Orson Welles Adaptation

War of the Worlds: 1938 Radio Broadcast

One of the most famous adaptations of The War of the Worlds was the CBS radio broadcast with Orson Welles on October 30, 1938. The novel was adapted for Radio by Howard E. Koch, and the location was changed from England to the West Windsor Township in New Jersey.

The broadcast was presented as a series of news bulletins detailing the events of the novel, which would interrupt faux-scheduled programs, including unbearably long segments of big-band music between the false accounts of destruction.

The broadcast inspired some terror in listeners. CBS interviewed Welles on October 31, in which the following exchange happened:

CBS: Were you aware of the terror such a broadcast would stir up?

Welles: Definitely not. The technique I used was not original with me. It was not even new. I anticipated nothing unusual.

CBS: Should you have toned down the language of the drama?

Welles: No, you don’t play murder in soft words.

CBS: Why was the story changed to put in names of American cities and government officers?

Welles: H. G. Wells used real cities in Europe, and to make the play more acceptable to American listeners, we used real cities in America. Of course, I’m terribly sorry now.

According to the C.E. Cooper radio company, only 2% of those tuning into the broadcast actually called into CBS. Most people were listening to the The Chase and Sanborn Hour, a more popular program during the 8 PM time slot. The panic caused by the broadcast was, according to historian W. Joseph Campbell, “greatly exaggerated”.

Orson Welles and H. G. Wells met in 1940 for a radio interview in San Antonio, Texas with Charles Shaw. H. G. Wells expressed skepticism about the extent of the panic of the broadcast in the States, and playfully challenged the notion of making a hoax about the widespread destruction, given the state of Europe at the time:

Wells: “You aren’t quite serious in America, yet. You haven’t got the war right under your chins. And the consequence is that you can still play with ideas of terror and conflict…”

Welles: “Until it ceases to be a game.”

This is Orson Welles. Orson Welles and Peter Bogdanovich
Run Through: A Memoir. John Houseman
Citizen Welles: A Biography of Orson Welles. Frank Brady
Getting it Wrong: Ten of the Greatest Misreported Stories in American Journalism W. Jospeh Campbell
– Orson Welles & H. G. Welles: Charlie Shaw, KTSA Radio

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