The War of the Worlds was first serialized as a series of shorter episodes but would later be released as the novel we now know. The story has fascinated people (and filmmakers) worldwide and paved the way for a new genre in storytelling and science fiction: invasion from space!
But stories about ill-tempered creatures from distant planets aren’t exactly an automatic stamp of quality in movies and series. Although the invasion genre became popular in literature after H.G. Well’s classic novel, it took time to get a foothold in film. The 1950s saw a wave of science fiction and invasion films coming out of the United States. One reason for this may have been the media attention surrounding the UFO hysteria that began in the postwar period, especially after the events at Roswell in 1947. A growing fear of the unknown and “other” in the U.S., such as communism, further fueled the Hollywood production budgets.
Here is a summary for those not familiar with H.G. Wells’ story: We are in England at the end of the 19th century, and bloodsucking aliens from Mars invade. After the slug-line aliens, using giant mechanical war machines, have swept aside all military counterattacks, their defeat comes from the minute viruses and bacteria we humans have become immune to through countless generations. We follow an unnamed writer as he travels through a broken and desolate landscape towards his wife in London through the story.
I have a particular fascination with the history of H.G. Wells. For me, it all started when I was a kid, about 7 or 8 years old. My father had already introduced me to Star Wars, which changed my life. I wanted to see more spaceships, aliens, and laser beams! One evening, my father rented a VHS copy (yes, I’m that old!) of the 1953 film The War of the Wolds. And I just had to watch it! But when that otherworldly periscope slowly came out of the cylinder and proceeded to blast the three people standing there, I hid behind the sofa with a pillow in front of my face!
Ever since that evening, I have been fascinated by War of the Worlds – and as a film and science fiction nerd, I’m trying to keep up with every version of the story that comes out, whether they’re movies, series, audiobooks, musicals or stageplays or other media. And while most of these versions misunderstand (or ignore) the themes of H.G. Wells’ novel, it’s interesting (and often hilarious) to keep up with all the adaptations.
So, let’s take a look at the film and series adaptations based on H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds. There are quite a few of them, so we have to establish a couple of base rules before we begin.
First, the adaptation must have “War of the Worlds” as a part of its title. Second, it must be a live-action, fiction adaptation. No musicals (sorry to Jeff Wayne), animated films (sorry to War of the Worlds: Goliath), no mockumentaries (sorry War of the Worlds – The True Story), and no audio dramatizations (sorry to Orson Wells).
The War of the Worlds (Paramount Pictures, 1953)
This film, which premiered way back in 1953, is still considered by many to be a genre’s classic and one of the best invasion films ever made. Directed by Byron Haskin, the film stars Gene Barry and Ann Robinson. Fun fact: both Barry and Robinson had minor roles in Steven Spielberg’s 2005 version.
The War of the Worlds is also the film that got me interested and fascinated as a kid. It is also the one that sent me hiding behind the sofa.
The War of the Worlds is an interesting film. It won an Oscar for best special effects at the 1954 Academy Awards. But like many of the other adaptations on this list, it also drops the ball when it comes to some of the main themes in H.G. Wells’ novel and one story’s most important message: A Darwinian morality play and humanity’s role as the dominant life form on Earth.
Admittedly, bacteria and viruses are mentioned in the film. However, director Byron Haskin and screenwriter Barré Lyndon rely too much on military stock footage and hint at a more religious cause for the Martians’ defeat.
However, the film is worth watching and provides a fascinating cinematic insight into science fiction and early 50s special effects.
War of the Worlds (Paramount Domestic Television, 1988-1990)
Ah, the 80s…
Although the classic H.G. Wells novel would create a whole new science fiction subgenre and inspire filmmakers even a century after its release, I never said these adaptations would be good. Or even sane.
A good example of a completely bonkers adaptation (or is it a sequel?) is Paramount Domestic Television’s attempt at making a television-aired series at the end of the 80s. Haskin’s 1953 classic is strange and somewhat disgusting in its bizarre sheer brutality and peculiar premise.
Let’s ignore for a moment how this idea invalidates the whole concept and message of H.G. Wells’ story. The story goes like this: The aliens from Mars, which in the 1953 film were defeated by God… Uhm… I mean bacteria, and the aliens didn’t die after all! Instead, the Martians fell into a coma of sorts, and for some reason, the governments around the world chose to put them into vats of chemicals to be stored in lightly guarded government storage yards.
The first episode starts in the 1980s when clueless terrorists attack one of these yards. Stray bullets hit one of the Martian-containing vats of chemicals, which releases the grumpy alien. For some unexplained reason, the Martians now can merge with humans, taking over their bodies. The alien proceeded to release its captured comrades that merged with the other terrorists.
Using this newfound ability to take over human bodies, the Martian proceed to infiltrate human society, release more of their kind to our downfall. This is made easier because humanity has forgotten all about the Martian invasion in the 50s.
Say what now? How do you forget an invasion from space that happened some 35 years earlier? Good that you asked. The explanation for the mass casualties and untold destruction by alien beings in green glowing flying saucers is: Mass amnesia engineered by the government! Is it an important plot thread in the series? No. It is mentioned a couple of times, then forgotten. One episode revolves around the Martians trying to recover a downed flying saucer from the 50s, but other than that, the episodes ignore this “little” piece of background information.
War of the Worlds is bizarre, brutal, and unintentionally funny. No distributor with a sense of shame would even consider releasing something like this today. But the 80s was a very different time for the film and television industry, and despite the quality and sheer strangeness of the series, it has gained some cult status in the decades since it first aired.
H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds (Pendragon Pictures, 2005)
Drama! Martians! Fake Mustaches!!!
What can I say about this film? It might not be the easiest to get your hands on, and for a good reason. Of all the film adaptations here, this version, directed by Timothy Hines, aims to be the most authentic. True enough, it stays faithful to Wells’ novel, following the story and setting the action to the end of the 19th century.
But if War of the Worlds adaptions would have their own Star Wars Holiday Special, this would be it! The film clocks in on around three hours and is a perfect example of disastrous, low-budget filmmaking. Not even The Asylum would make something so erroneous. Hines’ adaptation of Wells’ novel lands squarely on the level of filmmakers such as Ed Wood and Neil Breen.
If you’re masochistic enough to watch H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds voluntarily, the first thing you’ll notice is the numerous technical errors and continuity mistakes. Image, sound, editing, makeup; it is baffling to think that someone would greenlight this. The computer-generated imagery, of which there is plenty, is basic, do-it-at-home-with-no-training level of quality. The cast seems to have little or no direction, and their makeup appears to fall apart as the scene progresses. Fake mustaches change position on the actors’ faces as the scene progresses or seem on the verge of falling off altogether.
I am aware that an independent production company made this film with a minimal budget. But an essential skill as a producer is to know what you can do with the budget you have. Timothy Hines clearly skipped that class in film school.
War of the Worlds (The Asylum, 2005)
Ah, the first of The Asylum adaptations. Maybe you haven’t heard about this particular American production company. How about Sharknado? Well, The Asylum specializes in low-budget “mockbusters.” These mass-produced, poorly executed straight-to-DVD films aim to ride the coattails of the marketing campaigns of larger Hollywood blockbusters. And the tactic works.
The Asylum’s adaptation of War of the Worlds was released almost the same time as Steven Spielberg’s adaptation, hoping to get in on the hype and make a profit. Despite being set in the present-day USA, it stays somewhat faithful to the novel. The crucial scenes and characters are here, and the story follows the book relatively close.
The Asylum’s adaptation of War of the Worlds premiered almost at the same time as Steven Spielberg’s adaptation, in hopes of getting in on the hype and making a profit. Despite being set in the present-day USA, it stays somewhat faithful to the novel. The crucial scenes and characters are here, and the story follows the book relatively close.
However, this being a The Asylum movie, the film has abysmal special effects, bad pacing, and horrendous acting. But it is an interesting watch nonetheless.
War of the Worlds (Amblin Entertainment, 2005)
Now we come to Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of H.G. Wells’ novel. Starring Tom Cruise, Dakota Fanning, Justin Chatwin and, Tim Robbins, it tells the story about a single father (Cruise) struggling to get his two kids to safety during an alien invasion.
Despite being set in the modern USA, it follows the story of Wells’ novel to a degree. The essential elements are here: the first attack, the river crossing, the madman in the ruined house, and most of all, the tripods! Of all the adaptations, Spielberg’s tripods are most successful at invoking a sense of pure dread. And maybe most importantly, Spielberg manages to keep Wells’ original message throughout the film.
It’s not hard to see where Steven Spielberg has taken his inspiration from. Real-life disasters, wars, and terrorist attacks are reflected throughout the film. We are reminded of the Holocaust, the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, and the refugee crises. The film is both personal and epic and asks some difficult questions about how far you would go for those you love.
From all the adaptations of Wells’ novel I’ve seen (and I aim to see all of them), Spielberg’s is without a doubt my favorite thus far.
War of the World 2: The Next Wave (The Asylum, 2008)
Oh no. The Martians are back!
In 2008, without even an inkling of shame, The Asylum released the sequel to their 2005 War of the Worlds mockbuster. And to be honest, I’m unsure as to why. There were no War of the Worlds adaptations in 2008 or around that time that I’m aware of. And seeing that the production company’s modus operandi is to latch onto other larger blockbusters and ride in the wake of their marketing campaigns, this surprised me.
Anyway, the sequel is set three years after the first film. Humanity’s survivors have salvaged the Martian war machines and created their own hybrid technology, including space fighters capable of reaching Mars. When the Martians attack Earth again, they take the fight to Mars. Yes, the survivors of the first attack fly their fighters to Mars to attack the aliens there.
Again, as with all The Asylum adaptation (don’t worry, there is more after this!), the acting, special effect, directing (or lack thereof) is as expected. But if you’re really that masochistic and you want to watch this, watch the 2005 film first. Good luck! It is better.
War of the Worlds (Canal+, ACG Television, 2019)
This French-American television series is meant as a new take on the classic novel. It is recognizable in name only by taking a fresh perspective and changing many of Wells’ original themes and messages.
It starts as one might expect. Unidentified objects come crashing down to Earth, and soon most of humanity is dead. There the similarities stop, though. What we end up with is a two-season post-apocalyptic walkabout similar in many ways to The Walking Dead. There are no zombies here, of course. There are no alien tripods either. Heat rays, as in the original novel, then? Nope. Aliens then? None to be found.
There are some robot dogs, though. But it’s a very far leap to the fear and terror invoked by the more traditional alien tripods.
What we get is something that feels very 90s, very young adult, and very French. There are some great actors here, such as Gabriel Byrne. But then there are teenagers with supernatural senses, prophetic dreams, and post-apocalyptic factionalism. It has very little to do with H.G. Wells’ novel.
War of the Worlds (BBC, 2020)
This BBC-produced miniseries inspired by Wells’ novel is set in England at the beginning of the 20th century. Although it follows the action in the book somewhat loosely, it stays true som many of its most essential elements.
We see the landing at Horsell Common, the heat ray, the flight to the coast, and the massive Martian tripods. Thanks to some great actors like Eleanor Tomlinson, Rafe Spall and, Robert Carlyle, the story is believable and often emotionally moving. Fans of other BBC series will also recognize many other actors here. It all looks good and delivers high production value.
Unfortunately, as with so many other adaptations, the series loses sight of Wells’ main themes and message in the last of the three episodes. But unlike the French-American series I mentioned earlier, BBC’s War of the Worlds is recognized as being inspired by the novel. The visual elements are spot on, even though the story falters in the third act. Watching this, I got the impression that BBC just wanted to do something different for the sake of it, just like they did with their mediocre adaptation of Bram Stoker’s classic novel Dracula.
War of the Worlds 2021 (The Asylum, 2021)
The Asylum can’t seem to let go of making adaptations of H.G. Wells’ classic novel. And this recent one might be their worst one yet.
Again, it is set in the modern day. It starts with the International Space Station noticing a large object on approach. The station is soon destroyed, and nine alien space ships travel from Mars to Earth. They land in the USA, and after releasing an electromagnetic pulse, they proceed to wreck the surrounding area using poorly computer-animated tripods.
As with most of The Asylum films, the action is primarily people standing around talking techno-babble and disaster, with some poorly made CGI elements and stock footage of military aircraft edited in. There are some brutal scenes here and there, with people being massacred by the aliens, but it becomes unintentionally funny due to the poor effects, acting, and direction. Or is it intentional? With The Asylum, one can’t be sure. I’ve often wondered how self-aware the folks at The Asylum are. Just look at that IMDB score. Impressive!
So these were some of the various attempts at adapting H.G. Wells’ classic The War of the Worlds to the screen. There will undoubtedly be more attempts, and there might even be some I haven’t watched yet. If you know of any film adaptations I have missed, let us know!
But no matter how filmmakers choose to change or twist the story, some elements should always be in place in any good adaptation of Wells’ classic novel. It should begin with an invasion of overwhelming force that creates panic. Massive war machines should sweep aside all military counterattacks, forcing humanity to cover and hide. And finally, the attack should ground to a halt and stop due to the bacteria and viruses the invaders have no immunity against. Humanity should not have an active role in aliens’ defeat.
An adaptation of War of the Worlds should also be seen as a critique against imperialism and a warning against exploiting the fauna and flora we share this planet with. The War of the Worlds is a reversal of roles, placing something else on the top of the food chain and challenging the notion that we’re the dominant species on Earth. For the English upper class at the turn of the 19th century, this notion was seen as preposterous and an emotional slap to the face of a country that had built its self-image on colonial superiority and the backs of what they deemed as “lesser people.”
But even today, the themes, metaphors, and messages in The War of the Worlds remain as relevant as ever.