Saturday 9 July 2016
15.30 Ogilvy Room
Andrew M. Butler (Canterbury Christ Church University)
“‘Life Fighting Life’: Mockbusting War of the Worlds“
2005 saw not one but three feature-length adaptations of The War of the Worlds (1898): Steven Spielberg’s blockbuster which (like Orson Welles’s radio version and the 1953 George Pal/Byron Haskin film) moved the events to then present day America, Timothy Hines’s Victorian melodrama H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds for Pendragon Films and David Michael Latt’s mockbuster H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds for The Asylum, which is also set in then present day America. The two American versions play fast and loose with Wells’s novel, tempting viewers to reach for the terms “betrayal”, “deformation”, “violation”, “bastardization”, “vulgarization” and “desecration” that film critic Robert Stam sees as common to readings of adaptations by literary readers. More recent work on adaptation, notably by Linda Hutcheon, has questioned the value of terms such as “fidelity”, “faithfulness”, “origin” and “source”, arguing that adaptation must be considered “on its own as an independent work”.
H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds, known as Invasion in Europe for copyright reasons, presents us with a problem as both a “bastardization” of Wells’s novel and frankly not very good. At first sight it might be notable only as The Asylum’s most successful film to date, with 100,000 copies bought by video store chain Blockbusters for its release the day before Spielberg’s version and of an incredibly opportunist piggy-backing on Paramount/DreamWorks’s publicity drive. At the same time it speaks to Wells’s continual value as a cultural marker or brand name sixty years (now seventy) after his death and lifts enough elements from his novel that it can share thematic concerns with Wells – the central character who is there at the first cylinder crash, a meeting with a soldier and a priest, the death of the Martians from bacteria and the reuniting of the protagonist with his wife. It contains enough references and parallels almost like “Easter Eggs”, in the manner of the BBC’s updating of Holmes and Watson, that the knowledgeable viewer experiences a pleasure in the text. Meanwhile Wells’s fin de siècle fears of invasion find their counterpart in the post-9/11 anxieties about unexpected terrorist attacks of Latt’s mockbuster. Whilst an attempt to recuperate the film is surely doomed, it offers sufficient pleasures in its adaptation that it deserves a second look.
Catherine Redford (Hertford College, University of Oxford) (in absentia)
“H.G. Wells and the Fin de Siècle ‘Last Man'”
Over the course of the long eighteenth century numerous texts were published that drew on the “fire and brimstone” thinking of the Christian eschatological tradition, but the beginning of the nineteenth century saw a marked shift in the popular depiction of doomsday. Authors started to imagine the end of the world in more secular terms, whereby apocalypse takes place but the promised Christian millennium does not occur. For a generation of Romantic writers used to privileging the figure of the solitary, it was only natural to consider what it would be like to be the Last Man left alive in this post-apocalyptic world. Between 1816 and 1833 numerous responses to the theme were published, before the Last Man fell out of fashion.
The Last Man figure wasn’t considered again in any depth until the fin de siècle, when both H.G. Wells and M. P. Shiel revisited his significance and potential. This paper will trace how Wells explores the idea of the Last Man, responding to the Romantic incarnation of this figure in works such as The War of the Worlds and The Sleeper Awakes but also – like Shiel – innovating to form a distinctly fin de siècle version of this theme. Focusing on The Time Machine I will examine how Wells, in the figure of the Time Traveller, creates a Last Man who resists his status as the final human left alive. The Time Traveller does not simply hope to find fellow survivors in the manner of his predecessors but, fuelled by his fear and horror, actively seeks to preserve the race. The degeneration of humanity presented in this text has long been read as a response to Darwin’s work; I will argue that the influence of evolutionary theory on the novel goes further than this, and can be observed in Wells’s emphasis on the importance of the Time Traveller as a lone individual when it comes to influencing the future of his species. I will explore the significance of the Time Traveller’s identity as a scientist, and will examine how Wells takes the established concerns of earlier Last Man literature (such as posterity, the use of the terminal beach at the end of time, and the open-ended nature of the close of the narrative) and reworks them as a response to late Victorian science and wider fin de siècle concerns.