HALIFAX, NOVA SCOTIA
"Yet across an immense ethereal gulf, minds that are to our minds as ours are to the beasts in the jungle, intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic, regarded this earth with envious eyes, and slowly and surely drew their plans against us."
This past Halloween marked the 65th anniversary of one of history's greatest "misunderstandings" - Orson Welles's broadcast of H.G. Wells's The War of the Worlds. (Though often referred to as a hoax, and while it was written in such a way as to mimic the unfolding of real events, the program clearly identified itself as a radio play in its opening moments and again during the performance.)
While most people are aware of the 1938 broadcast, relatively few know more than the basic facts behind the event, and fewer still have actually heard the dramatization in its entirety. Fortunately for those who might like to fill in the blanks, <b>The War of the Worlds</b> has several homes on the Web - and despite its holiday connections, it's not just for Halloween.
The first of these online resources, The War Of The Worlds Invasion: An Historical Perspective is an ideal place to start, as it provides fairly comprehensive background information about the broadcast, the players (dramatic and otherwise), and the public reaction. First though, the site offers a tour of Grover's Mill, New Jersey - the randomly chosen first target of Welles's Martian invasion, and a genuine village which grew up around, yes, Joseph H. Grover's mill. A biography of H.G. Wells and a synopsis of the original story (published in 1898) is next, followed by an examination of Orson Welles's interpretation, and the ensuing panic. The Historical Perspective rounds out its contents with a brief catalog of film and television adaptations, as well as newspaper articles from the days immediately after the broadcast.
The Historical Perspective has just about everything you'd want to know about the broadcast, but not the broadcast itself - however this, too, can be found online, either as commercially available soundtracks or a free download. The no-charge alternative is part of the selection at The Mercury Theatre on the Air - a site named for the company which performed Welles's radio dramas. The War of the Worlds, along with all other surviving Mercury Theatre programs are available in RealPlayer and/or MP3 formats, in addition to a selection of Campbell Playhouse productions. (The same dramatic company - renamed after acquiring a sponsorship from Campbell's Soup.)
A pair of rehearsal soundtracks, and even a conversation between Welles and Wells are also in this collection of more than 60 programs dating from July 1938 to March 1940. (Performances include such classics as The Count of Monte Cristo, two versions of A Christmas Carol, and a preview of one of Welles's later cinematic efforts in the form of The Magnificent Ambersons.) The only downside of this site is that it's on a very slow server. It won't matter how fast the connection is at your end, The Mercury Theatre's files are strictly of the start-the-download-and-walk-away variety.
If you'd like to compare the Mercury Theatre script to the original source material, you can find a searchable online version of the book at The Literature Network.(It may come as a shock to some that Grover's Mill didn't actually appear in Wells's novel, and that London, not New York, was the target of the invaders' original gas attack.)
And finally, in an impressive demonstration that directors aren't the only ones who interpret the work of great writers, Harold Poskanzer's War of the Worlds Project boasts an exhibit of more than 130 War of the Worlds book covers. With a multi-lingual assortment dating from 1898 to 2003, the War of the Worlds Project is a surprisingly interesting exercise, as one traces the evolution of the title's retail presentation - from block letters on a plain background to the myriad attempts to portray Wells's famous Martian walkers. In addition to the main page, Poskanzer also offers the covers in a scrolling Timeline (14 covers from 1976 alone), or grouped by publisher and graphics. Illustrations from inside some of the featured books, and from various loosely related sources (such as a DC comic that had Superman defending against the invasion) complete the collection.
The War of the Worlds has a genuinely rare record in two forms of media. Not many science fiction books are -or will be- in print 100 years after publication, and not many 65-year old radio dramas are available as commercial recordings. But the material holds up well against the years, and with all due respect to today's cinematic special effects, Welles's depiction of the Martians releasing poisonous gas on New York city has more human impact than a million dollars worth of CGI or pyrotechnics. If you're sceptical, buy or download the show, turn out the lights and unplug the phone, and let your mind provide the special effects. In the meantime, watch the skies...