H.G. Wells: Maker and Destroyer of Worlds

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When I was a kid, my FOURTH favorite movie (after The Wizard of Oz, The Poseidon Adventure and The Ten Commandments, in that order) was the 1953 George Pal version of H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds. I clearly had a taste for apocalypse: tornadoes, tidal waves, plagues, and the end of the world. (Another favorite movie, Chaplin’s The Gold Rush has blizzards and avalanches, but I only saw it once during my childhood. The others I got to see many times on television. Gone with the Wind, with the burning of Atlanta, also made a big impression.)

At any rate, The War of the Worlds was undoubtedly my entree into the work of H.G. Wells (1866-1946), whose birthday it is today.

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One of the things to celebrate about Wells is that his writing is clear and accessible enough that a ten year can not only appreciate it, but enjoy it. But it is also expressive enough and wise enough and so well crafted that (unlike, say, other childhood favorites like Jules Verne and Edgar Rice Burroughs) one can read and re-read him throughout adulthood with undiminished delight. Furthermore (unlike those other two authors) one reads his books with just as much enjoyment as one gets from watching the movie versions. Wells must be one of the most adapted-for-cinema authors of all time. Already by childhood I was familiar with both the book and movie versions of War of the Worlds, The Time Machine, The Invisible Man, The Island of Dr. Moreau, The First Men in the Moon, The Food of the Gods and The Empire of the Ants, (Well, they can’t all be cinematic gems.)

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In the fifth grade I was first exposed to Orson Welles’ notorious 1938 radio version of War of the WorldsOur teacher played a record album of the broadcast. I think she was prompted by the 1975 tv movie about the event The Night That Panicked America, which had sparked our interest. The kids quickly grew bored though and the teacher, disgusted at our impatience, took the record off the turntable.

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As an adult, I discovered some more obscure works by Wells.

One was the 1935 film Things to Come. Wells wrote the screenplay, based on his 1933 novel. It is a rare, late work of science fiction by Wells, produced decades after he had mostly abandoned the genre. In the story, he accurately predicts the advent of World War Two, accurate to within a few months. In his version it starts in 1940. However, in his version, it lasts until the 1970s. Most of the world is reduced to rubble, but is brought back from the ashes by a handful of scientists who build a utopia and send a rocket to the moon.

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This theme of the battle between barbarism and civilization is also the throughline of another major book of Wells I stumbled upon later in life, his three volume Outline of World History (originally published in 1920, and updated many times thereafter). Even with the updates, the book contains much that is factually and attitudinally out of date. With his socialist perspective, Wells was much gentler on the Soviet Union than any one has any right to be. And though Wells was the furthest thing from a racist as it was possible for a white man to be in his day, the book is somewhat more Eurocentric than we’re accustomed to nowadays. Still, the mix of his scientific orientation (like Herbert Spencer, he begins at the beginning — prehistory), with a strong authorial voice one isn’t accustomed to getting from a historian (the man has strong opinions) makes it a rewarding read. Plus the book is full of excellent maps. I’ve found myself referring back to it again and again over the years, as obsolete as it is.

Another interesting book by Wells that’s off the beaten track is his 1909 novel Tono-Bungay. In its day it was considered the most artistically ambitious of his novels and caused some critics to compare him to Dickens and Tolstoy. The subject of the book is near and dear to my heart and I’ve toyed with trying to adapt it in some fashion. It concerns a young man who is hooked into marketing his uncle’s patent medicine, the titular “Tono-Bungay” and later gets involved in flying in hot air balloons. The novel is said to be semi-autobiographical, but I’ll venture that that aspect of the book has more to do with the main character’s growing disillusionment and skepticism than any snake oil or aeronautics Wells was involved with.

He wrote dozens of books beyond these, by the way, both fiction and non-fiction.

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2 comments

  1. Say, isn’t that Gene Barry, later of Burke’s Law?
    The end-of-year 1925 issue of The New Yorker has an article about film adaptations they wished someone would make. One of them is Tono-Bungay.
    I’ve read Wells’s autobiography. Sometime in the late ’30s, he met Stalin. LOVED him.

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