The War Of The Worlds: Mercury Theatre 1938 – The Orson Wells Adaptation

By Nephrite and Sgathaich

Ah hello my friends. I see you seek refuge from the cold and dark. I shall provide it but be forewarned the ghoulish creatures and vampires of old are still searching the streets. The night parade of one hundred demons walks once again and long restless souls seek their revenge on those who wronged them in life. I have some stories of my own to tell you to pass the late hours but I’m not alone on this occasion. Introduce yourself my friend…

So…did you just copy what I normally do in my Halloween reviews?

…maybe. It’s too perfect for Halloween after all.

Well anyhooo I’ve been thinking, I’ve reviewed two adaptations of The War Of The Worlds so far and you have done one have you not? 

Technically I’ve done two if you count the audio version of the original story. But I take your point.

Well is there not a VERY famous adaptation in audio format? If you mention the Spielberg version I’m calling the Inquisition!

Darn it you figured me out! But you are right. After all the version of which you speak was first broadcast on the night before Halloween.

It is impossible to know of adaptations of The War Of The Worlds without hearing of the infamous Orson Welles adaptation. Supposedly the broadcast was the cause of massive riots as people believed an actual Martian invasion was occurring. This has since been debunked as having been grossly exaggerated over the years and was actually the news media trying to get a stab at the new guys on the block in radio.

Mercury Theatre Radio Rehearsal 1938 War of the Worlds

So little has changed in eighty-one years. The production was created by The Mercury Theatre On The Air in 1938, a company forged by Welles consisting of the famous Mercury Theatre repertoire company with music composed and conducted by Bernard Herrmann. If you are curious where you may have heard of the name before? Herrmann is best known for creating the music for Psycho as well as several Alfred Hitchcock masterpieces and several episodes of the original Twilight Zone.

The show starts by saying it’s an adaptation – though the legend goes people missed this due to listening to something else at the time – before starting with ball-room dance music. The first half of the drama is told in the form of radio and military broadcasts. Firstly the radio ones interrupt the dance music and slowly the musical interludes vanish as it goes from radio broadcast to radio broadcast and even a military one involving fighter planes on a bombing run.

This part actually makes the legend make even less sense because in WHAT universe does a 1930s public radio broadcast have access to a military radio transmission frequency during an attempted attack on Martians? Wasn’t one of the major things about being at war that they had to censor all letters home to the home front and news so that people didn’t find out whenever they were losing?

While the radio broadcasts are done very well and rather convincingly like real broadcasts, using elements like dead air and silence as someone moves to a different location, that is more an attempt at adapting the story than full on deceit. Paying even the slightest bit of attention you will notice events are moving too fast to be real. The Martians having set off for Earth arrive a minute later and then one minute after that build their tripods and next thing we are in New York. There is one moment where we could both conceive of people mistaking it for real but that would have to be a very small window.

In regards to the adaptation Mr Welles does a very good job of making it very convincing. The invasion takes place mainly in Grover’s Mill, New Jersey, resulting in a much more rural invasion than in the original novel. This in turn makes it much more relatable to the target audience of 1930s America. At the same time it also befits the main theme of the ‘main superpower or Imperial power of the day’ being humbled. After all there will always be someone who can treat you the same way that indigenous populations are treated wherever Imperial powers go. Before you jump in, I know the theme is a fairly obvious allegory to mention but at the same time it feels wrong not to mention as it was kind of one of the ‘purposes’ of writing the novel.

Changing topics slightly, I smiled while still during the radio broadcast section of the drama Wells managed to fit in lines from the novel.

Ah yes, notably the sections when they try and figure out the purpose of the Martians when they first arrive although it doesn’t take them long.

What I found very interesting, which you can tell from me mentioning it is that there is a second half to the broadcast, set after the famous radio broadcasts section. This half is a much more straight adaptation of the work being told as an account by the character of Professor Pierson played by Welles himself. This section is told in a monologue manner as if he is reading out what happened to him after the invasion. Welles even includes an adaption of the artillery man character with delusions of grandeur. With all the talk about the claims of riots, even documentaries talking about the legend miss out on this half.

I agree that is something of a disappointment as the second half is equally as important as the first half but simply gets ignored in favour of incorrect sensationalism. Wells even takes a bit of a swipe at the actual minor controversy right at the end. Overall the adaptation is very well performed for a adaptation from the 1930s and deserves its famous reputation but despite being the most famous adaptation it is not the ‘best’ adaptation. After all…

It’s the rock opera! DO DO DO, DULU DULU DO DO DO, DULU DULU!…

Rock on! …wait where did they go? Or…were they ever really here? Oh…wait they’ve left their shoes. Of course they were.

Oh well now that Sgathiach is gone I suppose I’ll have to start preparing. Perhaps it’s time I discuss a cultural factor I’ve wanted to discuss for quite some time…


Nephrite and Sgathiach


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