Monday, January 10, 2005

2. The War of the Worlds

by H.G. Wells

They’re making a movie of The War of the Worlds. Steven Spielberg and Tom Cruise. And it isn’t going to be pretty.

Oh, I’m sure it’ll be pretty, with fantastic battle scenes and panoramic views of the nighttime sky as the Martians fall from space in their cylinders, forging their Manifest Destiny onto the planet Earth. I’m sure the citizens of whatever American city or suburban town, substituting for England, will flee in magnificent droves over hills and bridges, in their cars and planes and on foot across the land. I’m sure that at the heart of this will be a heartwarming story of a man separated from his wife – it may be his child or some other significant figure in the film version – and how their humanly desire to live brings them back to each other. And I’m sure that with all of this, the movie will get the book completely wrong.

You see, The War of the Worlds isn’t really about all of those things. It kind of is about those things, but to focus on them solely is, I think, to miss many of the really good points of the story. The story itself is well known – a fleet of Martians invades Earth, waging a war on the inhabiting species and demanding that they fight for their right to live. The characters are forced to contemplate the reason for this attack, whether it be a freak attack or Armageddon itself, and through this Wells reveals much about his thoughts on war. The narrator at once compares the Martians’ attacks on men, and their futile attempts to fight back, to the purposefulness of animals fighting against the destruction of their own homes by men, that being that there is no purpose. Because men are far more powerful and have decided to destroy those homes, for whatever reason, such is the same for the Martians. And it could be argued that for whatever purpose, whether we believe it to be for our opponents' own good or for some wrong we feel has been committed, men wage such wars against each other. The destruction, left in the wake of both Martians and men, is similarly devastating.

The book, too, is wonderfully suspenseful, with the narrator running for his life, getting trapped in a house, and describing his awe at seeing the Martians up close. When he realizes that he isn’t the only human left, it becomes evident that all the differences between cultures, all those things that cause wars in the first place, are no longer significant if the remaining few wish to rebuild humankind. When the narrator asks what there is to live for, with civilization gone, the man he encounters responds:

“There won’t be any more blessed concerts for a million years or so; there won’t be any Royal Academy of Arts, and no nice little feeds at restaurants. If it’s amusements you’re after, I reckon the game is up. If you’ve got any drawing-room manners or a dislike to eating peas with a knife or dropping aitches, you’d better chuck ‘em away. They ain’t no further use…men like me are going on living – for the sake of the breed. I tell you, I’m grim set on living…we aren’t going to be exterminated…we men are beat. We don’t know enough. We’ve got to learn before we’ve got a chance. And we’ve got to live and keep independent while we learn. See! That’s what has to be done.”

I think that this, especially in our times, is a poignant statement to make and I find it impressive that more than a hundred years later Wells’ story can still be so relevant. This could have been written last year. This will probably still feel new a hundred years hence.

I’m sure the movie will be wildly successful, raking in the box office bucks with its summer release. Millions will be spent to make it and millions more will come in from it having been made. It might even be good. I’ll probably see it. But I doubt it can compare to the cohesive narrative replete with brilliant descriptions of action and emotion that resides in these pages. It’s not a long book and there are six months before Spielberg and Cruise wreak havoc on this story. If you plan on seeing the movie, pick up the book first. Pick it up anyway. You won’t regret it.

Stars (out of five):
Star Star Star Star Star

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