HG Wells wrote War of the Worlds in 1898, only a few years after Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli reported seeing canals on Mars. And while much science-fiction of the era has now been consigned (largely, rightfully) to the dustbin of literature, Wells' story continues to exercise a powerful pull on the imagination, even in the 21st century. It's a simple tale of - and I trust I'm not giving anything away - an alien force which humanity is powerless to stop, halted in its tracks by the smallest lifeforms Earth has to offer.
The story seems to appeal particularly during times of political uncertainty - Orson Welles' radio show aired on Halloween 1938, when war was looming on the horizon. The 1950's cinema version played on Cold War fears, with the Red Planet being none-too-subtly equated with the Red Menace. The Viking missions in the mid-1970's saw a revival of interest; while a version of Wells' tale scripted by Anthony Burgess never reached production, I still have a soft spot for Jeff Wayne's musical, which remains a classic concept double-album. Since then, however, movie theatres have largely been safe from the Martian menace, reduced to jokey spoofs like Tim Burton's Mars Attacks!.
But with the Mars Rover rambling slowly around the planet, and America once more at war, it's perhaps inevitable that June 2005 sees multiple versions of the story released. Of course, you know about the Cruise/Spielberg version - however, with daring audacity, worthy of cinematic hustlers from an earlier age, the Asylum are riding the tidal-wave of publicity generated by Dreamworks. They released their own version, helmed by David Michael Latt, the day before the blockbuster hit the screen. And, thanks to the beauty of War being public domain, there's not a single thing Dreamworks can do about it.
Truth be told, despite its kicking central concept, the book really isn't that cinematic: the narrator does little except observe the collapse of civilization as he wanders around, without experiencing much of a character arc. Of course, neither has he any hand in the final resolution of the problem, which is hardly standard behaviour for a Hollywood hero. Oh, plus the book takes place in...shudder...England. And Victorian England at that.
So changes are probably inevitable, though I confess to raising an eyebrow at the similarity in the approaches. Both take place in East-coast USA, neither claim Mars as a source for the invaders (presumably in a nod to a century of scientific progress), and both also have a family parting under strained circumstances, shortly before events kick into action - this leaves the hero to struggle through the resulting chaos, trying to be reunited with his relatives. One key difference: in Spielberg's version, Cruise has the children to protect; in Latt's, the son goes off to Washington with the mother.
Let's take a look at the two versions. I hope this won't produce nightmares; if it does, just remind yourself that the chances of anything coming from Mars, are a million to one...
[Images at right from Dr Zeus's comprehensive (178 to date) collection of War of the Worlds book covers. A third version, Timothy Hines' H.G. Wells' The War of the Worlds is also out, but was unavailable at time of writing. Maybe later. Or, having now found some reviews, maybe not...]