“War of the Worlds”: A Report from the Sensorial Battlefield

This 1950s paperback from my collection includes the script of the 1938 “War of the Worlds” broadcast.

We know that in the early years of the twentieth century this world was being watched closely by intelligences greater than man’s and yet as mortal as his own. We know now that as human beings busied themselves about their various concerns they were scrutinized and studied, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinize the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water. With infinite complacence people went to and fro over the earth about there little affairs, serene in the assurance of their dominion over this small spinning fragment of solar driftwood which by chance or design man has inherited out of the dark mystery of Time and Space. Yet across an immense ethereal gulf, minds that are to our minds as ours to the beasts in the jungle, intellects vast, cool and unsympathetic, regarded this earth with envious eyes and slowly and surely drew their plans against us. In the thirty-eighth year of the twentieth century came the great disillusionment. . . .

With these ominous lines, read by Renaissance ham Orson Welles, opened what is now the best-remembered and most widely discussed of all US radio plays—Howard Koch’s adaptation of H. G. Wells’s “War of the Worlds” (30 October 1938).  Apart from this introduction, a slightly tweaked passage of Wells’s original narrative, the infamous Mercury Theater production took great liberties with its source.  It was an infidelity that proved most felicitous; for rarely has any story been transferred from one medium to another with greater ingenuity and with such sensational results.

Steven Spielberg’s cinematic update, which I experienced yesterday, pays homage to both Wells and Welles by quoting these words, by delivering them in a sonorous, Wellesian voice (Morgan Freeman’s), and by employing them as a literary bookend for an episodic melodrama that unfold as a series of more or less stupendous set pieces.  Freeman’s voice-over narration notwithstanding, Spielberg’s conventional sci-fi thriller—some kind of intergalactic Jurassic Park—has none of the qualities that made the radio play such an engaging and provocative experiment in adaptation.

Like all filmic reworkings, Spielberg’s spectacle struggles with and falters under the pressure of making terror visible, of equating the evocative with manifest dread.  The opening montage sums up the war to be fought by zooming in on the sources of threat and salvation, cosmos and microcosm.  Neither infinite outer space nor infinitesimal innerspace remains hidden from view.

The camera soon assumes the role of the terrorizing invader alluded to in Wells’s introductory remarks, as the menaced protagonists are being “watched closely,” “scrutinized and studied, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinize the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water.”  As in our daily lives, captured by infiltrating webcams and ubiquitous close-circuit security equipment, vigilance and violence coincide; the act of surveillance has become the art of assailants.  And still, the demand for ocular proof has to be satisfied at all costs.

Throughout the movie, the hero’s daughter is cautioned not to look as camera and special effects expose the audience to the horrors of alien warfare and the consequences of human frailty.  In one scene, she is being blindfolded by her father in an attempt to shelter her from the murder he feels compelled to commit.  For one brief moment, the audience is spared a graphic scene.  As the crime is being perpetrated behind closed doors, a close-up of the girl’s face reveals that her mind’s eye creates an image no less terrifying than the atrocities she had witnessed before.  The father, like most western adults, has become too dependent on visuals to recall the power of suggestion and the thrills produced by the insinuating ear.  The movie thus manages to disclose his failings—and our sensorial loss—but cannot combat the empire of the eye to which it is beholden.

However futile, the radio artists of the 1930s and ‘40s were among the last dramatists to wage war against the dominion of the visual world.  Howard Koch’s adaptation proved to be one of the last victorious battles, dealing such a blow as to put censors on guard against the forgotten force of non-visual stimulation.  Then, “in the thirty-eighth year of the twentieth century came the great disillusionment. . . .”

2 Replies to ““War of the Worlds”: A Report from the Sensorial Battlefield”

  1. The script, as published in Howard Koch\’s Panic Broadcast (1970), reads as printed above; but Welles did indeed say \”thirty-ninth.\” I wonder whether this was changed for broadcasting as a result of the general debate about century markers (year 0 or 1). Thank you for pointing this out.

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