The new three-part BBC adaptation of the classic H.G. Wells sci-fi novel The War of the Worlds has led to a flurry of newspaper and internet articles on why we still love his rather timeless writings, but also on some of the deeper and more controversial messages Wells sought to convey.
The journalist Martha Gill, for example, reflected that, although the works of Wells and other like-minded sci-fi novelists are almost always written ‘in the spirit of dire warning’, such dystopian visions of the future still feed our imaginative thirst for dramatic entertainment; moreover, they have inspired many real-life inventors and scientists over the years to try to translate fiction into hi-tech fact.
Yet, as Gill pointed out, Wells’ famous book, penned in 1897, was also intended as a satire on colonialism. (1) Indeed, responding to the latest BBC adaptation, a number of other commentators pondered on the core historical messages at work in this bleak exploration of how the Martian invaders smashed the English Home Counties and eventually London itself to pieces in a matter of weeks.
The film critic Matthew Sweet, for example, in his analysis of the BBC’s new adaptation, pointed out that Wells was encouraging the late-Victorian public to do something quite ‘daring’ – to see the methods of the Martians as a reflection of the English imperial project. (2) As Wells’ hero in the book himself put it, ‘We must remember what ruthless and utter destruction our own species has wrought, not only upon animals… but upon its inferior races’. Thus: ‘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 50 years. Are we such apostles of mercy as to complain if the Martians warred in the same spirit?’
As Sweet reminded us, though, Wells (pictured) was not making the case for kindness. Wells was a committed eugenicist, who believed in a form of leftwing state ‘management’ of the human population. In fact, according to the literary historian John Carey, Wells’ seemingly ‘progressive’ desire for social improvement involved engineering a ‘fitter’ race – through selective eradication if necessary – and was rooted in his anxiety about overpopulation. (3)
Born in Bromley, Kent, Wells had witnessed the relentless transformation of small villages and the English countryside into new and (in his view) suffocating suburbs, over-populated and potentially decadent. Such fears later attracted him to the doctrine of Social Darwinism and, in particular, eugenicist themes, ideas he shared with a number of other leading literary and scientific intellectuals in England, thinkers who feared the rise of the so-called ‘yahoo’, the ‘feeble-minded’ and the needy ‘good-for-nothings’.
Interestingly, Wells (1866-1946) borrowed many scenes for The War of the Worlds from the small commuter town of Woking in Surrey. As the screenwriter for the new BBC adaptation explained: ‘When Wells moved to Woking, he’d just left his first wife for a young woman called Amy. The relationship caused a lot of controversy, and they’d gone to hide out in the suburbs in an insular neighbourhood where he felt oppressed… he probably thought it would be fun to lay waste to it through the agency of soulless Martian invaders’. (4)
Tellingly, H.G. Wells recalled in his autobiography how he would cycle around the district of Woking marking down, as he put it, ‘suitable places and people for destruction by my Martians’.
Now viewed as a seminal sci-fi novel, The War of the Worlds joined Wells’ best-selling earlier stories The Time Machine (1895), Island of Dr. Moreau (1896) and The Invisible Man (1897), and shaped the imaginations of many generations of readers to come. As Charlie Connelly recently observed, ‘It’s a testament to Wells’ prescience and rare gift as a storyteller – not to mention his eye for the commercial main chance – that his story, first published in 1897 as a series in the monthly Pearson’s Magazine, remains popular and relevant today’. (5)
Wells later moved to Worcester Park, before eventually settling in Sandgate, in Kent. Further classic pieces of fiction soon followed after the ground-breaking The War of the Worlds, including The First Men in the Moon (1901) and The History of Mr. Polly (1910).
It is a point well made by Carey and others but, in hindsight, Wells (seen here in a photo taken in the 1890s) was clearly a man full of fascinating contradictions. While he became an active Fabian Socialist and liberal reformer who placed his faith in the better ‘planning’ of future society, more controversially he was also evidently an elitist who sought his solutions in ‘positive’ eugenics and other forms of racism.
On the one hand, he complained about the threat of the ‘unfit’ people who were a ‘burden’ on society and advocated the creation of better types of physically fit human beings; on the other hand, he suffered from a range of physical ailments himself, including asthma. He was also a diabetic (he co-founded the Diabetes UK organisation in 1934). Wells thus could never quite reconcile his own physical health issues with his intolerant and cold-hearted proposals to deal with the ‘unfit’, including enforced sterilization.
Undoubtedly, Wells appeared to have a wide range of views on just about everything, but especially the impact of science on society. As such, he increasingly contributed to the social commentary and big debates of the day through regular pieces of popular journalism.
Furthermore, Wells slowly became an internationally known commentator on general political affairs and the fate of the world (warning, for example, about the threat to civilisation of the misuse of atomic power), and his opinions were sought after by leading politicians in numerous other countries. He met, among others, President Theodore ‘Teddy’ Roosevelt in 1906, Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin in 1920, and President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1935. He also had a (at times rather uncomfortable) audience with Joseph Stalin in 1934.
Significantly, according to one (probably fictional) version of the encounter, the Soviet dictator at one point apparently cracked a joke about ‘Marx and Mars’, and when Wells referred to the dangers of war and annihilation (seemingly in a dig at Stalin’s reputation for ruthlessness), the Communist leader, referring to the vision of destruction in Wells’ book The War of the Worlds, suggested Wells was ‘a Communist’ in the same way as Stalin. Wells claimed that he retorted to this: ‘I am more to the Left than you, Mr. Stalin’.
Wells’ views and predictions about the future nature of war were particularly influential (his early fictional vision of ‘land-machines’, for example, had sounded remarkably like what later became the military ‘tanks’ of the First World War), and his ideas were set out in books such as The War that will end war (1914), The Outline of History (1920), and The Shape of Things to Come (1933). A feature film based on the latter novel arguably frightened many cinema audiences and politicians in the 1930s, with its horrific images of mass casualties through air bombardment and gas attacks, and possibly fed into British anti-war and pro-appeasement sentiment in the mid-to-late 1930s. Despite its bleak message, however, the film (using a screen treatment by Wells) put forward a vision of a technocratic elite of scientists who are able to emerge from the post-apocalyptic landscape and set out a new path for humankind.
But it seems that it is The War of the Worlds that has most attracted film-makers, together with musicians, theatre producers and TV writers. A major feature film version appeared in 1953, at the height of the Cold War (which appeared to draw parallels between the invading ‘Red’ Planet Martians and the Communist threat to America), while a Steven Spielberg version in 2005 was interpreted by critics as a parable about 9/11.
The latest small-screen adaptation, although refreshingly set in the original time period it was written, will no doubt be superseded by other versions in the future. Like The Time Machine and other key works by Wells, it appears that The War of the Worlds will remain subject to adaptation and regular reinterpretation for many years to come.
Dr. Steven Woodbridge is Senior Lecturer in History at Kingston University
(Images: Wikimedia Commons)
(1) Martha Gill: ‘We can’t wait to live in a world of sci-fi’, The Times, Nov. 16th, 2019.
(2) Matthew Sweet: ‘Death on the golf course: ‘War of the Worlds’ returns to Surrey’, Daily Telegraph, Nov. 14th, 2019.
(3) John Carey: The Intellectuals and the Masses: Pride and Prejudice Among the Literary Intelligentsia, 1880-1939 (1992).
(4) As cited in Sweet: ‘Death on the golf course’.
(5) Charlie Connelly: ‘Fear and loathing in Woking’, The New European, Nov. 14th, 2019.