Monday, July 04, 2005

The Opening and Closing of The War of the Worlds (the novel)

(Note: Spoiler alert; don't read this post if you haven't read the novel, and are planning to go see this movie)

Steven Spielberg only uses two direct quotes from H.G. Wells' novel, one from the opening and one from the closing. I was surprised to see that he kept the story in the movie pretty much consistent with that of the novel; it suggests that the scientific paradigm dominant in H.G. Wells' day (the novel was first published in 1898) is still pretty much intact, at least with regards to biology.

Here the opening paragraph of H.G. Wells' The War of the Worlds:

No one would have believed in the last years of the nineteenth century that this world was being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man's and yet as mortal as his own; that as men busied themselves about their various concerns they were scrutinised and studied, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinise the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water. With infinite complacency men went to and fro over this globe about their little affairs, serene in their assurance of their empire over matter. It is possible that the infusoria under the microscope do the same. No one gave a thought to the older worlds of space as sources of human danger, or thought of them only to dismiss the idea of life upon them as impossible or improbable. It is curious to recall some of the mental habits of those departed days. At most terrestrial men fancied there might be other men upon Mars, perhaps inferior to themselves and ready to welcome a missionary enterprise. Yet across the gulf of space, minds that are to our minds as ours are to those of the beasts that perish, intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic, regarded this earth with envious eyes, and slowly and surely drew their plans against us. And early in the twentieth century came the great disillusionment.

And here is the paragraph quoted from the end of the novel:

For so it had come about, as indeed I and many men might have foreseen had not terror and disaster blinded our minds. These germs of disease have taken toll of humanity since the beginning of things--taken toll of our prehuman ancestors since life began here. But by virtue of this natural selection of our kind we have developed resisting power; to no germs do we succumb without a struggle, and to many--those that cause putrefaction in dead matter, for instance--our living frames are altogether immune. But there are no bacteria in Mars, and directly these invaders arrived, directly they drank and fed, our microscopic allies began to work their overthrow. Already when I watched them they were irrevocably doomed, dying and rotting even as they went to and fro. It was inevitable. By the toll of a billion deaths man has bought his birthright of the earth, and it is his against all comers; it would still be his were the Martians ten times as mighty as they are. For neither do men live nor die in vain.

Judging from Spielberg's approach to the ending of the movie, evolution and antibodies are still generally interesting biological concepts.

Then again, I overheard a number of people walking out of the theater confused about what exactly killed the aliens -- so maybe many people still don't really get the idea of resistance to bacteria. And quite a number of other people seem to think the ending to the film "sucks." So maybe Wells' concepts are either so obvious that they're no longer interesting... or people still don't get the basic concepts of biology.

The full text of The War of the Worlds is available as an etext at Project Gutenberg here.


[ tyler curtain ] said...

I like the ending, and seem to be among the few who do. I like it not because it remains "faithful" to its precursor but rather because it gets something right about evolution.

I hated the Tim Robbins interlude. It made an otherwise good and terrifying movie nearly unwatchable.

11:57 AM  
paul said...

I understood the ending, which I didn't know before I saw the film, but I was also kind of shocked that they didn't have more to say about the mechanics of the alien death. It doesn't surprise me at all to hear that others were confused, and I would tend to blame Spielberg for being too subtle... not something he's often accused of, I suppose?

8:41 AM  
Amardeep said...


Yes, it was surprising that they just cut it off. Thirty seconds more (maybe a brief 'autopsy' scene, where you see serious-looking doctors analyzing blood samples) is all that would have been needed to spell it out.

And Tyler, I completely agree with you about the Tim Robbins sequence.

10:41 AM  
Ed said...

And there's a wonderful online collection of illustrations from the many editions of the novels:

5:08 PM  
sy said...

I'll be happy to tell you why people are complaining about the ending. It's because both the beginning and ending is thematically and stylistically at odds with the crap in between. The contemporary filmmaking and family-oriented material doesn't mix well with the high-flown purple prose that bookends it.

Also, unlike the 1953 film, Spielberg does whatever he can to obscure any inefficiencies in the United States military's technology when it comes to attempting to defeat the aliens. Can't have such scenes in a time of war, I guess. But then the epilogue doesn't have the same impact in this film as it had in the other; that is, for all our (ugh) weapons of mass destruction, we were unable to achieve what the tiniest of the tiny managed to do.

And it doesn't work because the way the film is structured, we're led to believe that only closeted movie stars have any effect on these aliens. The epilogue doesn't fit audiences pre-conceptions of what a summer slam-bang movie should be... especially when it spends most of its running time being that summer slam-bang movie, and one that raised the prices at my theater another twenty-five cents no less.

Except for Dakota Fanning, who's wonderful, War of the Worlds is just hype. I doubt it will endure as long as most of Spielberg's other films have. And the 9/11 imagery, used for no reason other than to scare, was particularly bogus and exploitative.

6:37 PM  

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