A true hallmark of summer is the arrival of a blockbuster disaster movie; this time around director Steven Spielberg, who's got a pretty good track record, delivers the goods on June 29. Spielberg is bringing the much-adapted H.G. Wells sci-fi classic, The War of the Worlds, back to the big screen with a cast lead by Tom Cruise. Dakota Fanning as Cruise's daughter, Tim Robbins as Ogilvy, and Gene Barry and Ann Robinson in deference to the 1953 George Pal film round out the cast.

Though Wells published The War of the Worlds in 1898 and set it in his native England, the story is perhaps best known for the radio broadcast by actor/director Orson Welles and his Mercury Theatre troupe. On the evening of October 30, 1938, Welles performed an updated version of The War of the Worlds live over the CBS network, setting it in New Jersey and formatting it like a series of news bulletins. Scores of people who tuned in after the initial disclaimer really believed some sort of Martian attack was taking place, leading to mass hysteria, a lot of publicity for Wells and another chapter in The War of the Worlds legacy.

Key to the longevity of the story has been its adaptability. Welles' version captured the mood of America in the late 1930s, when advances in technology were coupled with growing unease at the news of war in Europe. Pal's 1953 film, on the other hand, was tinted by overtones of postwar confidence, military might and good versus evil. So, what can we expect from Spielberg and company? The action is set in the U.S., with Cruise as a New Jersey dock worker battling aliens who, in a big shift from the original story, are not from Mars. An aspect of this version will certainly be the heightened feeling of vulnerability in the post-9/11 world, as well as Wells' theme of the survival of humankind. Haunting music by uber-composer John Williams helps to replicate the sense of dread Wells created.

For a deeper appreciation of the genius of Wells, who also wrote such Hollywood favorites as The Invisible Man and The Time Machine, there's nothing like reading the original novel, available in a number of editions set to celebrate the release of this summer's film.

Wells' measured prose

No one would have believed in the last years of the nineteenth century that this world was being watched keenly and observed closely by intelligences greater than man's and yet as mortal as his own. . . . Yet, across the gulf of space . . . intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic, regarded this earth with envious eyes, and slowly and surely drew their plans against us still gives readers pause and a reason to keep an eye on the night sky.

 

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