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Peter J. Beck. The War of the Worlds: From H. G. Wells to Orson Welles, Jeff Wayne, Steven Spielberg and Beyond. London: Bloomsbury, 2016. xx + 383 pp. $29.95

HISTORIAN PETER BECK is fascinated by the enduring appeal of H. G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds. Its “afterlife is distinguished by the way in which it has continued to flourish across the world during changing times to access and engage vast new audiences through the story’s adaptation for a wide range of alternative formats.” To better appreciate and celebrate this remarkable afterlife, Beck has undertaken “a biography of The War of the Worlds as a book.”

Beck begins with an examination of the influence of place (especially Woking) and of the late nineteenth-century milieu on the formation of this romance. Among other observations, Beck notes that emerging concerns over the vanishing countryside as well as competing perspectives on imperialism had a combined impact on Wells’s book. That Woking played an important early role in stirring Wells’s literary imagination is Beck’s main personal contribution in his history, which is mostly designed to gather together others’ responses to The War of the Worlds over the years.

Beck also burrows deeply into the multi-leveled stages of Wells’s compositional process, including preliminary authorial anxieties about sustaining a literary career. The War of the Worlds emerged in phases, and both its serial and improved book versions were widely read. The American newspaper editions bothered Wells, who had given approval to publish and even added material for these venues. Unfortunately, he had not anticipated the “varying editorial standards and agendas” in America that led to “unapproved changes of geography and content to suit commercial priorities.”

The book sold very well in both countries and even inspired a parody in 1898, The War of the Wenuses by C. L. Graves and Edward Verrall Lucas. From 1898 to 1991, Wells’s romance was translated into twenty-three other languages. Beck believes that this notable achievement resulted from the timeless narrative strengths of the novel, particularly Wells’s management of storyline, narrator and verisimilitude.

The second half of Beck’s comprehensive history examines the remarkable afterlife of The War of the Worlds. Adaptations (hardly faithful to the original) include comics, graphic novels, radio plays, television scripts, Hollywood films, musical stage productions and even record albums. Although “such adaptations have repeatedly rewritten [End Page 543] the original text,” Beck concludes, they nonetheless have amounted to a collective tribute giving Wells’s original story a respectable standing in public memory.

Every page of Beck’s thorough undertaking reveals his enthusiasm for and knowledge of his subject. His encyclopedic history is a rich compendium of primary and secondary commentary related to The War of the Worlds. It is good to have everything known about this science-fiction classic brought together in one handy, lucid volume.

William J. Scheick
University of Texas at Austin
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