Wars of the Worlds

Reviewed by Jerry Stearns.

This is an article mostly about the audio versions of the War of the Worlds, with reference to other mediums as necessary.

H. G. Wells published his original "The War of the Worlds" novella in 1898 to much critical acclaim. It is still considered by many to be the best of the invasion by aliens subgenre in science fiction. Others have done similar stories, notably Niven and Pournelle's 1985 novel
Footfall, but none have quite reached that fine balance between horror and sense of wonder that Wells did.

WoW Album cover
The most famous radio broadcast of all time is still considered to be "The War of the Worlds", by Orson Welles and the Mercury Theater on the Air, October 30, 1938. Produced by John Houseman, it caused a near-panic, and lots and lots of press coverage. It also spurred legislation banning the "news" format from radio drama for years following. And although Orson Welles himself said they had no idea they were causing such an uproar, he actually knew it was happening and was thrilled with all the attention. The script, by the late Howard Koch (who also won an Academy Award for the screenplay of "Casablanca"), was actually titled "The Invasion From Mars", but was based on H. G. Wells' novella.

The story of that night in 1938 goes like this: That October evening most Americans tuned in to the "The Edgar Bergen-Charlie McCarthy Show", which was the most popular radio show of the time. Twelve minutes into the show they went to their usual musical break. At that point many people changed the channel, and came upon reporter Carl Philips in the field near Grover's Mills, New Jersey. By the time the break came, with the announcement that this was just a play, most of them had already gone off screaming. The "War" became famous, and the Bergen-McCarthy Show opposite it seems to have been forgotten. It is available from collectors, but it’s not one of their memorable episodes.

"The War of the Worlds" story itself has been performed on radio many times since 1938, in a variety of formats. Gordon Payton claims to have 25 different audio versions of the story. The NBC Network anthology series Dimension X and X Minus One each offered a few alien invasion stories. (See "The Embassy", "The Seventh Order", "The Last Martian", and "Zero Hour", for example.)

Every so often I get the question "How can I get rights to perform the radio version of the War of the Worlds?" Rights were owned by the widow of author Howard Koch, and they were administered by Norman Rudman, in California. You can try to contact him at nrudman@mcn.org, but it has been a while and I don’t know if this is still active information.

Audio Wars of the Worlds

Here is a look at some of the audio versions of the Wells and Welles stories of The War.

  • welles
    1938: The Welles broadcast with the Mercury Theater of the Air is available all over. I have vinyl of it, and it is available on compact disc in several collections. Look for The Smithsonian Collection of Old Time Radio: Science Fiction, or the Radio Spirits "60 Greatest Old Time Radio Shows from Science Fiction" selected by Ray Bradbury. It even appears occasionally on the radio, usually around Halloween. There are a few books about the broadcast event, and numerous radio and TV documentaries have covered it.

  • 1949: A radio station in Quito, Ecuador elected to broadcast their own version of the Koch script translated into Spanish. They didn’t tell anyone they were going to do this, not even their own station. Many tuned in and a panic began on the streets of the city. The station received hundreds of phone calls, so they told the players they had to tell everyone it was just a play. This announcement caused an angry uprising in the streets instead. A mob attacked the station and burned it to the ground. Most of the cast escaped out the back, but several people died in the riot and fire. NPR’s Radio Lab has done an excellent program on the Orson Welles version, and included this story and a live interview with someone with a relative who worked for that radio station.

  • 1955: On February 8th, The Lux Radio Theater (NBC) broadcast the radio version of the 1953 George Pal film. Lux Theater had been doing radio versions of Hollywood movies since 1936. The Pal film had proven itself at the box office, and so was brought to the air with Dana Andrews playing the Gene Barry part of Professor Clayton Forester (where else have I heard that name?), and Pat Crowley as Sylvia, the beautiful grad student. The setting, like the film version, was moved to California, the Professor's name was changed, and they tried to use nuclear weapons against the invaders. It was generally dumber than the intelligent Koch script, and inadvertently funny in places. (The movie did win Academy Awards for special effects and sound editing, however.) Available on YouTube in its entirety.

  • 1964: WPEN, Portland, OR broadcasts the Koch script, live, with no panic. The acting was really weak, but they had a lot of fun, and it made a good publicity stunt. Tapes only available in private collections, and deservedly so.

  • 1968: WKBW, Buffalo, NY does their own script on October 30. With the story relocated to their own broadcast area, and done with real newsmen from the radio and television station, they updated the presentation as it would have been done by a news team of the late Sixties. They paralleled the Koch storyline up to the guy in the radio station dying while on the air, and left it there. Apparently improvised from a story outline for the actors, it is realistic in every aspect, and is one of the best I've heard. Despite weeks of promotion and letters to local public agencies to warn them of the broadcast, and numerous announcements on the air during the show, it still brought thousands of phone calls from panicked listeners and responses from police and fire departments, and even from a Canadian National Guard unit. Quite impressive. Check out their website at: http://www.reelradio.com/gifts/wkbwwotw71.html. There's a RealAudio compatible download there. I checked YouTube, the original 1968 broadcast is there (without the music) as well as the 1971 remake, and there are several documentaries about the broadcast, including the most recent 50th Anniversary show by Bob Koshinski about this 1968 broadcast.

  • 1978: Jeff Wayne releases his musical version of the H. G. Wells' story, with Richard Burton as the journalist/narrator. Burton is great on this, and the music is pretty good, too. This story harks back to the original, which allows for some confusion to those who's only experience with the story is the Mercury Theater version. It's now available on Compact Disc from Columbia. Featured artists include Justin Hayward from The Moody Blues, and David Essex who played Jesus Christ in the original Godspell. This album available on YouTube covering several videos. There was a new album in June 2012, followed by a major international arena tour, starring Internationally acclaimed actor Liam Neeson seen in 3D holography as the story's narrator and leading a new cast.
  • 1988: Otherworld Media presents the War of the Worlds 50th Anniversary Production. David Ossman, of the Firesign Theatre, reworks the Howard Koch script to make it sound like modern public radio, and succeeds. Produced by Judith Walcutt of Otherworld, using familiar public radio voices like Douglas Edwards, Terry Gross and Scott Simon, it is difficult to tell when the regular NPR programming ends and this show begins. These people are essentially playing themselves. Much of the recording took place on location, and the post production mixing was done at the studios of Lucasfilm's Skywalker Ranch with post-production supervised by Oscar-winner Randy Thom. With actors like Jason Robards starring, and backed up by people like Steve Allen, Hector Elizondo and Phil Proctor, this is a spectacular production. It works. It's fun. Perhaps it's weakest point is the expressionless "note taking" by Robards as he reads into a tape recorder his observations and adventures as he makes his way through the countryside, trying to avoid discovery by the Martians. I would think they'd be rather emotionally charged adventures, myself. CDs are available, though tough to find. You can find it on YouTube, along with Otherworld Media’s accompanying radio documentary on the War of the Worlds panic phenomenon.

  • wow-LAthtr
    1994: L.A. TheaterWorks does a live production of the original Koch script. Featured actors include several from Star Trek: The Next Generation. Brent Spiner and Will Wheaton do a creditable job, as does Armin Shimerman ("Quark"). Leonard Nimoy, as Professor Pearson, seems to have a bad throat problem, so his voice is very hoarse and his energy level is low and unfocused. Gates McFadden (Dr. Crusher), as Carla Philips the reporter, is pretentious and stiff. It was directed by John de Lancie ("Q"), whom I have grown to appreciate as an actor. It was performed live before an audience as part of the L.A. Theaterworks regular broadcasts in November of 1994. This is a pretty good production, though not the best that the Theaterworks and producer Susan Lowenberg have done. Tapes or a catalog of their productions can be obtained via their website at http://www.latw.org/.

  • 1995: NPR aired a six-part adaptation of the H. G. Wells story produced by the BBC in 1967. This is a fine production of the story, with close attention to details of the original story and atmosphere of turn-of-the-century England. Good acting is a hallmark of BBC Radio, which has a long tradition in radio drama that the United States has lost. This production is good listening and easily brings your imagination into it. I was sure tapes were not available in the U. S. until I found it on an Old Time Radio tape from a distributor in San Francisco.

There are also quite a few parodies and take-offs of the WoW story.

  • "Warp of the Worlds" by SHOCKWAVE, out of KFAI in Minneapolis. Written by Kate Worley and Jerry Stearns. Performed live at Minicon in 1982. The ending is a bit ambiguous, and it's aimed at the Fannish audience, so there are a few esoteric references. Otherwise it's language is its best feature. You can hear an excerpt from this program about the Landing at Davis Corners, IA , or the complete Warp of the Worlds.
  • Night of the Cooters, adapted with permission from the short story by Howard Waldrop, performed by SHOCKWAVE at Minicon in 1992. It’s how the story might have played out in Texas. Quite silly. No, Very Silly.
  • "They Came for The Candy", by The Radio Pirates out of Madison, WI. A wonderfully silly half-hour produced by Scott Dikkers and written by Jay Rath. Availability is unknown, but ask me and I'll check on it for you. (30 Minutes)
  • Producer Tom Curley, of Bridgeport, CT did a wonderfully inventive take-off on the story as part of his 9-part series "A Half-Hour Radio Show".
  • "Orson the Alien: The Untold Story Behind the War of the Worlds" - Two aliens hear the Orson Welles broadcast and believe it is a real invasion, so they set out to help save Earth. Written by Terry Bisson, Brian Smith and George Zarr for Seeing Ear Theatre, a website of the Sci-Fi Channel. Available on the web at OldRadioPrograms.us. Also available at audible.com.
  • “Dialogue With Martian Trombone” - from Great Northern Audio Theatre. Jerry Stearns and Brian Price take the logical step in an odd direction. The question of whatever happened to Ramone Raquello, the leader of the dance band that was supposed to be featured on the program that was interrupted by the news reports in the Orson Welles, Mercury Theater on the Air that night in 1938? This is their story, 70 years later. A missing trombonist, young love, and still being haunted by those Martians. Here’s a new performance of Martian Trombone 2018, live from the 2018 Mark Time Awards show (at the HEAR Now Festival in Kansas City, MO), featuring David Ossman and Phil Proctor of the Firesign Theatre, plus Orson Ossman, Richard Fish, Melinda Peterson, and Donna Postel. Trombone was also produced by DecoderRing Theatre in Canada as part of their Mark Time Show Time series.
  • And finally, there is War of the Worlds, The Sequel, from Pharaoh in New York. I have not actually heard this, but I've heard from someone whose opinion I trust on such things that it is horrific! It claims to be a "Fully Dramatized" story, and it is really a string of unfocused environmental and political raps, read by people with no acting ability or experience. Our advice, Avoid it.

War of the Worlds 75th Anniversary audio contest - In 2013 Fred Greenhalgh, of FinalRune Audio , and Matthew Beaudreau, of AuralStage, hosted a contest in honor of 75 years since the War of the Worlds broadcast. They had specific rules and received ten entries. Each of the entries had something nice and inventive about it. The contest website has been taken down, but included excellent shorts from Action Science Theatre, Wireless Theatre, Our Fair City and Fearless Comedy Productions. They are well worth hearing.

World Wide Web Sites

There are a few sites on the World Wide Web that deal with the War of the Worlds in its various forms - book, radio, TV, films, games and others. Here are few of the sites that have the most links to the others, and an educational tool for study of the story.
YouTube has many references to the Welles broadcast and documentaries about it.

The Complete War of the Worlds Website - http://www.war-of-the-worlds.org/
Yes, it really does have something about every aspect of the story, every version on radio, TV, film and books, and more.
Includes listings of places to download most of them, including movie trailers and software. And a good looking site, too.

EarthStation1.com's Radio Sounds Showcase: The 1938 "War of the Worlds" Radio Broadcast Wavs - http://www.earthstation1.com/wotw.html
Has the entire Welles broadcast broken down into small .wav files (almost 50 of them), or the complete broadcast in RealAudio or TrueSpeech formats. And that's about all that's on this page, though they have links to plenty of other media info, including sound effects sound files.

Mercury Theater broadcast, from AudioBooksOnline.com - http://www.audiobooksonline.com/shopsite/4055.html
It's the original Welles broadcast, on compact disc, uncut. This is the page to order it from.

War of the Worlds: An Historical Perspective - http://www.war-ofthe-worlds.co.uk/
An impressive collection of information concerning Orson Welles, H. G. Wells, the radio broadcast of 1938, and links to many of the same sites on this list. John Gosling has assembled plenty of information, including images of original documents from newspapers of 1938, and info from books and magazines, and lots of stuff about Grover's Mill. Excellent research.

WotW, Grover's Mill. Roadside America - http://roadsideamerica.com/attract/NJGROufo.html
A listing of Grover's Mill as a tourist attraction. Some cool pictures of monuments you'll find there.

Science Fiction and OTR - http://www.otr.com/sf.html
A very brief mention on a page devoted to history of science fiction in Old Time Radio.

WotW - article, includes RA sound - http://www.rense.com/general4/hg.htm
An article about the old radio show, with several very modern images and a link to an online RealAudio download of the show.

War of the Worlds: Shared Illusion - http://www.transparencynow.com/welles.htm
An article about the cultural significance of the WotW broadcast and its after-effects. Written for "Transparency", a web site offering media criticism and critique to help people see through and intelligently judge the world wide media. Orson would be proud.

WKBW's 1971 War of the Worlds-REELRADIO - http://www.reelradio.com/gifts/wkbwwotw71.html
Certainly the most realistic version I have heard. Performed with real newsmen from the radio and TV station. Dialogue improvised with guidelines about length and content. Wonderfully done. Tapes I heard came from Bob Koshinski, who did a TV report in 1989 or so about the 1968 broadcast. It's been repeated two or three times since then with greater ambition and excellent results.
Bob's email address is listed on this page, and there is a RealAudio compatible streaming download of the show, too.

Blackstone Audiobooks - The War of the Worlds, read by Robin Lawson - http://www.blackstoneaudio.com/audiobook.cfm?id=1513
An unabridged reading of the H. G. Wells story on tape. Available on this site for purchase or rental.

The War of the Worlds - The Movie - http://www.sciflicks.com/the_war_of_the_worlds/
SciFlicks - A web site for science fiction cinema. Plenty of info about the George Pal movie of 1953, including hard to get sounds, good clear movie stills, cast and crew list, etc. Also lots of ads: you can buy the movie, related sci-fi movies and books, and some really annoying flashing ads for totally unrelated stuff. Here’s the
movie trailer.

War of the Worlds - The Movie 2005 - http://www.waroftheworlds.com/noflash/
The Movie directed by Stephen Spielberg, and starring Tom Cruise. Big hit. Sort of followed the 1953 version but WAY flashier. Available on DVD.

And related books.

The Complete War of the Worlds (book), edited by Brian Holmsten and Alex Lubertozzi.- available in paperback now.
From Source Books, the story of the story. Includes the complete H. G. Wells story (illustrated), the complete Howard Koch script (illustrated). Comes with a compact disc including the Orson Welles radio broadcast, some other interviews with Welles and his post-broadcast press conference, and excerpts from the WKBW (Buffalo, NY) broadcast version, too. Quite an excellent book.

In June of 1996 Bantam Books released
War of the Worlds: Global Dispatches. The book is an anthology of short stories using Wells' war with the martians as the starting point, and ostensibly written by famous people of the time, such as Mark Twain, Teddy Roosevelt, Jules Verne, Albert Einstein, Rudyard Kipling and others. Actually they are written by some of the leading SF writers of this time. Some of the stories are quite good and fun to read, while others are as dull as the ostensible authors would have made them. And many of them just cry out to be done on the radio. I think the idea began with Howard Waldrop's story of the Texas Rangers meeting the martians, Night of the Cooters. That is probably the best story in the book, and actually has been broadcast. It was performed live at Minicon 27, in 1992, and has been aired on KFAI in Minneapolis. I'd love to do some of the others sometime.
Here is a review of this book:

WoW! That turned out to be more than I'd expected when I began it. But, like I said at the beginning, "War of the Worlds" IS the most famous radio show of all time, and it'll keep coming back as long as there is radio.

Revised November 21, 2004, February 2012, November 2018.