When H. G. Wells published War of the Worlds in 1897 (it first appeared serially, much like a Dickens novel), he was grappling with concerns about the future of humankind. Natural selection suggested that humanity’s place at the top of the food chain was not preordained, which meant that it might not be permanent, either. In a piece published in 1891, Wells wrote the following:
There is . . . no guarantee in scientific knowledge of man’s permanence or permanent ascendancy. . . . The presumption is that before him lies a long future of profound modification, but whether that will be, according to present ideals, upward or downward, no one can forecast. Still, so far as any scientist can tell us, it may be that, instead of this, Nature is, in unsuspected obscurity, equipping some now humble creature with wider possibilities of appetite, endurance, or destruction, to rise in the fulness of time and sweep homo [H. sapiens] away into the darkness from which his universe arose. (reprinted in Philmus, ed., H. G. Wells: Early Writings in Science and Science Fiction 168)
Wells referred to this evolving “humble creature” as “the Coming Beast.” The concerns he raises here also appeared in Wells’ fiction, especially in War of the Worlds. Forty years later, when Orson Wells produced his radio play of the story, did the fear of a “Coming Beast” still drive the plot? Or were other themes from the original novel more salient? What about the specter of total war (a devastating phenomenon that had never been a historical reality at the time Wells wrote)? Or of hubris and complacency right on the brink of disaster? The field of cultural studies works with the assumption that, by studying changes to a cultural text over time, we should be able to learn something about the values and anxieties of their audiences. Further, while you might expect that any adaptation ought to be true to the original, in fact that might not be a good thing, or even possible. The adaptation of a cultural text, whether from one medium to another (such as literature to film) or one era to another, will entail reworking the tale to fit the needs of its new audience. Wells’ book has been made into at least two radio plays and seven films, and presumably each one is distinct.
With that in mind, what themes did you note in the radio play? And—this question may be related—what goals did the radio play have? For example, in addition to entertaining its audience, I would argue that it clearly wanted to scare them. Did it perhaps want to fool them, as well? What did Orson Welles and the other creators do to try to achieve those goals? We might also investigate the attitude towards science and scientists expressed in the play: is it more or less positive than our attitude today, do you think? Are the scientists we meet in the radio play trustworthy or not? Self-correcting or blinkered? Cowardly or brave? Aside from the scientists themselves, what role does science play in the narrative itself? Does it make the story more persuasive, or does it detract from it?
Those of you interested in more details about audience responses to Welles’ radio production could check out this story at Slate.