The Original Book
The War of the Worlds (1898), a science fiction novel by H. G. Wells, is the first-person narrative of an unnamed protagonist‘s (and his brothers) adventures in London and the countryside around London as Earth is invaded by Martians. Written in 1895–97, it is one of the earliest stories that details a conflict between mankind and an extraterrestrial race.
The War of the Worlds has two parts, Book One: The Coming of the Martians and Book Two: The Earth under the Martians. The narrator, a philosophically inclined author, struggles to return to his wife while seeing the Martians lay waste to southern England. Book One (Chapters 14, 16, and 17) imparts the experience of his brother, also unnamed, who describes events in the capital and escapes the Martians by boarding a ship near Tillingham on the coast sixty-five miles northeast of London and is not mentioned again.
The plot has been related to invasion literature of the time. The novel has been variously interpreted as a commentary on evolutionary theory, British imperialism, and generally Victorian superstitions, fears and prejudices. At the time of publication it was classified as a scientific romance, like his earlier novel The Time Machine. The War of the Worlds has been both popular (having never gone out of print) and influential, spawning half a dozen feature films, radio dramas, various comic book adaptations, a television series, and sequels or parallel stories by other authors. It has even influenced the work of scientists, notably Robert Hutchings Goddard.
Orson Welles’ Most Famous Adaptation
The War of the Worlds is an episode of the American radio drama anthology series The Mercury Theatre on the Air. It was performed as a Halloween episode of the series on October 30, 1938, and aired over the Columbia Broadcasting System radio network. Directed and narrated by actor and future filmmaker Orson Welles, the episode was an adaptation of H. G. Wells‘ novel The War of the Worlds (1898).
The first two thirds of the 60-minute broadcast were presented as a series of simulated news bulletins, which suggested to many listeners that an actual alien invasion by Martians was currently in progress. Compounding the issue was the fact that, the Mercury Theatre on the Air was a sustaining show (it ran without commercial breaks), adding to the program’s realism. Although there were sensationalist accounts in the press about a supposed panic in response to the broadcast, the precise extent of listener response has been debated.
In the days following the adaptation, however, there was widespread outrage and panic by certain listeners, who had believed the events described in the program were real. The program’s news-bulletin format was described as cruelly deceptive by some newspapers and public figures, leading to an outcry against the perpetrators of the broadcast. The episode secured Welles’s fame.
Some listeners heard only a portion of the broadcast and, in the atmosphere of tension and anxiety prior to World War II, took it to be an actual news broadcast. nNewspapers reported, that panic ensued, with people across the Northeastern United States and Canada fleeing their homes. Some people called CBS, newspapers or the police in confusion over the realism of the news bulletins.
Future Tonight Show host Jack Paar had announcing duties that night for Cleveland CBS affiliate WGAR. As panicked listeners called the studio, Paar attempted to calm them on the phone and on air by saying, “The world is not coming to an end. Trust me. When have I ever lied to you?” When the listeners started charging Paar with “covering up the truth”, he called WGAR’s station manager for help. Oblivious to the situation, the manager advised Paar to calm down, saying it was “all a tempest in a teapot.”
In Concrete, Washington, phone lines and electricity went out due to a short-circuit at the Superior Portland Cement Company’s substation. Residents were unable to call neighbors, family or friends to calm their fears. Reporters who heard of the coincidental blackout sent the story over the news-wire, and soon Concrete was known worldwide.
Within one month, newspapers had published 12,500 articles about the broadcast and its impact. Adolf Hitler cited the panic, as Richard J. Hand writes, as “evidence of the decadence and corrupt condition of democracy.”
In the aftermath of the reported panic, CBS responded to public outcry by pointing to reminders throughout the broadcast that it was a performance. Welles and Mercury Theatre escaped punishment but not censure; CBS is believed to have had to promise never again to use “we interrupt this program” for dramatic effect. However, many radio commercials to this day do start with the phrase “We interrupt this program”. The notoriety of the broadcast led the Campbell Soup Company to sponsor the show; The Mercury Theatre on the Air was renamed The Campbell Playhouse.
Many listeners sued the network for “mental anguish” and “personal injury”. All suits were dismissed, except for a claim for a pair of black men’s shoes (size 9B) by a Massachusetts man, who spent his shoe money to escape the Martians. Welles insisted the man be paid.
A meeting between H.G. Wells and Orson Welles was broadcast on Radio KTSA San Antonio, a CBS affiliate, on October 28, 1940. Wells expressed a lack of understanding of the apparent panic and suggested it may have been only pretense, like the American version of Halloween, for fun. The two men and their radio interviewer joked with embarrassment about the matter.
On December 14, 1988, the original radio script for The War of the Worlds was sold at auction at Sotheby’s in New York by author Howard Koch. The typescript bears the handwritten deletions and additions of Orson Welles and producer John Houseman. It was thought to have been the only copy of the script known to survive.
“The police came in after the broadcast and seized whatever copies they could find as evidence, I suppose”, Koch told The New York Times. “There was a question that we had done something that might have criminal implications.” Expected to bring between $25,000 and $35,000, the script sold for $143,000 — setting a record for an article of entertainment memorabilia. “I had a private offer of $60,000”, Koch said after selling the 46-page script, which had been in his file cabinet for years. “They advised me to take the gamble. I guess it was the right gamble.”
A second surviving War of the Worlds radio script — Welles’s own directorial copy, given to an associate for safekeeping — was auctioned June 2, 1994, at Christie’s in New York. Estimated to bring $15,000 to $20,000, the script was sold for $32,200. The successful bidder was filmmaker Steven Spielberg, whose collection also includes one of the three balsa “Rosebud” sleds from Citizen Kane. Spielberg adapted The War of the Worlds for a feature film in 2005.
The New Jersey Township of West Windsor, where Grover’s Mill is located, commemorated the 50th anniversary of the broadcast in 1988 with four days of festivities including art and planetarium shows, a panel discussion, a parade, burial of a time capsule, a dinner dance, film festivals devoted to H. G. Wells and Orson Welles, and the dedication of a bronze monument to the fictional Martian landings. Howard Koch, an author of the original radio script, attended the 49th anniversary celebration as an honored guest.
Listen To The Original Radio Broadcast From 1938
- George Orson Welles apologizes for his broadcast of The War of the Worlds. (criticalpast.com)
- October 30 1938 Orson Welles scares a nation (craighill.net)
- Radio show caused panic in 1938 (newsherald.com)