I spend a great deal of time youtube-ing away the small hours, typing in the names of my various heroes and seeing what marvels emerge from the ether. Recently I happened upon a radio broadcast from 1940, named “Orson Welles interviews HG Wells” - the occasion when the two met to discuss Orson’s infamous 1938 radio adaptation of "War of the Worlds".
It’s a remarkable recording.
First there is the simple pleasure of hearing the mutual admiration shared by two great men. It runs throughout their conversation as HG’s kindly, croaking voice contrasts with Orson’s refined, rumbling tones. More importantly there is the fascinating example it provides of fiction’s role as a mirror to powerful nations’ anxieties.
Wells’ 1898 original was part of a surge of British “invasion literature”, a string of works imagining the destruction of the British Empire which were produced during or shortly after the severe “Long Depression”. Wells’ book stood apart from the jingoistic malice of much of the genre, allowing it to be embraced and retold for a US audience, but it still echoes the genre’s uneasy sense of ebbing power, of imminent decline.
The 1940 interview was made during the realisation of those fears. At the time of the recording Great Britain, once a mighty empire, was on the verge of invasion by Nazi Germany. The US stood apart, widely sympathetic but unwilling to be embroiled.
Listening to it now, during similar troubled economic times, it’s hard not to note the remarkable surge of invasion narratives bursting out of today’s weakened giant, the United States.
Hollywood has never been so busy imagining attacks on the homeland, either from Earthly powers (White House Down, Olympus Has Fallen, Red Dawn), or from aliens (Battleship, Pacific Rim).
Perhaps these new invasion tales may herald a crisis of American power in 30 or 40 years time? More importantly, do any of them match up to Wells' work?
The Writing of the Wars
Having dug out my old copy of the novel and read it again, I would say the answer is no, they don’t.
Then there’s the novel’s environmental awareness. Wells’ Martians come to Earth because their planet is dying, made cruel conquerors by force of their hostile environment. Yet Wells is at pains to point out that humanity are hardly “apostles of mercy”, justifying the extinction of entire species by invoking divine or genetic destiny.
But it is the sheer quality of the storytelling that sets the book apart from our modern alien invasions.
The pace of the Wells work is masterful. It is not until days after their arrival that the Martians leave their pit and begin spreading chaos and destruction. For a time there is some question as to their intentions.
This pause is hugely effective. Boys, maids and Woking locals linger by the capsule, half curious, half distracted by daily concerns, building tension wonderfully. Obviously it is a time before radio, cars, and aviation, and the speed of revelation is necessarily slower - but it is still an effective means of building tension.
That's something Hollywood productions rarely accomplish.The aliens of films like Cloverfield, Battle of LA and Skyline are clearly aggressive from the moment they arrive. Only 1996's Independence Day emulates Wells’ calm before the storm, when the vast alien vessels hang over landmarks of the world - and it was one of the more effective sections of the film.
That’s not to say the novel is a slow affair. When the Martians do finally let rip, the story accelerates magnificently, the action surprisingly exciting. In Steven Speilberg’s adaptation of the book (which is only very loosely faithful) the tripods have a shield that renders all human weapons ineffective. Why? The book is so much better.
In Wells’ battles the 19th century armies actually manage to damage a couple of tripods - at Shepperton Lock with artillery pieces, and in the English Channel with the heroic action of the Thunderchild. Again, this is considerably more effective at creating suspense and excitement, as the reader is allowed to cling to the possibility of a turn in human fortunes, no matter how slim.
The novel also has an emotional complexity that is entirely absent from Hollywood invasions. Wells’ narrator is a man of “exceptional moods”, who finds himself at turns unaccountably angry with the wife he presumes dead, captivated by the artilleryman’s Facist fantasies, and homicidal in the company of a weak-minded curate. This makes him all the more human - a very far cry from the cut-out protagonists of Hollywood invasions, who are rarely more than flag-kissing soldiers, protective fathers, devoted scientists or speechifying leaders (“Today we cancel the apocalypse!” booms the Pacific Rim trailer - surely one of the weakest lines yet conceived in film history).
Above all, it is the conclusion to Wells’ invasion tale that has yet to be matched. One of the things I have found most frustrating about the recent alien movies is their complete failure to create interesting solutions to the implied technical supremacy of alien invaders.
Each of the recent movies has either lazily chosen to have sheer brute force triumph (Battle of LA) or doesn’t bother to explain how the invasion ends at all (Cloverfield). Independence Day at least makes an attempt to do something more interesting, with the infamous computer virus solution, but as well as being crippled by sheer implausibility it cannot hope to match the elegance of Wells’ solution - where instead of humanity saving the planet, the planet saves humanity.
This is not to say that Wells is perfect, or above the flaws of Hollywood productions. The novel has an amusingly isolationist viewpoint, with the rest of the world barely mentioned. It is simply taken as read that the Martians would open their invasion in Britain, (which is the best country after all), and go from there. Even if Wells had written the entire globe to be under simultaneous attack, you can imagine him referring to other nations with a dismissive, Hollywood-style line like: “Paris has been destroyed” - and then move on without shedding a tear.
But that doesn’t excuse Hollywood from attempting more thoughtful and inventive storytelling. The Wells novel illustrates that it’s possible to write an alien invasion narrative which sees contemplative scenes complement and even enhance spectacular action sequences.
Now obviously the screenplay is a different kind of writing to the novel, and obviously Hollywood is something of a soft target here. Wells wrote at a different time, when as he slyly notes, “even philosophical writers had many little luxuries”.
But the fact remains that Hollywood has yet to conjure a solution to alien invaders as magnificent as Wells' microbial infection. It seems more and more reliant on a rather facist notion of triumphant will for humanity to survive.
That begs a question:
Was Wells blessed to write during a unique period of discovery? Could early science fire the imagination in a way it cannot now, offering tantalising glimpses rather than high resolution images of the lifeless reality? Has our imagination become as stagnant as manned spaceflight?
Or is it just damn hard to write a good ending?