Friday, June 24, 2005

The Rout of Civilisation, the Massacre of Mankind

At "The Corner" Warren Bell says that War of the Worlds has never been good. I think that's not true; the novel is better than he makes it out to be. The broadcast is great, although made for people who have more of an attention span for radio than most people do nowadays. The 1950s movie adaptation is one of the best special effects sci-fi movies of all time (as with most 1950s movies, you have to tolerate some overacting here and there, but it still works). It won an Oscar for those effects, and that was one Oscar that was very deserved. And the 1980s TV show was actually OK, at least for the first season, despite cheesy effects and some very derivative elements. The basic trouble with WotW is that the story is not the sort we've gotten used to following: the aliens invade, they eat human beings, they get sick, they die. We have similar difficulties with, say, the ending of H. Rider Haggard's King Solomon's Mines (if I'm not mixing it up with some other story), where the great suspense moment is not action-suspense, but slow, desperate horror suspense, like being buried alive (it's been long enough since I've read it that I've become fuzzy on the details). When aliens invade, we want Earth to be saved by some Hollywood-action-hero type, not by smallpox or the common cold. But that's really the great thing about the story: the whole point is that nothing we could do could save us. We were doomed; no Will Smith flying through the sky, no Jeff Goldblum hacking alien technology with an Apple computer. Doomed, until Nature herself stepped in. It's like Jules Verne's Master of the World: the criminal had for all practical purposes beaten the police, until he tried to mess with Nature. Wells's Invisible Man is perhaps a weaker variation of this pattern. It is a great story pattern, and one that is radically under-used. We haven't adequately developed our literary taste for stories of despair. In some places in Wells's story it is almost palpable:

And we men, the creatures who inhabit this earth, must be to them at least as alien and lowly as are the monkeys and lemurs to us. The intellectual side of man already admits that life is an incessant struggle for existence, and it would seem that this too is the belief of the minds upon Mars. Their world is far gone in its cooling and this world is still crowded with life, but crowded only with what they regard as inferior animals. To carry warfare sunward is, indeed, their only escape from the destruction that, generation after generation, creeps upon them.

Or this, which is a bit wordy but still good:

Had the Martians aimed only at destruction, they might on Monday have annihilated the entire population of London, as it spread itself slowly through the home counties. Not only along the road through Barnet, but also through Edgware and Waltham Abbey, and along the roads eastward to Southend and Shoeburyness, and south of the Thames to Deal and Broadstairs, poured the same frantic rout. If one could have hung that June morning in a balloon in the blazing blue above London every northward and eastward road running out of the tangled maze of streets would have seemed stippled black with the streaming fugitives, each dot a human agony of terror and physical distress. I have set forth at length in the last chapter my brother's account of the road through Chipping Barnet, in order that my readers may realise how that swarming of black dots appeared to one of those concerned. Never before in the history of the world had such a mass of human beings moved and suffered together. The legendary hosts of Goths and Huns, the hugest armies Asia has ever seen, would have been but a drop in that current. And this was no disciplined march; it was a stampede--a stampede gigantic and terrible--without order and without a goal, six million people unarmed and unprovisioned, driving headlong. It was the beginning of the rout of civilisation, of the massacre of mankind.

The difficult thing, of course, is to avoid the deus ex machina problem: the line of the story has to be plausible, and it's hard to do this with a story which has, as part of its theme, the insistence that the main characters are helpless. It's debatable whether Wells quite manages it (Verne does it quite beautifully). Wells tends to go occasionally weak even in his best stories. But the story itself is a sci-fi classic for very good reasons. Part of the reason is that it is not a mere invasion story; it is an attack on human hubris. Directly, it is a fierce attack on the hubris of British Imperial society; indirectly, it speaks to all eras. The story originated in a discussion Wells had about the eradication of the Aborigines in Tasmania when the British turned it into a penal colony; and Wells began wondering what would happen if someone did the same to England. He mentions Tasmania in the paragraph immediately following the first one above:

And before we judge of them too harshly we must remember what ruthless and utter destruction our own species has wrought, not only upon animals, such as the vanished bison and the dodo, but upon its inferior races. The Tasmanians, in spite of their human likeness, were entirely swept out of existence in a war of extermination waged by European immigrants, in the space of fifty years. Are we such apostles of mercy as to complain if the Martians warred in the same spirit?

Ouch! The story is also an attack on the complacency of the British Empire, reminding people that the moment of complete ascendancy is often the moment right before complete overthrow. The two attacks are combined by the exhortation that we should pity those who "suffer our dominion".

The 1930s broadcast is good in part because the radio drama is extremely well-acted; but the real reason is the brilliant recognition that much of Wells's story could be re-crafted into a set of newscasts. I like radio drama quite a bit; and it is without doubt one of the best. They say H.G. Wells, who was still alive at the time, hated it because he didn't like his work turned into a Halloween prank. That's proof that authors don't always know what's the best future for their work.

The 1950s movie made a number of adaptations, the most controversial of which has from the beginning been the (slight) Catholicization (we need a better word for that) of the story. Turning a story by an atheist into one with strong religious overtones will certainly not satisfy purists. But it works well nonetheless. In part because this kind of story works well with religious themes (as I've noted in the case of Master of the World; alas, I've never seen the 1960s movie starring Vincent Price, so I can't say whether that was any good--although Price is always great in sci-fi--but it has the potential for a great movie). Wells's original story is also already rather saturated with biblical imagery. One of the characters is a very stupid, and somewhat insane, curate:

But he was one of those weak creatures, void of pride, timorous, anaemic, hateful souls, full of shifty cunning, who face neither God nor man, who face not even themselves.

In madness he rushes to a bloody death, repenting of his failure to call people to repent and insisting that the word of the Lord is upon him. Good stuff, although not the sort of religious theme that makes it into the movie. The movie isn't actually straying far in introducing the more hopeful religious note; Wells does it too, although it isn't clear whether this is ironic or not. Perhaps, but I'm wary of too quickly attributing such ironies to authors; it might just as well be an attempt at Wells's version of the average Englishman. But I confess, I haven't read it to see whether it is ironic; I just read it because it's good.

This is a good webpage presenting the whole War of the Worlds saga from the perspective of the TV series. The series was very uneven, but one of the neat things was that despite its rather extensive modifications, it took the book, the broadcast, and the movie seriously enough to assimilate them to the storyline.

As for the upcoming WotW movie -- we'll see. Its predecessors have set a high standard for it.

I have spent far too much time on this post....