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HG Wells

Two pieces which originally appeared in the newsletter of the HG Wells Society The first is Wars of the Waves and the second a film review of The Time Machine

Wars of the Waves

Orson Welles broadcast of WAR OF THE WORLDS

     Many people who've not read a word of any of Wells' books will have heard about the infamous broadcast that sent America into a panic just before the Second World War.

In the Autumn of 1938, The Mercury Theatre was not as popular on the radio as Orson Welles would have liked it to have been. The Chase and Sanborn Hour, featuring the ventriloquist Edgar Bergen (a ventriloquist on the radio? Shades of Archie Andrews and Peter Brough). Charlie McCarthy drew ten times as many listeners from New York's potential radio audience as did The Mercury Theatre. Productions of A Tale of Two Cities; The Thirty-nine Steps; The Count of Monte Cristo and Around the World in Eighty Days in the preceding weeks had failed to swell audience numbers in any significant way.

     Welles himself was then a comparatively unknown 22-year-old. In the previous November, he had caused a minor sensation by staging a production of Julius Caesar, Shakespeare's political play par excellence, with the cast in brownshirt uniforms. The director (who took the key rôle of Brutus) took every opportunity to draw parallels between Caesar and Benito Mussolini. Remember that this was in America, where the debate was about the relative merits of insularity and world leadership. But the notoriety this brought him did not endure. He was as well-known a year later for his radio character, 'The Shadow', one that used to frighten its mainly child audiences.

     His decision to produce a radio adaptation of Wells' War of the Worlds was to result in the frightening - creating hysteria and panic would be more accurate - of more adult audiences, and to Orson Welles achieving a much more lasting notoriety. He asked Howard Koch, the creator of Casablanca, to pen the radio script. This he did, completing his task in only six days.

     Being objective, you would have to say that the play was no more than run-of-the mill (going by the LP record of the broadcast released in 1971). It bore no more than a passing resemblance to Wells' novel. The scene of the beginning of the interplanetary invasion had been transposed from Surrey to the USA, as it has been in so many films in more recent years - though it is not to be in the version to be released later this year, I understand*.

What caused the sensation was the way it was dramatised, with a pretend 'news broadcast' making listeners to the WABC broadcast on 30 October, 1938 - it was also networked by CBS - think that they really were being invaded by Martians. The stories of panic are too numerous to catalogue, but the one that particularly makes me smile is that of twenty residents of a single block in New Jersey who fled from their apartments with wet towels and handkerchiefs over their faces, seeking to avoid 'the gas attack'. Afterwards, CBS had to undertake not to use similar devices in their broadcasts of drama, and Welles almost had to face numerous legal actions. Still, it gave a huge boost to his career.

    Welles acknowledged this in radio conversation with HG Wells two years later.

You'd think that the broadcasters would have learned their lesson, but just over ten years later, on 12 February, 1949, Radio Quito in Ecuador used a similar 'news' idea to spice up a play that opened with a scene of destructive 'Martians' landing near Latacunga, twenty miles south of the capitol. The alarm was on an altogether bigger scale than that caused by the more well known one in the USA in the previous decade. Thousands took to the streets, tanks and tear gas had to be used to quell the rioters, and twenty people were killed in a fire started by an angry, frightened mob at the offices of El Comercio newspaper.


     And, lest we start thinking that things like this could only happen on the other side of the Atlantic, I myself remember a television play in the nineteen-sixties that opened with a 'news item' about a Russian satellite - Soviet Russia was seen unequivocally as 'the enemy' then - 'hovering' over London with nuclear bombs on board. Fortunately, it soon became clear that this was only a play, but I still remember the minutes of cold fear that I felt when I believed otherwise.

* In the event it was set in the USA

TThe Time Machine
Film Review

    My younger son, Joseph, who had seen it a couple of weeks before me, had cautioned me against expecting too much from this latest film version of one of my favourite novels of H.G. Wells. 'Based on' was likely to mean 'very loosely based on'. I was aware of that. I had heard of the romantic twiddly bit at the beginning, where the Time Traveller visited the past and tried to change it, and was prepared to grit my teeth through that. Actually, it wasn't so badly done, but it seemed to me that the scriptwriters had missed a trick here in making the circumstances of the death of the fiancée of the Time Traveller so very different on the two occasions - a little ingenuity in the writing could have demonstrated an interesting paradox rather than just provided the add-on of the obligatory Hollywood idea of 'human interest'.

     After a promising interlude where the Time Traveller stops in the near future - one of the best, though rather inconsequential, sequences in the film - we are transported to 802,701 via a brief excursion to a darker future where we learn that mankind's ills to come are to be laid at the door of an oddly breakable moon instead of the social reasons preferred by Wells. The society of the 2002 version of the Golden People seemed more tropical than it did life in a degenerate paradise, and indeed African music is used rather incongruously in the end sequence - as twee as you would expect from a modern 'blockbuster'. Most films attempt to be blockbusters now, and follow a particular pattern.

     The Eloi seemed rather too noble and resourceful to have needed the assistance of an adventurer from the nineteenth century (nineteenth century New York of course) and the Morlocks too much like comic book monsters, but it is the character of the 'Über-Morlock', played by Jeremy Irons in what will surely rank as one of the low points of his acting career, that is one of the most awkward additions to Wells' story. The bits where he does his white monster stuff are poorly scripted and badly thought out. It was as if someone had decided at the last minute that they needed another 'name' actor and the script was tinkered with over a cup of coffee, or being generous maybe two cups of coffee, to fit him in somewhere.

     I wouldn't want to give the impression that the film is completely without merit. The attack on the Eloi by the Morlocks is well done, and the galloping, gibbon-like motion that they adopt when they are in pursuit of they prey is genuinely frightening. Much of the cinematography is absorbing and generally the special effects are used to good purpose. But members of the Society will be disappointed that the advances in these weren't used to breathe life into more of the scenes that Wells had in mind. The film from the nineteen-sixties, where many of the changes to the original story were made because the science of special effects was then in its infancy, or to accommodate the different demands of the medium of film, is altogether a more faithful representation of the book - and I would say is also a much better film. Curiously there is a brief echo of this film in the present one, when the Time Traveller spots the window with the dressmaker's dummy in his travels. It's a pity that there couldn't have been more echoes, and from the book, rather than just the sixties film.

     Go to see this film and grit your teeth harder than I did if you want moderate entertainment - and it is entertaining, if not much else. It's nowhere near as good a film as Minority Report, nor even Spider Man, two films which I also saw recently at the same cinema. I wouldn't recommend the Marvel comic and the Philip K. Dick short story over Wells' first novel, though.

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