The Death of the Curate in Wells’ War of the Worlds and its 1953 Adaptation

by Mark Wallace

Linda Hutcheon notes that when a narrative text is adapted, there is “almost always […] an accompanying shift in the political valence” (A Theory of Adaptation, 2006, p. 141). The story might be the same in its essentials, but, even so, in small narrative choices made, lines of dialogue , elements of character, etc.,much food for reflection on differing ideological underpinnings, assumptions, morals, values, etc. is found. Where to locate this difference, then? In the author? The writer had a different intellectual and moral make-up to the director (assuming we can name the director as auteur). Or in the Culture? Who writes a book, and an adaptation? An individual, or a culture? Considering many modern screen products, they appear to be written as much as anything by generic tropes. But are prevailing generic tropes themselves written by a culture? Surely they have a signifying purpose beyond mere cultural filler, which has enabled them to thrive in the meme pool? But perhaps the first point to be made before getting into these difficult questions is that a story doesn’t mean in the abstract. The narrative may remain the same between source and adaptation, but if the mode of narration changes, the narrative may mean, in an ideologico-political sense, something quite different from in both manifestations of the same story. If the story itself is not too saturated with evident ideological-political functions, just a few small changes can wholly shift the political valence. A few small crucial unargued assumptions may seem to convey a wholly different mode of considering the political.

An example, one that struck me recently: H.G. Wells’ classic sci-fi novel The War of the Worlds (1898) and its 1953 Hollywood adaptation. One ideologically loaded figure: the curate. Wells’ novel doesn’t give names to the characters. There’s the narrator, who never formally introduces himself, his brother, his wife, the curate, etc. Maybe it’s Wells deliberately depersonalizing humans just to hammer home his point about how insignificant we are, or would be to a hypothetical intellectually superior race. This is the point he makes in the book’s tremendous opening paragraphs, when he imagines a great race exterminating humanity, and then adds:

[B]efore we judge of them too harshly we must remember what ruthless and utter destruction our own species has wrought, not only upon animals, such as the vanished bison and the dodo, but upon its inferior races. The Tasmanians, in spite of their human likeness, were entirely swept out of existence in a war of extermination waged by European immigrants, in the space of fifty years. Are we such apostles of mercy as to complain if the Martians warred in the same spirit? (Bk. I, Ch. I)

The general reader doesn’t necessarily realize how harsh and cynical Wells is at times in his early sci-fi novels (especially The Island of Dr Moreau – the best of them in my opinion), but this passage sums up how determined he is to get people to question the notion and status of humanity. It’s a post-Darwinian, maybe post-Nietzschean outlook, and it’s not pretty.

It is predictable that given such a mood, curates are not going to be let off lightly, and Wells is unrelenting in his denigration of this character. The curate is introduced as follows:

His face was a fair weakness, his chin retreated, and his hair lay in crisp, almost flaxen curls on his low forehead; his eyes were rather large, pale blue, and blankly staring. He spoke abruptly, looking vacantly away from me.

“What does it mean?” he said. “What do these things mean?”

I stared at him and made no answer.

He extended a thin white hand and spoke in almost a complaining tone.

“Why are these things permitted? What sins have we done? The morning service was over, I was walking through the roads to clear my brain for the afternoon, and then–fire, earthquake, death! As if it were Sodom and Gomorrah! All our work undone, all the work—- What are these Martians?”

“What are we?” I answered, clearing my throat. (Bk. I, Ch. 13)

Physical appearance is the first indice of character here: “His face was a fair weakness”; his eyes stared blankly. And then his tone of voice confirms it: it is, already, “almost a complaining tone”. As for the content of his speech: he can only regurgitate formulas from the Bible, with increasing hysteria as the book develops, demonstrating at every appearance an absolute inability to apply his intelligence to the situation, or even to face it in its empirical realities. Note, here, as well, that classically Wellsian response to the question “What are these Martians?” – “What are we?”. This is the question that resounds through his early science-fiction novels, less often in a tone of curiosity than in one of savage contempt.

The curate does not improve on acquaintance and, ultimately, when he begins jabbering loudly and nonsensically about the Martians’ attack being a judgement from God, doing so when the Martians are just outside and thus endangering himself and the narrator, our narrator bashes him on the head with the butt of a meat-cleaver. It is unclear whether this stuns or kills him, but he is afterwards dragged away by the Martians, to die if he has not done so already. This chapter is actually called “The Death of the Curate”, but Wells seems to deliberately leave some ambiguity as to how that death came about.

But what is clear in this chapter is the contempt with which the curate and “his vacant sham of God’s service” is viewed. In Brian Aldiss’ introduction to the book, he notes that “Wells’ curate is there to express the helplessness of organized religion when faced with the invaders” (Penguin, 2005, xviii). Not for Wells the old adage about no atheists in foxholes. Religion, he posits, is not of the least practical use in a foxhole, but rather a hindrance to clear thought.

So much for Wells. In the 1953 adaptation of the book, the figure of the curate is retained, now called Pastor Dr Matthew Collins, according to IMDb. A pastor and a doctor. A man of science and a man of God. After the early establishing shots of Mars, Earth, and falling Martian rockets, Pastor Collins is present in the very first shot, and is centrally involved in the community reaction to the rockets. First, he is shown as the lone voice of community-mindedness among all the greedy businessmen who want to turn the smoking rocket into a tourist attraction. He engages in discussion of the Martians with the scientist, and later he tries to dissuade the military from shooting on the Martians without first trying to talk to them. When the military show no interest in this approach, the intrepid Pastor Matthew goes out alone to talk to the aliens.

Pastor Matthew and the protagonist's love interest Sylvia

Pastor Matthew and Sylvia, one of the film’s romantic leads.

Martians

Oddly enough, though his rationale is that no  attempt has been made to communicate with the Martians, his attempts to speak to them on approach are limited to quoting the Bible: “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death”, etc, simultaneously holding up a Bible. They obliterate him, unsurprisingly.

PastorMatthewBible

Pastor Matthew comes to a similar end to Wells’ Curate, but that’s where the similarity ends. The Curate is whiny and utterly lacking in self-possession; Matthew is soft-spoken, intelligent, compassionate, and, obviously, brave. He is right at the centre of the communal effort to tackle the catastrophe. But to fully understand the religious undertones that emerge in the adaptation, one would have to take other elements beyond this character into account. Most of all, there is the climactic scene, which takes place in, of course, a church.

Wells’ story, then, proved very easily amenable to being turned to ideological purposes other than his own. Quite the reverse of his own, perhaps. This may well be because Wells’ curate is such an ideologically-loaded character – he’s not essential to the plot, only to his own small section of it. He has no other characteristics beyond those that relate to the political valence of the movie. So it’s easy to change these elements without having any knock-on effect on the story as a whole. This is the irony of such a simply political approach to character. Had the Curate been a more complex character, and/or more integrated into the plot, it would have been difficult to change him without it jarring notably with other elements of the narrative. As it is, the story in the adaptation moves along quite smoothly, and the death of the curate does not seem to be in any way out of keeping with it. A single story can, very easily with just a few simple moves, turned into an ideological opposition of itself.

Advertisements