The War of the Worlds Tripods

The have been several attempts to transfer H.G. Wells’ 1897 classic science fiction novel, The War of the Worlds, to the big screen, but few of them have been truly respectful of the original source material.

The 1953 movie, probably the best known of all the spin off movies, makes great cinema but it diverges so distinctly from the original text devolving into Americanised nonsense, lacking any of the themes or social commentary found in the original text.

Instead of the lumbering tripods, we get (presumably owing to difficulty animating three legged walking machines in 1950) hovering manta ray spaceships; instead of Wells’ critical diatribe on religion and war, we get pandering to a mainstream American audience; and instead of quaint British villages, we get the urban sprawl of Los Angeles.

The “tripods” from The War of the Worlds movie, 1953

Then there’s the 2005 movie, staring everyone’s favourite Scientologist, Tom Cruise. War of the Worlds 2005 has everything going for it; there’s a world famous lead actor; the movie is produced by Steven Spielberg, and even John Williams is on board to create a music score fitting the epic battle for the heart of the solar system. In Spielberg’s version we get real tripods for the first time on screen, which look great, but even Tom Cruise can’t elevate this above standard Hollywood action fluff.

But 2005 was the year that kept on giving for War of the Worlds fans. Presumably hoping to cling by its fingertips to the bumper of the Tom Cruise juggernaut, two other The War of the Worlds films were released within months of each other. The most notable of these is “H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds” by Pendragon Pictures, which also happens to be the first adaption to be situated in the novel’s home country of England.

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Wojna światów
The War of the Worlds: The Next Century

But we can’t forget the Polish sequel (presumably to the original 1953 film?), Wojna światów, which translates as the ‘The War of the Worlds: The Next Century’. You didn’t know about Wojna światów and want to find out more? Fret not, everything you need to know about this Polish classic is communicated in the movie’s superb poster, shown to the right.

Now, move along quietly, please.

But now the BBC has produced its own television series of H.G. Wells’ classic novel. Does this new series finally bring the tripod’s authentic to the book to the big screen? Is it set within a period and location that fans of the novel will recognise? Does it deal with themes of nationalism, war and religion that were so prevalent in H.G. Wells’ original text? Let’s find out.

Is the BBC adaption of ‘The War of the Worlds’ true to the original novel?

When adapting a novel for the screen there will always be compromises, and that’s particularly true when the source material so so old. Don’t get me wrong, the original story is by no means perfect, many of the characters are superficial ciphers, who exist solely to prop up Wells’ arguments, and the novel’s ending is entirely unsatisfying bordering on lazy. But there is a quaint nativity and prophetic quality about the book that hasn’t been replicated on screen before.

In the novel Wells describes a “heat ray” which bears a striking resemblance to a primitive description of a laser weapon. Bear in mind that he was writing in 1897 about a technology that wouldn’t be built until the 1960s.

The descriptions of the launching of the alien craft from the surface of Mars in a giant cannon can be found in later movies like ‘The Journey to the Moon’ where the astronauts are fired in a bullet out of a giant gun. This is decades before the moon landings were even a twinkle in JFK’s eye.

While several of the orginal novel’s themes are timeless, any modern adaption could (and should) also pick from a range of modern themes to play off. One obvious pick is the current concern regarding immigration — ‘outsiders’ taking one’s natural resources — which Jon Lanchester’s The Wall recently dealt with. There are also clear implications for climate change, a civilisation forced to travel across the solar system is order to find a new and habitable home and I’m sure many more possible themes that could be tackled.

The Problem with Tripods

BBC The War of the Worlds Tripod

The BBC’s adaption has many problems, but its most heinous crime is that they got the alien tripods wrong.

The BBC’s tripods are are huge. I mean colossal. In comparison, H.G. Wells’ tripods are large, but I always felt that they had some physical connection to their surroundings.

Wells’ machines reach down and pick things up. They grope around with snake-like tentacles, pitching up people and trees only to dash them on the ground. The BBC’s version are so colossal that they are completely unfathomable and disconnected from their impact on the human characters. When the first reveal occurs of the alien monster, as a towering tripod emerges into view from behind a church, it’s as though the protagonist is observing a mountain rising on the horizon. They are so distant and impossible that they offer little real threat or connection to the destruction occurring on the ground.

The best War of the Worlds tripod in modern media

Of all the media that has been influenced by War of the Worlds, I’ve always felt that the Strider from the video game Half-Life 2 comes closest to a modern recreation of HG Wells’ alien tripods.

The Strider hits the perfect mark between being otherworldly and unfathomable but also strangely organic and familiar. It’s big, but not so big that it couldn’t reach down and stare you in the eyes.

Sure the novels don’t provide a hugely detailed description of the machines, but we do get a some key facts about them which has yet to be replicated on the screen.

And this Thing I saw! How can I describe it? A monstrous tripod, higher than many houses, striding over the young pine trees, and smashing them aside in its career; a walking engine of glittering metal, striding now across the heather; articulate ropes of steel dangling from it, and the clattering tumult of its passage mingling with the riot of the thunder. A flash, and it came out vividly, heeling over one way with two feet in the air, to vanish and reappear almost instantly as it seemed, with the next flash, a hundred yards nearer. Can you imagine a milking stool tilted and bowled violently along the ground? That was the impression those instant flashes gave. But instead of a milking stool imagine it a great body of machinery on a tripod stand… Seen nearer, the Thing was incredibly strange, for it was no mere insensate machine driving on its way. Machine it was, with a ringing metallic pace, and long, flexible, glittering tentacles (one of which gripped a young pine tree) swinging and rattling about its strange body. It picked its road as it went striding along, and the brazen hood that surmounted it moved to and fro with the inevitable suggestion of a head looking about. Behind the main body was a huge mass of white metal like a gigantic fisherman’s basket, and puffs of green smoke squirted out from the joints of the limbs as the monster swept by me.

I live not far from Woking, England, where many scenes from the book are set. In the centre of the town there is a statue, somewhat smaller than the novel’s descriptions of a tripod machine terrorising happy shoppers, and the cylinder from whence the Martians first emerge. It’s an amazingly incongruity piece of modern art, but does justice to the description found in the original text. I can’t help but think that this is what Wells was imagining when he wrote the novel.

In the BBC series, the Martian’s heat rays are a strange weapon, seemingly without source or attacker. Instead of being a proto-laser carried by tentacled tripods, people just set on fire. I can understand why, it’s more mysterious, more otherworldly, but it just looks wrong.

Compare this to the version from the original novel:

“…in some way they are able to generate an intense heat in a chamber of practically absolute non-conductivity. This intense heat they project in a parallel beam against any object they choose, by means of a polished parabolic mirror of unknown composition, much as the parabolic mirror of a lighthouse projects a beam of light… it is certain that a beam of heat is the essence of the matter. Heat, and invisible, instead of visible, light. Whatever is combustible flashes into flame at its touch, lead runs like water, it softens iron, cracks and melts glass, and when it falls upon water, incontinently that explodes into steam.

Description of the Martian heat ray weapon

It’s difficult to make good science fiction for a mainstream audience

This is science fiction’s failing. So often, in order to appeal to a mainstream Sunday night audience, the material is diluted. The gritty realism of Wells’ original protagonist is gone, and instead replaced by an insipid love tryst between the lead character and his present wife and his ex-lover. This adds nothing to the story, it’s not Pride and Prejudice in space, although I’m sure someone is working on that novel as we speak.

The original book can only be truly appreciated when taken in the context that it was originally written. It’s important to recognise that The War of the Wars was far ahead of its time and influenced so much of the science fiction that was to come. This was written in 1897, before both World Wars, before the moon landings, before the Wright brothers created the first flying machine. Before all those things, H.G. Wells was writing about alien creatures shooting themselves in a cannon from Mars to Earth and strolling around in giant walking machines. He even touches on artificial intelligence at one point. His prescience was simply amazing.

Now every second movie or novel or documentary or television series is swarmed with alien invasions, creatures from beyond and the threat of invasion. But when the novel was originally written, it’s really difficult to understand how new this concept was.

From what I’ve seen of the BBC series so far, we’re still owed a decent screen conversion of HG Wells’ classic which doesn’t the original novel and the author justice.

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