The Many Adaptations of War of the Worlds

The classic novel, The War of the Worlds by HG Wells, is arguably one of the most influental pieces of science fiction ever written. Released in 1897, first in serial format and a year later as a novel, it paved the way for other science fiction writers, and later, film makers. It is the foundation of a whole sub-genre of science fiction movies and litterature, and one I’m very fascinated by: the alien invasion story.

But as I’m sure you know, having a film about aliens, and especially aliens coming to Earth to make mischief, is far from an automatic stamp of quality. Even though this genre has been around for quite some time, it arrived rather late to our screens, considering that HG Wells wrote the classic tale some 120 years ago. It was first in the 50s that this genre really got going and aliens started arriving on our planets in droves, at least on the silver screen. And while some of these became true classics of the genre, most have been thrown onto the scrap heap of film history.

I have a special fascination for HG Wells’ story about Martians coming to Earth to destroy civilization, harvest human blood and generally make a nuisance of themselves. This all started when I was a child, about 7 or 8 years old. Being fans of the Jeff Wayne musical with Richard Burton as narrator, my parents had rented the 1953 film adaptation. Of course, myself being a fan of of science fiction (I had already been introduced to Star Wars by my father, a life changing moment), I had to watch it. Needless to say, I ended up covering behind the living room sofa in short order!

From that point on, I’ve been fascinated by the story, and I try to watch every version I can find and listen to any dramatization. And even though many of these stories fail to get HG Wells’ message through to the audience (or ignore it completely), it is interesting, and often hilarious, to watch the resulting productions.

Here are my own thoughts on the various live action film and television adaptaions I have seen so far. Also, since they’re all called War of the Worlds, I thought I’d add some alternative taglines myself. For more on each of these, click on the title to get to the IMDB page.

The War of the Worlds (1953)
Suggested Tagline: “Pray Away the Aliens”

Whatever I might feel about it, it is still a classic

This film, still seen by many as the classic of the alien invasion genre, was directed by Byron Haskin, and starred Gene Barry and Ann Robinson. It is somewhat based on the HG Wells novel, and as I mentioned earlier, it was the film that got me interested in the genre, despite the fact that my first attempt at watching it was less than successful.

It is a good enough film, and won an Oscar for best visual effects (which were impressive for its time), but personally I find that it somewhat misses to point of the original story by Wells. In the end, bacteria kills the Martians (like in the novel), but there are not-so-subtle hints it was actually divine intervention that saved the day, resulting in a movie that misses that the mark on what HG Wells wanted to get across to the reader.

War of the Worlds (1988-1990)
Suggested Tagline: “Hey, it’s that guy from Predator!”

Ah, the 80s…

This television series was meant as a sequel to the 1953 movie version (as if that needed a sequel…), and comes with a premise that could only have been cooked up by someone desperate, stupid, high or all three.

So, the Martians from the original invasion were not all killed, but went into a kind of stasis or hibernation. This allowed the governments to store these aliens in vats of chemicals (why?), and stack them up in poorly guarded facility somewhere (why??). There is a gunfight, and some of the vats are hit, releasing the aliens (of course..). These now have the ability to brutally merge into human bodies, taking their shape (uhm, okay…). Using this ability, they start to infiltrate human society, which has forgotten all about the invasion that happened som 30 years earlier (what??).

How would you forget something like that? Glad you asked. Mass amnesia, engineered by the government. So is this a plot thread in the series? Nope, just an quick and dirty explanation. Conspiracy. Don’t trust the goverment, and all that…

The series was amazingly brutal and camp at the same time, with scenes that would have a hard time being green lit by any sane distributor today. It is not a good series by any means, but it did get a kind of cult status, and lasted for two seasons. Season two dropped most of the plot threads from season one, and feels very much like a different series.

The War of the Worlds (2005)
Suggested Tagline: “Walking Gentlemen & Fake Mustaches”

The Writer and his Totally Real Mustache

What can I say about this film? If War of the Worlds had its own Star Wars Holiday Special, this would be it. It is somewhat hard to come by these days, and for good reason, as I think it has been taken out of distribution. I might be wrong. Not sure I want to find out, though, as I have no intention of seeing it again. However, it is the first attempt at exactly portraying the events in the original book. Sadly, it fails miserably. True, the events of the book are there, but this is movie making at its worst.

At just a minute under three agonizing hours in length, The War of the Worlds, directed by Timothy Hines, is a masterclass in poor movie making. Any viewer with even a passing knowledge of film history would quickly see similarities with director Ed Wood, but even he would surpass this wreck of a movie. So would Uwe Boll.

The first things you will notice are the glaring technical issues. Picture, sound, special effects… they are all very poorly done. Backgrounds consists mainly of CGI or cut and paste photographs from various locations, CGI and key compositing are used seemingly with little knowledge on how to use them. Actors clearly have little direction. Makeup falls apart from shot to shot. There almost no attempts at continuity. You can even see a fake mustache moving around an actor’s face as the scene progresses. The film is amazingly bloody and it seems to take a certain glee in portraying people getting crushed by aliens and killed in other horrific ways (all done in terrible CGI, of course). There are also alot of walking about to fill out the run time. But it is a film adaptation of War of the Worlds, so I watched it. And it has this for it: of all the adaptations listed here, this is the closest adaptation of the original novel storywise.

War of the Worlds (2005)
Suggested Tagline: “Cashing in on the Big Boys”

Not even trying to make it look good…

You might have heard of the US based production company aptly named The Asylum. Or if you haven’t, maybe you’ve heard about the Sharknado movies. Well, they also made a version of War of the Worlds. Or actually, they made two, as far as I know. I really don’t keep up with them. I’ll get to the sequel later.

The Asylum specializes in making mockbusters, blatant rip-offs of other major blockbusters. Produced with only a small fraction of the budget of the movie that inspired it, a mockbuster will also try to have a similar sounding title to add to the confusion. This a confusion that can be very profitable, when people begin to mistake the mockbuster for the blockbuster. This version is, of course, an attempt to ride the waves made by Steven Spielberg’s version.

The Asylum’s War of the World actually managed to follow HG Wells’ story closer than many of the other versions, despite being set in present day USA. While the acting, direction and special effects are all what we’ve come to expect from The Asylum, having this in mind, it’s not bad compared to the other stuff they’ve produced.

War of the Worlds (2005)
Suggested Tagline: “Aliens Ruin Single Dad’s Weekend with the Kids”

Still terrifying…

To me, this is the big one, at least when we’re talking about film adaptations of HG Wells’ story. Masterfully directed by Steven Spielberg, we follow a single, part-time father as he tries to defend his children during a devestating alien attack. Tom Cruise plays his character to the hilt, and despite being set in modern day USA, it still follows the original story quite close, with several of the important events from the novel and an ending that keeps with HG Wells’ intended message.

It is clear to see how Steven Spielberg has taken inspiration from real world devestation and conflicts in his version of War of the Worlds. We are reminded of such things as the Holocaust, the attacks on the World Trade Center and fugutives escaping conflict areas. It feels grounded. It feels real.

Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds is, at least to me as an adult, the scariest of the entries on this list. The alien tripods are downright terrifying, creating the sense that there are no escape from the horrors they inflict. As a father, I can easily identify with the urgency and desperation in Tom Cruise’s character.

War of the Worlds 2: The Next Wave (2008)
Suggested Tagline: “Why would you even want to watch this?”

Well, at least it has three legs, and that’s something…

The Asylum, having no shame as usual, made a sequel to their 2005 mockbuster version of War of the Worlds. What they were ripping off this time, I’m not sure, as there were no major other film adaptations coming out around that time.

Set in the aftermath of the first invasion, the survivors have reverse engineered some alien technology and… well, it ends in them flying off to Mars to blast aliens. Nothing makes sense in this movie. The acting, directing and effects, even with a budget like this, is at best shoddy, and at worst way below the dubious quality we’ve come to expect from The Asylum.

Avoid this movie at all cost. If you’re really a movie masochist, I’d would rather suggest Timothy Hines’ 2005 version if you can find it.

War of the Worlds – The True Story (2012)
Suggested Tagline: “Not Actually a True Story”

A different look, and quite original.

War of the Worlds – The True Story is a television produced mockumentary and from what I’ve read, it is Timothy Hines’ second attempt at the story. The movie is presented as historical fact, with the aliens landing in Europe and starting a World War I-esque trench war with the forces of humanity.

It is actually quite original, and while it won’t redeem Timothy Hines as a film maker, it is worth a look. The film splices footage from the Hines’ first attempts with stock footage from World War I to create some really authentic looking and sometimes terrific scenes.

It is a nische concept, but quite original.

War of the Worlds (2019)
Suggested Tagline: “Nick Cave Ruins Everyone’s Day”

Lots of walking among bodies and broken down cars in this series…

This television series is a French-US co-production set in modern day Europe during an invasion from space. Having watched five of its eight episodes at the time of this writing, this series gives us some decent enough science fiction, although this is not remotely like War of the Worlds.

The series feels very generic, very 90s and very French. It has some exciting scenes and strong cast, but the pacing is slow, and both directing and script are not very imaginative.

So why call this War of the Worlds when there are hardly any of the elements of that classic story to be found here? Could it have something to do with Fox and Canal+ wanting to pull an Asylum on BBC this year? I suspect so. Whatever the reason, the title feels like a cheap shot and an attempt to cash in on something far better.

The War of the Worlds (2019)
Suggested Tagline: “Very Much Like War of the Worlds”

Now this is a Martian Tripod!

Speaking of something far better, BBC released a three part mini series this year, based on the HG Wells original work. While it only loosely follows the book, it gives us all the right elements, while still keeping it fresh and original.

Here we see the cylinder landing on Horsell Common, and the massive, terrifying tripod war machines. The characters are well realized and the directing is spot on.

However, the this miniseries takes a very different turn and changes the story from the novel quite drastically in the last episode. I felt it dropping the ball a bit when it came to the all important meaning and message of War of the Worlds.

I have read some grumbling from parts of the internet that the mini series is too “woke”. If you feel this way, that’s ok, as it has some political and social commentary built into the narrative (same goes for HG Wells’ original work, by the way… which you should read before complaining). But then I advice you to stay away from the Fox/Canal+ version, as this takes the social commantary to a whole new level.

Final Thoughts

So there it is. To me, there are certain elements you need to have in an adaptation of War of the Worlds. There should be an invasion, of course. This invasion needs to be overwhelming, sending humanity fleeing. There should be massive tripods, as the aliens, being almost unbeatable in military conflict, shouldn’t need to hide or take cover. And in the end, they should be overcome by Earth natural defenses, not humanity.

The story of War of the World is a Darwinian morality play. The aliens are a reflection of ourselves and how we treat nature and the creatures we share our planet with. This was HG Wells intention, and an adaptation loosing sight of this has already failed in my view.

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