Thursday, July 27, 2006

Reading Wells

The Island of Dr. Moreau still awaits on the horizon. Meanwhile, I have been sailing towards it on two other short novels by H.G. Wells, The Time Machine and War of the Worlds. Rather than wait to post on these extra credit books, I am going to go ahead now, and I can draw comparisons as needed later.

My first real memory of War of the Worlds was a vague impression of a probably made-for-television version of the 1938 Orson Wells radio dramatization of the book. I remember Wells wrote his script as a series of "Breaking News" interruptions of a fictional musical entertainment, and a great number of people, who had missed the introduction at the top of the program, thought the Martian invasion was real. Stefanie's selection gave me reason to pick up the book and discover the story for myself.

The context of this novel is important. Today astronomy is full of the likelihood of existence beyond our planet, as well as the possibility that life on earth is of extraterrestrial origin. But try to imagine a time before space travel, even before winged air travel. Much science was still just coming into its own, becoming something people could trust and rely upon. England was at the height of its empire, with colonies across the world. Mars had only recently been mapped, and some theorised the linear features of the planet were not naturally made. Wells combined these ingredients--Martian life, hostile colonisation, and flight--into a novel of social commentary that was ahead of its time in plot and treatment.

He begins and ends the book with stunning narrative passages that set the tone and deliver the setting and the message. Between these points we are given the first-hand account of a man who encounters and then must survive the Martian invasion. We are told that humans go about their daily lives without a care and with an air of superiority. When the capsules from Mars crash into England, people are curious but not nervous or wary or frightened. Even when men begin to die, they do not seem to take the threat seriously. Finally the Martian tripods appear and begin their takeover of the country. The narrator goes into hiding, avoids, runs away, and generally survives the ordeal to tell us about it. And when nothing particularly gripping is happening to him, he tells us about how his brother hid, avoided, and ran away. The English war machine is destroyed, and the Martians begin their colonisation of earth by growing a red weed. Imagine, if you can, that England's destiny is not to rule over other peoples from pole to pole, but to be subjugated and overthrown by another life form entirely unknown--the despair of this novel was unprecedented entertainment. Then, just when all hope is lost and total annhilation is imminent, the Martians are suddenly brought down by a germ or virus that they have no tolerance for, but which has ever lived symbiotically with man.

For me, the climax was a bit anticlimactic. This novel has never been out of print, yet I doubt it would be published today as it is written. However, let us remember the context, and the amazing (for the time) possibility that something we cannot even see could save us from certain doom when all our weapons and survival skills and superiority fail. Germs are obvious to us now, but this must have been quite a little twist to Wells' Victorian audience.

To round out my experience, I viewed the 1953 and 2005 films based on the novel. Both took liberties with their source material. In place of a priest who accompanies the narrator for some time, the early film has a helpless screeching woman, and the recent film has children. This change seems to me meant to address the lack of an active hero in the story, for now the narrator must protect the woman or save the child. It doesn't make it, though. Like so many big disaster movies that ultimately disappoint, the main character doesn't actually fight back and defeat whatever threat exists, he simply survives it. Would we ever have applauded Bruce Willis if he had merely hidden and run away from the terrorists in "Die Hard" instead of fighting back? Not bloody likely.


crys said...

Agreed. All the guy really does is not die (and take care of the kids, of course). What's interesting to me about the story really isn't the protagonist...which kind of works in the book, but really DOESN'T work (in my opinion) in the 2005 movie (haven't seen the other).

Anonymous said...

The 1953 film has a very scarce segment of stock footage of a real live Flying Wing jet, its a little hidden gem, the only time I have seen this vanished dream as it was once alive. And the 1953 ambience is priceless. Havent seen the new one, dont intend to, not a Cruise fan. The early 50s Time Machine is a classic too, the mannequin in the dressmakers window portraying the passage of time is a memory that is deep in my subconscious. some things are not necessarily improved upon with the helter skelter application of money and spurious "stars". Tono-Bungay is very good too, in my opinion.