themselves. A sound rings out from a nearby tripod and the aliens leave. Through the window, Ray sees a man outside plucked up by a tentacle, and using a device the aliens proceed to drain his blood for sustenance as in the novel. Meanwhile, Ogilvy continues to mirror the Curate and the Artilleryman, trying to dig his way out of the basement and discussing the formation of an underground resistance, leading to a scuffle with Ray.
The film cuts to Ray and Rachel sleeping when the tentacle-like probe, complete with a camera appears in front of Rachel, prompting Ray to strike it with an axe, which in turn scares Rachel into running upstairs. After the probe retreats Ray searches upstairs for Rachel, and eventually goes outside, spots a tripod, and tries to strike it with a grenade. It reacts by picking him up and placing him in a hanging cage filled with others, including Rachel. A tentacle reaches down and grabs hold of Ray, and as others try to pull him down, he pulls the pin of another grenade from inside the tripod. The tripod falls over, and the cage drops in the explosion, freeing those inside.
The sun rises and Ray and Rachel approach Boston, where withering Red Weed is seen surrounding a statue. Moving on foot, they see a fallen tripod leaning against a building, and a soldier explains that it had been behaving strangely, moving in circles. It briefly moves before being hit by an explosion delivered by the army, and a hatch opens, revealing an alien arm slowly creeping forward before collapsing. Ray and Rachel make it to the end of their journey and are rejoined by Robby, the children’s mother, and others. In the closing sequence, the narrator returns, delivering lines adapted from the novel’s ending.
Screenshot from Steven Spielberg's film, War of the Worlds (Source: Wiki Commons)
Similarities to Novel
As is the case with the 1953 film adaptation of The War of The Worlds, scenes, characters, and details are paralleled in this film. Most notably is the similarity of Ogilvy to both the Curate and the Artilleryman who interact with the narrator of the novel. Ray’s time in the basement with Ogilvy includes the struggle over a gun Ogilvy wants to shoot at the aliens in place of the struggle of the novel’s protagonist to keep the Curate from revealing them. Later, Ogilvy embodies the Artilleryman in his attempt to dig his way out of the basement and his desire to form an underground resistance, mentioning the possible utilization of subway tunnels to connect humans while remaining hidden.
Additionally, many details of the aliens are maintained, including their process of draining humans’ blood for nourishment and to an extent in their physique, which features a large head and tentacle-like appendages. As well, the aliens use a heat-ray style weapon and bring Red Weed along with them.
Another instance of similarity occurs when ray and his children are carjacked. This parallels the scene in the novel in which the narrator’s brother is attacked repeatedly by others hoping to steal his cart. However, unlike the brother in the novel, Ray loses this battle and is forced to proceed on foot.
Significant Differences from Novel
Also in a similar fashion to the 1953 film adaptation of The War of The Worlds, this version is wrought with both major changes and smaller shifts from the novel. Aside from time and setting, the most major change is the method of invasion. Instead of riding in capsules shot by a rocket gun of sorts like in the novel, this adaptation follows a plot in which the aliens apparently buried their tripod machines underground millennia ago, and then ride down bolts of lighting in capsules, directly into their tripods. This proposes questions never answered in the film, such as why the machines were buried so long ago, why the aliens chose to strike when they did, and why, assuming they traveled to earth to bury these machines, they did not succumb to earthly bacteria at that time.
Another change occurs in the film’s terminology. Rather than “Martians” or “men from Mars,” these invaders are simply aliens. The change results from the exploration of Mars since the novel was written, which also caused changes in the opening narration, which in the novel mentions the earth’s proximity to Mars and details the Solar System.
Unlike both the novel and the 1953 film adaptation, no effort to make peace with the aliens occurs. The absence of a white flag scene goes unnoticed as the tripod begins to wage war as soon as it emerges, but this is still reflective of a less trusting culture and a perpetual state of fear.
While the novel was written in a time where invasion literature, stories which discussed the invasion of the British Empire, was relatively popular, this film was released in the midst of post-9/11 fears. When Ray returns home after seeing the first tripod, Rachel frantically asks if terrorists are attacking, also reminiscent of the 1953 film’s reflection of Cold War era fears.
As in the 1953 film, this version differs from the novel in that the attack is global. However, not all communication is cut off, as various governments and militia remain able to communicate.
3. “H.G. Wells' The War of the Worlds” (also known as “The Classic War of the Worlds”)
Also released in 2005 was an independent film adaptation that stayed faithfully to the novel, maintaining the time and location as well as the storyline of the novel.
4. “H. G. Wells' War of the Worlds” (also known as “Invasion” and “H. G. Wells' The Worlds in War”)
The third adaptation of The War of The Worlds to be released in 2005, this film also moved the setting to modern times but transformed it into a horror film with stronger violence and gore.
A sequel to this film known as “War of the Worlds 2: The Next Wave” was released in 2008, in which a second fleet of aliens travel to earth, leading the U.S. Military to attack Mars.