Some of us may be spending the upcoming 4th of July weekend grilling brats and watching holiday fireworks displays, but the film buffs among us may prefer cinematic fireworks. The arrival of the new Stephen Spielberg blockbuster makes for a good time to recall the origins and interesting permutations through time of The War of the Worlds.
The original story was written by H. G. Wells in 1898. Washington State University has posted an in-depth study guide for the original Wells book:
The War of the Worlds was written in response to several historical events. The most important was the unification and militarization of Germany, which led to a series of novels predicting war in Europe, beginning with George Chesney's The Battle of Dorking (1871). Most of these were written in a semi-documentary fashion; and Wells borrowed their technique to tie his interplanetary war tale to specific places in England familiar to his readers. This attempt at hyper-realism helped to inspire Orson Welles when the latter created his famed 1938 radio broadcast based on the novel.
Orson Welles' 1938 radio broadcast took the story to another level, and this is the version of The War of the Worlds most familiar in current popular consciousness. The idea that the country could be seriously snookered by a documentary-style broadcast of the story of Martians attacking New Jersey seems quaint and funny now, but was a very big deal at the time. For more information on the radio version, check out this site, which is devoted to the 1938 Mercury Theater broadcast, with much detail on the life of Orson Welles.
And for the trivia buffs, there was at least one other movie version of The War of the Worlds, released in 1953, and starring Gene Barry and Ann Robinson.