Critics who are looking for authenticity in the Stephen Spielberg version of War of the Worlds drive me nuts.
While I love and fully appreciate the genius H.G. Wells expended in the creation of this science fiction master piece, War of the Worlds is one of the most dismal and depressing novels ever written.
It is the grandfather to the 1960s New Wave science fiction such as "The Sheep Look Up" and "Dolgrin," designed to scare us into social reform with its apocalyptic vision.
As with much of Wells' work, War of the Worlds is a morality play, a turn of the century environmental precursor to George Orwell's political version 1984.
War of the World has one essential premise: humanity faced with overwhelming strength from another planet falls into despair and savagery, and is saved, not by its own high moral standard or its unquenchable intellectual resources, but rather than an accident of birth and evolution.
Critics who claim Spielberg will not stay loyal to the original work only begrudgingly admit that no interpretation until recently had - and that as written, H.G. Wells' dismal classic hardly corresponds to the modern western need for self-reliance. Wells characters are helpless, even hapless creatures dragged through the world's destruction with readers as witness the way Dante was through his tour of hell.
The two prior interpretations of the Wells' classic reflect their own times better than they reflect the moment in which the novel was written, and would have failed miserably as a popular had they exactly duplicated the original. Both the 1939 radio broadcast and the 1953 feature film reflected their own era, as Spielberg's adaptation will likely interpret it for ours.
In his 1939 radio adaptation, Orson Wells subtly changed the environmental and social message of the work into something of a horror story playing off the public fear of what was then transpiring in Nazi Germany - and the fear that an outbreak there might indeed result in an invasion here.
The 1953 film performed a similar operation, adapting to the anti-communist sensibilities then sweeping through the science fiction community. In this version, technology became a key factor elaborating on the innovations World War II had wrought - such as the potential the V2 rockets provided for the possible exploration of space. Los Angeles - which had through America's massive ability for production - had managed to escape the invasion of Japan, yet could it escape the next wave - if not of Soviets then of aliens from space. Cities burned. People fled. We even tried to use The Bomb.
While a lot of Spielberg fans anxiously anticipate what his version of the aliens will look like (a closely guarded secret I'm told), in reality, the 1953 film set a standard in our mind that even Spielberg might struggle to match. The 1953 film shaped a vision of the aliens in our mind so permanent, many of us already know what the aliens should look like, even if Spielberg's don't.
Despite the objections the purist raise, the makers of the 1939 radio show and the 1953 movie understood how unacceptable the original premise was in addressing the interest and needs of modern audiences. Any literal interpretation - such as the one released out of England - is bound to provide as unbearable a bleak outcome as 1984, as humanity stumbles back into the stone age with endurance celebrated as a virtue instead of resistance and innovation.
While I am also looking forward to Spielberg's special effects, the saving grace he brings to the Wells novel are the clever and sadly comic touched he brings to most of his films, aspects of character and scene that may save us from the worst aspects of Wells' march through the seven circles of hell. These touches helped save past flicks, keeping Close Encounters from being just one more in a string of so-so UFO movies, and cutting through the diabetic veneer ET's saccharine plot promised when stripped bare.
In fact, a close study of ET with references to some of Spielberg's other films might well show us what we can expect from his War of the Worlds.