Sunday, January 29, 2006

War of the Worlds - book and film

I read the book only last week, and saw the film just last night. Both surprised me.

HG Wells' scientific adventure directs its gaze in several directions that are not very novel-friendly and make life difficult for the film-maker, as well. Literally, in several directions. First of all, he wants both the individual story and the panoramic. The first story takes place south of London where the narrator lives, where the Martians land, where their attack begins. The grand vista, however, is to be seen north of London, in which direction, naturally, the people of the city flee. The narrator cannot be in two places at once, so he has to make use of his brother's testimony. This split, though it allows for one of the best set pieces in fiction (the fleeing crowds), does weaken the link between reader and main character. Interestingly, Speilberg does not try to have it both ways. There is one fleeing crowd scene, but it is minor compared to Wells'; the director stays with his main character and sacrifices the panorama. (I was a little puzzled by this: why is everyone so keen to get to Boston? Why should they be better off there?)

One more obstacle for the film-maker. The plot itself is not resolved by the hero. Survival and victory do not come about because of the hero's heroics, but rather because the martians lack immunity to earthly bugs, something completely out of his, or anyone else's control. Such a plot is always difficult in that the emotional attachment of the audience to the hero cannot be used to fuel the climax - there's no release, no shout of 'Yes!' as he defeats the baddie. Spielberg's only concession to heroics is that he has the Cruise character destroy one of the tripods with grenades.

Wells' gaze is concentrated in another place from which Speilberg fixedly averts his eyes, not this time for formal reasons, but for idealogical ones. One of Wells' main concerns is the crowd's reaction to events completely outside their experience. The first words of the book are 'No-one would have believed ...', and that is the dominant key for the opening chapters: the inadequacy of humanity's mental preparation for the attack. In terms of words, he spends far more on that than on the immense gap in technical prowess. It is the main motif of the crowd scenes north of London, one that Speilberg takes up at the Boston Ferry crossing. The collapse of order is a theme close to our hearts these days. But Wells goes further: he makes a point of ridiculing the main idealogy in the West that deals with the greater questions of Man's destiny: Christianity. In the character of the vicar with whom the narrator is trapped for 2 weeks, we see a man whose whole mental structure has suffered irreparable damage. He reverts first to 'thunder and brimstone', but in the end to madness. His 'worldview' is shown to be not just inadequate, but irrelevant. Speilberg's only acknowledgement of this is in the opening scenes when the earth tremor caused by emerging tripod splits the facade off a church. His avoidance of the theme is inevitable given the prevailing political climate.

And one question. In Wells' book the Martians land and construct the tripods. In the film, the tripods have been underground for millennia and are merely activated by the Martians. Why? Is the enemy of Man already among us?

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