This week’s subject, The Mercury Theater presentation of HG Wells’ War of the Worlds demonstrates two elements that have recurred here at Lost in Translation. The first is the medium of the adaptation and how time available affects how the original is adapted. The second is the passage of time and how it affects an adaptation made decades after the original.
As has been mentioned in a number of previous Lost in Translation entries, the time allotted for a work has a direct impact on how the adaptation is handled. Long form works, such as novels and television series, allow for a deeper examination of characters and events. Shorter works, including movies, need to get to the point straight away. Details get lost or bundled together, whether character or setting. Even films trying to be as faithful as possible to an original work will have to lose details just to keep to a reasonable running time.
The passage of time and the advances in technology can affect how a work is seen. Unless the adaptation is treating the original as a period piece, the changes in available technology can cause problems. This typically happens when an original work is set in “now”, whenever that “now” was. For example, “modern” works from the Eighties often show characters using car phones, large blocky handsets plugged into the vehicle’s cigarette lighter port. If the work were to be brought to the today of the 2010s, that blocky car phone would be replaced with a smartphone with far better coverage and no need to go through a mobile operator, which may reduce the tension in a scene.
Wells’ War of the Worlds was first published in 1897 as a serial, and told from a first-person perspective as a journal by the narrator. The story details the Martian invasion of Earth, starting from the first impact of a Martian cylinder in the English countryside. The locals are abuzz, wondering what the object is. After the Martian recovers from its journey and landing, it begins to use a terrible weapon, a heat ray, against the crowds. The Army is sent in, with cavalry and horse-drawn artillery, to deal with the threat; but with more cylinders falling, each one containing a Martian war tripod, the soldiers stood no chance.
The narrator tells of his journeys and the people he meets during the initial attack and the response. News travels by word of mouth, mainly from the narrator as he walks through the countryside to reuinite with his wife and escape the destruction. The Army, though, uses heliographs to maintain communications between units. London is unaware of the danger despite news reports trickling out until the tripods reach the city three days after landing. The Martians have a second weapon, a black smoke that kills anything that breathes it. British civilization begins to break down as the Martians march unimpeded. The mighty British Empire is brought to its knees. The only thing that saved the Empire and the world was microbes, bacteria that humanity had a resistance to that the Martians did not.
The 1890s saw the British Empire at its height, with the sun never setting on it. The Industrial Revolution fifty years prior brought along mechanization, allowing for steam engines, railways, and ironclad ships. Tensions between empires existed, with the expectation that one or another would try to invade Britain. With War of the Worlds, Wells introduced an invader that was more than a match for the British military forces.
In 1938, much had changed. The horse-and-carriage gave way to the automobile and radio allowed for faster transmission of news to listeners. The Great War brought down several empires and introduced new forms of warfare. The threat of war with Nazi German loomed. Orson Welles and his Mercury Theater brought the 1897 story up to date in a sixty minute radio drama on October 30, 1938, the day before Hallowe’en.
The radio version of War of the Worlds made several changes. The setting was localized to the area near New York City. Scaring a large radio market is easier when using areas local to it than using English towns like Woking, home to HG Wells. The second was to accelerate the first book of the novel. Welles used the immediacy of radio to drive the first two-thirds of the drama, having events happen in almost real time. The show is interrupted by breaking news from Grover’s Mill, New Jersey, an alien cylinder crashing into a farmer’s field. The cylinder reveals itself as a hostile machine, firing a heat ray. The station then turned over its facilities to state militia to allow for better communications, allowing the audience to follow the action. The black smoke has a more immediate impact listening to an artillery battery succumbing to it. Another scene has an Air Force squadron trying an aerial attack against the tripods and being shot down by heat rays, something that Wells couldn’t have added as the Wright Brothers hadn’t yet made their first powered flight. And like London in the novel, New York City tries to evacuate.
The last third has Welles’ character, Professor Richard Pearson, formerly of the Princeton Observatory, wandering through the New Jersey countryside, meeting a number of people the same way Wells’ unnamed narrator had in the novel. Pearson is trapped at Grover’s Mill, the initial landing site of the invasion. His life has changed; time passes without being marked, and his primary goal has become survival. The survivalist Pearson meets is taken directly from the novel, with almost no changes except for time constraints.
HG Wells’ lone first-person narrator may work in a novel, allowing the reader to experience events through the character. Radio, though, loses that connection if someone narrates from that perspective. Instead, breaking news with no apparent filtering allows the listeners to bring their own emotions in. The invasion happens faster on radio than in the novel, but response times have also increased. Cavalry in 1938 means tanks and aircraft, not horses. Radio is far more immediate than even telegram. The listener’s response is more raw; the separation that exists between book and reader is reduced or even removed on radio, especially when the format used is a news broadcast. The most heartbreaking moment is a radio operator, call sign 2XQL, calling out, “Is there anyone on the air? Is there anyone on the air? Is there anyone?”
Mercury Theater’s adaptation demonstrates the elements that can be in the way when translating a work into a new medium. What works in one medium may not work in another. Wells’ lush paragraphs of description don’t translate into radio. Instead, the radio work has to build the setting through words and sounds. The heat ray’s effects, from the sound of it firing to the screams of its victims, were demonstrated. The discovery of the cylinder is treated as breaking news, broadcast, instead of being a curiosity for the townsfolk of Woking. However, despite the restrictions and the localization, the radio drama is a good adaptation, getting to the heart of the novel.