The War of the Worlds
October 30, 2012
Today is the anniversary of the 1938 radio broadcast of the Orson Wells and Mercury Theater on the air adaptation of the H.G. Wells novel The War of the Worlds. Next to a bone chilling vampire, werewolf or ghost story, there is nothing I like better than a frightening tale of alien invasion from another planet. I have heard the stories of the panic that arose from the radio presentation, but I had never actually listened to the original broadcast.
Thanks to our Internet Age, it is readily available on YouTube. I also found it on a disc included in a book available for checkout from MCPL called The Complete War of the Worlds, edited by Brian Holmstein and Alex Lubertozzi. Included in this book, besides the original broadcast on CD, is biographical information about Orson Welles and how he went from being the deep mysterious voice of Lamont Cranston on the The Shadow to narrating the infamous radio performance of The War of the Worlds. There are some fascinating pictures, of which my personal favorite was a picture of the water tower in the real Grover’s Mill that was mistaken for a Martian. According to the book, it receives visitors every Halloween. Fans of H.G. Wells, Orson Welles, science fiction, or just plain history buffs would love this book.
I know it sounds ludicrous now that people would have believed the fictional Martian invasion to be real, but as I listened to the format of the 1938 broadcast, which was written and performed to simulate an actual news broadcast, I began to wonder what it would be like to listen to this without the benefit of CNN, FOX News, MSNBC and our 24 hour news availability. Radio was the prime source of news and entertainment. To better understand radio’s connection to daily life during this time and the political climate the people were living in, I would suggest a database that MCPL subscribes to called Daily Life Through History. I could imagine how someone who had missed the initial introduction of the program could wonder if this very convincing dramatization could be real.
Listening to the broadcast made me think of the cinema versions of The War of the Worlds, neither of which I had seen for a long time. Fortunately, the original, starring Gene Barry, and the remake with Tom Cruise in the lead role were both available from the Library. I tried not to laugh at the special effects of the 1953 classic. I’m sure it was terrifying for it’s time, but there was no comparison to the 2005 Tom Cruise vehicle. There was nothing funny about the scene with bodies of the victims of the Martian Heat Ray floating down the river, and the terrified look on the face of Dakota Fanning’s character of the little girl as she watched this happening.
There is so much about the life of H.G. Wells that you can read about in the biography databases available with a library card, free of charge. He was a man way ahead of his time, but the thought I want to end with is this. As I listened to Orson Welles give his sign-off at the end of the radio broadcast with these words, "The War of the Worlds has no further significance then as the holiday offering it was intended to be...We couldn’t soap all your windows and steal all your garden gates before tomorrow night so we did the next best thing. We annihilated the world before your very ears, and utterly destroyed the Columbia Broadcasting System. You will be relieved I hope to know that we didn’t mean it." I couldn’t help but think about the mornings after September 11, 2001, when I sat staring out my living room window, cup of coffee in hand, pondering my loss of security from my naïve belief that the Pentagon could not be breached by anything or anyone. And I thought to myself, "wouldn’t it be wonderful if someone could have appeared on the television to tell us that the attack on the Twin Towers didn’t really happen? What if it was just a hoax and life as we know it would not change?" But no one appeared, and life as we knew it did change.