You read that arightly, I am recommending a radio drama rather than a film this week: 1938’s War of the Worlds (click here to listen). To the extent people have heard of it at all, they know it as the show that allegedly drove America into a national panic about invading Martians (in truth, very few people actually listened to the broadcast). What it ought to be remembered for is its high level of artistic achievement.
The radio play was performed by the Mercury Theater troupe founded by two wildly talented people: Orson Welles and John Houseman.
Howard Koch, who later became justly famous as the co-scripter of Casablanca, gets the credit for brilliantly adapting H.G. Wells’ novel to radio in a fashion that took advantage of everything the medium and the Mercury Theater company could do. The novel’s rather lengthy set-up chapters and some of its clunky plot development (i.e., having the narrator run into someone who provides crucial information) were a function of the book being told through the eyes of a single narrator. In contrast, staged as a fake news broadcast with scattered, breathless, reports coming in as the Martians wreak havoc, the radio play grips you by the throat immediately and gives the listener a range of details from different geographic locations in an utterly realistic fashion.
Radio also of course opens up opportunities to add sounds — the screams and footfalls of panicked crowds, the horrible, metallic, unscrewing of the Martian cylinders, and the terrifying zzzaaapppp of those heat rays! It’s high craftmanship that still leaves us the fun of imagining how it all looked.
Last, but not least, what an explosion of talent this troupe of actors represented! Not just the big names, but also people like Ray Collins, Dan Seymour, Kenny Delmar, and Frank Readick. They are all perfect at creating characters with voice alone, each of whom seems like a real human being responding to out of this world events. Some New York theater fans were disappointed when talented, stage-trained actors they admired began transferring to new, middle brow, media like radio and film, but the upside was that the whole country and indeed the whole world got to enjoy the dramatic gifts and skills of companies like the Mercury Theater.
I loved listening to radio play as a kid (the image above is of the record album of it my parents had) and it’s just as suspenseful and exciting for me today. War of the Worlds is in the public domain so you can give it a listen anytime. You won’t regret it.
p.s. If you want to see a film version of the same story, Walt Disney’s 1953 version provides way more entertainment value that Spielberg’s grim and weirdly lifeless, gazillion-dollar version.