A Musical Guide to The War of the Worlds
With a new take on HG Wells's classic story on TV, we take a look at past adaptations and their music...
HG Wells’s 1898 tale of alien invasion has inspired (and terrified) generations and the BBC’s new three-part adaptation is just the latest in a line of interpretations.
From the radio to the big screen via one immortal concept album, music has played its part in helping tell the classic story, underlining its most dramatic moments and sending the odd shiver down the spine.
Here’s a guide to the most familiar…
The War of the Worlds
Mercury Theater / CBS Radio
This legendary broadcast saw Orson Welles and his Mercury Theater players use reportage aesthetics familiar to CBS Radio listeners in order to stage a fictional invasion. They did such a good job, some listeners thought it was really happening! Bernard Herrmann presided over the studio musicians for the broadcast, playing the role of Ramón Raquello and His Orchestra. The station’s emergency cut-out music, solo piano works by Chopin and Debussy, was also employed at regular (some lengthy) intervals which added to the convincing presentation of the ‘emerging’ situation. Mercury Theatrer’s theme music was from Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1.
The War of the Worlds
Paramount Pictures / dir. Byron Haskin
Gene Barry and Ann Robinson starred in this 1950s film of the story. Presented in glorious technicolour, the producers moved the action to contemporary America (from Wells’s Victorian England) and tapping into very real fears of invasion – from more earthbound Cold War foes. The music, by studio composer Leith Stevens, is wonderfully melodramatic with snarling brass, frenzied strings and all kinds of militaristic bombast.
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Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of The War of the Worlds
Columbia/CBS Records / Music by Jeff Wayne
One of the best-selling releases of all time, this concept album (Jeff Wayne’s debut release) remains a classic. It’s Prog Rock with a string orchestra, an all -star line-up of vocalists and probably one of the best pieces of narration in recorded history. Richard Burton did the reading (from Wells’s original text) and lead roles were sung by Julie Covington, David Essex, Justin Hayward and Phil Lynott. The songs are great, but it is perhaps the iconic instrumental elements that stuck in the memory and kept people awake at night. Ulla!
War of the Worlds
Paramount Pictures / dir. Steven Spielberg
Having made two films about benevolent beings coming to earth, it was perhaps something of a surprise for Steven Spielberg to take on this tale of decidedly nasty aliens doing their worst. Like the 1950s film, Spielberg sets his take on Wells firmly in the present and the ante is well and truly upped in terms of visual effects and general Armageddon. For the music, Spielberg’s regular composer John Williams also went against type, crafting a massive orchestral horror show. There’s tenderness to be found in his music for the family, but it’s his music for the big action set-pieces that stands out. No holds are barred as Williams unleashes a battery of percussion, brass and eerie choral effects as the alien invaders rip the place to shreds.
The War of the Worlds
Mammoth Screen/BBC / dir. Craig Viveiros
This latest adaptation for the BBC shifts the invasion a few years a long from Victoria’s to Edward’s reign, and it’s the period setting that makes this stand out. Sticking close to Wells’s original vision, it’s striking to see alien technology wreaking havoc on Olde England. The music is by up and coming composer Russ Davies, who has created something of an alien hybrid that brings together orchestral colour and ultra-modern synthetic textures. Atmosphere and emotion is key.
The War of the Worlds concludes on BBC One on Sunday 1 December at 2100 GMT and on BBC iPlayer.
Michael is the Reviews Editor of BBC Music Magazine. He was previously a freelance film music journalist and spent 15 years at St George's Bristol. Michael specialises in film and television music and was the Editor of MusicfromtheMovies.com. He has written for the BBC Proms, BBC Concert Orchestra, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Royal Albert Hall, Hollywood in Vienna and Silva Screen Records.