There is much to be lost when adapting H. G. Wells’ dying Victorian-era prose to the sunny beaches of 1950s California. Still, a change of scenery can breathe new life and even meaning into an old text. Two World Wars had ended in the time between Wells’ initial publication and the first of the adapted features to release. Thus, The War of the Worlds takes on some different meaning. There had already been two wars that involved the world, and the fractious beginnings of the Cold War could be felt shaking the core of the American values. Still, the direction of Byron Haskin does not quite adapt this into his story, because he tries to stay faithful to Wells’ vision, but also haul its message into the modern era.
Haskin does well to visualise the horrors Wells wrote of. A little town is still enthralled by the presence of something extra-terrestrial, yet their initial intrigue and nosiness come more from their desire to shake up their humdrum lives than that of inquisitive questioning. They are unsure of how to respond to a meteor crashing into their back gardens. It is hard to care for these bumbling Americans though. As they make first contact, waving the white flag of surrender, hopeful that they will become friends as they make first contact, we are meant to feel sympathy when they are lasered. But who are they? Wells can establish characters just as quickly by giving us a brief depiction of what they did for the town, here, Haskin is unable to provide that for any of his characters bar two.
Dr. Clayton Forrester (Gene Barry) is the host of our emotions. There is little for him to do, but it is good that he follows the story. He leads us through the ravaged streets, which look marvellous thanks to the strong direction from Haskin. Although the Martians look similar to street lights balanced on a 20Q board, the special effects elsewhere are marvellous. There is a grand scale presented, makeshift military camps are bustling with activity, trays piled high with coffee and doughnuts. It is the sense of living and the devastation these lives will go through that gives The War of the Worlds its impact. Seeing it all go up in smoke, even the mere implication of it, adds to the grief and depth Haskin is clamouring for. He manages it with certainty, and there are moments of real tension, such as Forrester’s initial escape, however briefly, in a military plane.
Obviously not as good as the book it is based on, but Haskin gives The War of the Worlds a good enough crack. All the important notes of the book are present, from the initial revelation of deadly aliens to the uncovering of their weakness. Where the book presents the idea that life on Earth could come to its final chapter at any time, the first of many adaptations looks to sloppily showcase the impact it has on the traditional American hero. Not much, it has to be said. Still, the film looks phenomenal, and for the visuals alone, it is worth experiencing the work of Wells on the big screen. Similarly using props to that of Godzilla, but with much more vibrancy, The War of the Worlds is a scaled-up re-imagining of a classic work of literature. It is better to experience the word than the visual, but Haskin’s best-known work is an honest, hardworking trade-off adapted to the tumultuous atomic era.