|Eve Of The War
|Rime of the Ancient Martian
|Page 1 of 1|
|Author:||eveofthewar [ Wed Sep 28, 2005 5:01 pm ]|
|Post subject:||Rime of the Ancient Martian|
War of the Worlds—the remix.
by Crystal Downing
Like most film adaptations of classic works, Steven Spielberg's The War of the Worlds functions as a gloss on its source, a gloss that not only retells but also interprets the original text according to the values of its adapters. It puts me in mind of the gloss Samuel Taylor Coleridge added to his most famous poem. When "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" was first published in 1798, it told the story of a sailor who, after capriciously killing an albatross, was forced to hang the sea bird around his neck until he responded to nature with love rather than violence.
Filled with creepy incidents aboard the mariner's ship, Coleridge's poem was not considered "great literature" in its own day. In fact, Coleridge's friend and collaborator, William Wordsworth, denounced "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" as having "done injury to the volume" in which it appeared. Hence, when Coleridge republished "The Rime" nearly two decades later, he added a prose commentary—a gloss—to the side of his original verse stanzas. Only after the appearance of the gloss in 1817 did readers start to regard Coleridge's poem as high art.
Similarly, Wells' science fiction was snubbed not only by contemporary literati as too "popularistic" but also by fellow science fiction writer Jules Verne, who condescendingly wrote, "[T]here is no rapport between his work and mine. I make use of physics. He invents." Only after the 1938 broadcast and the 1953 film did The War of Worlds attain the status of "classic" text.
What Coleridge did in his gloss to "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" anticipated what any film adaptation of a novel must do. Due to the constraints of both time and the medium of film, it is impossible to include every incident or mental reflection that appears in the original source. Just as Coleridge would gloss 12 lines of poetry with only two lines of summarizing prose, film adaptations often telescope several source incidents into one brief summarizing scene. On the other hand, like a film adaptation that adds scenes not in the original text, Coleridge would occasionally gloss an enigmatic incident with more lines of prose than in the original 1798 verse.
Spielberg's adaptation of The War of the Worlds demonstrates both kinds of gloss. Whereas Wells has his Martians build and operate several different forms of technology, Spielberg telescopes all into the ferocious tripods that ravage humankind. However, while Wells' protagonist recounts his loneliness as he wanders from adventure to adventure alone, Spielberg (my abbreviation for both director and writers) gives his protagonist a son and daughter, expanding the script with their quirks and obsessions.
Like any adaptation, Spielberg's film reflects the spirit of its time. Mirroring the rampant divorce and "blended" families of our day, he presents a protagonist quite unlike Wells' highly educated, happily married gentleman whose servant brings him tea. Tom Cruise's Ray is a macho dockworker so out of touch with his children that he is oblivious to their allergies and interests. Though the children live in comfort with their mother and her affluent second husband, the daughter, Rachel, struggles with claustrophobia and the son, Robbie, disrespects authority. When their mother drops them off for a planned weekend with Ray, the children discover that their deadbeat dad has made no preparation, his kitchen table boasting a partially assembled car engine but no food in the cupboards. Into this context aliens make their attack.
In 2005, any attack on city-dwelling civilians elicits fears of terrorism. The War of the Worlds, however, is not so much concerned with terrorism as it is with the human response to what Coleridge called "motiveless malignity." Though many of the filmed responses are similar to those in the novel, they serve a different end, reflecting the different times in which they appear. In essence, Spielberg's film becomes a postmodernist gloss to a modernist story.
H. G. Wells (1866-1946) was an archetypal modernist humanist, championing the ideals of Enlightenment progressivism: rationalism, socialism, and scientism. Like much of Wells' later work, The War of the Worlds is a paean to science. It begins with multiple astronomical statistics, and by its third page we are told "The intellectual side of man already admits that life is an incessant struggle for existence." Thus legitimizing Darwin's famous phrase from the Origin of Species, Wells develops a novel about "natural selection," his narrator asserting that humans "are just in the beginning of the evolution that the Martians have worked out." The novel's working-class commoners are repeatedly compared to frogs, bees, wasps, and the like, ineptly struggling for existence as the intellectually superior Martians implacably advance.
In contrast, Spielberg's postmodern gloss gives us the perspective of the common person, setting his blue-collar protagonist in New Jersey, where Orson Welles' broadcast caused havoc in 1938. Unlike the dispassionate philosopher and scientist that begin Wells' novel, Ray is irrationally curious, temporarily abandoning his children to see what's going on, later stealing a mini-van to drive his kids to safety.
But Spielberg's assault on Wells' scientism goes much deeper than this. In the novel, the most despicable character is a Christian curate. When he isn't "whimpering" in "selfish despair," he pontificates, with a "stupid rigidity of mind," about God's judgment for sin. After sharing a basement hideout with him, Wells' protagonist decides he must kill the curate, whose ravings threaten to disclose their location to the Martians. The murder is done without guilt or regret: an act of natural selection in the struggle for existence, as though to say that the death of Christianity may be key to the evolutionary process.
In place of this spineless, wine-swigging curate, Spielberg gives us an unbalanced survivalist (as in "of the fittest") and puts in his mouth the very Darwinian rhetoric that gives Wells' novel its underpinnings. It is this demented figure—not a clergyman—whom Spielberg's protagonist is obliged to kill. And to drive the point unmistakably home, Spielberg calls the survivalist Ogilvie, the name Wells used for the respectable scientist in the novel. This, it would seem, is what science has come to, as though in confirmation of Jean-Francois Lyotard's The Postmodern Condition (1979), which challenges the modernist metanarrative that scientific rationalism is the standard of all truth. The 2005 film reflects what Lyotard foresaw: that science would survive, but only as one vocabulary among many plural discourses that explain reality. It is perhaps no coincidence that Lyotard, at the end of his life, studied Augustine's Confessions, exploring a different way to explain truth.
Spielberg's gloss hints at Augustine as well, mediated through another significant change to The War of the Worlds. Unlike Wells' tripods, which arrive in Martian-driven cylinders crashing to earth, Spielberg's tripods arise up from the earth itself, having been buried before humans even inhabited the planet. Spielberg's tripods are "always already" on earth, to use one of Jacques Derrida's favorite phrases. With this change, modernist progressivism is decentered by a past that overpowers the present. Augustine might have understood the "always already" as original sin.
Thus, Spielberg's gloss deconstructs Wells' evolutionary progressivism by turning aliens and humans into mirror reflections of each other. Spielberg visualizes this theme by placing a literal mirror in the ruined house where Ray and Rachel hide with Ogilvie. As a serpent-like alien probe invades the nooks and crannies of their basement bastion, the three hide behind a large mirror—a mirror not included in the novel. Though the film's probe is stopped by its own reflection, behind the mirror we see the trio facing the probe as if it were their reflection. Indeed, not long after, Ray mimics the "Death Ray" of the Martians, murdering a fellow human being, Ogilvie. But the victim himself mirrors the aliens as well. Spielberg has Ogilvie wear the hood part of a sweatshirt on his head with the rest hanging down his back—an odd directorial choice until we notice that, in several shots, Ogilvie's pointy sweatshirt makes his head seem to mirror the pointy heads of aliens who have followed the probe into the basement.
Spielberg supplements the mirror motif with shots of Ray's reflection: on his television screen, in his bathroom mirror, and on various windows: a car, a storefront, and a window against which he throws a peanut butter sandwich. The most telling reflection occurs in the establishing shot that opens the film. With the Manhattan skyline in the background, we see Ray ensconced in a huge crane, maneuvering levers to lift railroad cars onto a barge. He is a man operating a machine on tall stilts—much like the aliens who operate their tall tripods from their cubicles at the top.
Mirroring each other, neither Ray nor the aliens seem more evolutionarily advanced than the other, both operating from within the "always already." Perhaps this is why the film's ending seems so anticlimactic. A voiceover explains the destruction of the aliens by "disease bacteria," quoting directly from Wells' novel: "slain, after all man's devices had failed, by the humblest things that God, in His wisdom, has put upon the earth." Wells, although conventionally tipping his hat to a Creator God in whom he decidedly did not believe, nevertheless aligned his ironic denouement with natural selection, the aliens conquered not by artillery but by the survival of the biologically fittest: germs to which Martians, unlike humans, are not immune.
This "bacterium ex machina" is at odds with Spielberg's subversion of modernist scientism. A better ending for the film would have been the scene in which Ray, having finally put the needs of someone else above his own, returns his daughter to her mother and receives a hug from his estranged son. Rather than the survival of the fittest, Ray has begun to learn the lesson of the Ancient Mariner: "He prayeth best, who loveth best / All things both great and small." Or, as embellished by Coleridge's gloss, he begins "to teach, by his own example, love and reverence to all things that God made and loveth." Of course, centuries earlier Augustine, by his own example, taught the same, believing that the "always already" has been glossed with grace.
Crystal Downing is professor of English and Film Studies at Messiah College in Pennsylvania.
|Author:||oever532 [ Wed Sep 28, 2005 7:28 pm ]|
Wow, that's a lot of info there, Lee! Cheers!
|Author:||Loz [ Thu Sep 29, 2005 11:49 am ]|
Interesting analasys but I don't think everything is deliberate. Ray operating the crane is an obviouse mirroring of man and martian, but I doubt the mirror in the basement had the same intention about it. Or even Ogilvei's hood.
They could be subconcious mirrors though.
Interesting what Verne said about Wells. I hadn't read that quote before.
|Page 1 of 1||All times are UTC|
|Powered by phpBB © 2000, 2002, 2005, 2007 phpBB Group