Of all the adaptations of War of the Worlds through the years, Orson Welles’ radio drama version is undoubtedly the most famous. Set in then-modern 1938 in Grover’s Mill, New Jersey, Welles’ radio play was very realistic. So realistic, it seems, that it caused a panic among some listeners. Interestingly, the story of the panic itself has been the subject of at least two TV shows. One was “The Night America Trembled” from 1957, the other a made for TV movie from 1975 called “The Night That Panicked America “. It’s basically War of the Worlds Inception: two films based on radio dramas adapting the original book!
I’m not sure exactly when my first exposure to the Welles broadcast was. I recall listening to it on a cassette tape, but no other details. One of my teachers, Mrs. Hite, was a tough lady with a heart of gold who liked to make cassettes for interested students. She caught me reading a biography of Harry Truman, and made me a tape with several of Truman’s speeches on it. It might be that Mrs. Hite knew about my interest in sci-fi and made a copy of the broadcast for me. Or, it might have been a checkout from the library, or maybe even something I purchased at a store when Dad didn’t allow me the budget for a Transformer or something.
In any event, I remember being absolutely mesmerized by the radio drama. I was unaware of other adaptations of War of the Worlds that change the setting to modern times, and this added to my experience greatly. It was easy to put myself in the position of a listener in New Jersey, truly believing that Earth was being invaded by an overwhelming alien force. After the start of the program, there is no indication that you are listening to fiction for the entire first half. It’s quite authentic!
I listened to the tape over and over again, committing sections to memory. I can whistle the tune to Stardust, a musical number played at the beginning of the broadcast. I remember the forlorn pilot calling for 2X2L on the radio, with no answer. It’s great stuff and made a big impression on me.
Do you remember basal readers? They were popular in the 70s and 80s in school. A basal was a thick book containing short stories that were intended to be studied a week at a time in reading class. You’d have a hardcover book as well as a matching workbook full of activities. Most of the time, the basal stories were not great. Imagine my surprise, then, when the screenplay for Welles’ adaptation was one of the stories we studied! I was thrilled. I remember we read the drama out loud, and it drove me nuts that we were so bad at it compared to the real broadcast. I blathered on and on about my tape to my teacher. Mrs. Haseltine, bless her, listened patiently to all of it, though I know I went overboard in my enthusiasm.
I’m not sure what became of my tape of the broadcast, but I got the above book, with accompanying CD, as a gift in the early 2000s. The book itself was awesome: it had the screenplay, interviews, cool illustrations, and even the original H.G. Wells text. But the CD was the gold mine. It had the full broadcast, plus Orson Welles’ news conference on the day after! There was even an interview with BOTH H.G. Wells and Orson Welles! (Check out the brief recording here.) How amazing that the two men could get together for this. The CD long lived in the sun visor storage in our car, and made many cross country trips just that much more interesting over the years.
If you’ve never had the chance to listen to the original radio broadcast, take the time to do so! It’s all over the internet, so I believe it to be public domain, and I’ve hosted it here for you to listen to if you like. It’s just under an hour, and totally worth it!