September 16, 2004

Take One

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Two weeks ago, I discussed Jules Verne and arguably his most celebrated tale, Around the World in 80 Days. As I mentioned, Verne grew up in France, where he was heavily influenced by writers such as Victor Hugo and Alexandre Dumas. Interestingly enough, the story of Verne’s early influences is much more intricate than I initially suggested. Verne’s fascinating life intersects the lives of other notable, and equally fascinating, writers — Edgar Allan Poe, perhaps America’s greatest poet and short story author, and H.G. Wells, the groundbreaking science fiction novelist. And now, as I’ll discuss later, well over a century after these writers reached their creative primes, Wells’ most renowned novel is about to be reborn as a Steven Spielberg-directed adaptation starring Tom Cruise.

Poe, whose vast science fiction work is often overlooked, inspired Jules Verne to a great extent. His tale “The Balloon Hoax” motivated Verne to write his first science fiction novel, Five Weeks in a Balloon, and Poe’s “The Unparalleled Adventure of One Hans Pfaall” led to Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon, in which the main characters intend to use a massive cannon to transport themselves to the moon. Verne, who wrote an 1864 essay covering the works of Poe, described his stories as having a unique “verisimilitude, in the application of scientific principles.”

Poe’s considerably troubled life — which unfortunately included being orphaned at the age of three, brutal poverty, a drinking problem, and the premature death of his wife due to tuberculosis — came to an end in 1849. However, an unfinished novel, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, was left behind. It told the dramatic tale of a young man’s intense adventures during an inauspicious sea voyage. Verne, later in his career, almost at the age of seventy, remained a fervent enthusiast of Poe, and wrote a sequel, entitled The Sphinx of the Ice-Fields, to Poe’s unfinished work. In the story, enigmatic clues lead to a thrilling trip to Antarctica to search for survivors of Arthur Pym’s ship.

Of course, among Verne’s other works are A Journey to the Center of the Earth and Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. These stories, full of enthrallment about scientific advancements and discoveries, make an argument for Verne as the founding father of science fiction. However, another author of the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century, influenced by Verne himself, one Herbert George Wells, may lay claim to such a title as well. His most famous works include The Time Machine, The Invisible Man, and the thriller, The War of the Worlds. Much like Verne and Poe, Wells masterfully added a dark, mystifying element to fantasy. The connections between Verne, Poe, and Wells strengthened literary ingenuity as we know it today. In fact, Hugo Gernsback, the famous magazine publisher often credited with creating the genre, once described science fiction as “the Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, and Edgar Allan Poe type of story.”

However, despite the apparent influence that the three writers had on each other, Verne and Wells were evidently critical of each other’s works to a certain degree, questioning the plausibility of each other’s ideas. Plausible or not, the stories are enormously entertaining — so entertaining that Wells’ The War of the Worlds is in production as a Spielberg-directed film set to hopefully hit theaters some time in 2005. Reports suggest that the film, which will star Tom Cruise and Dakota Fanning, will be the most expensive film of all time, surpassing the budget of Titanic. The version written by Wells describes a species of Martians who attempt to invade Earth during the Victorian period in England, subsequently causing a reign of terror.

Historically speaking, the reign of terror transcended the novel. The day before Halloween in 1930, Orson Welles’ theater company produced a radio broadcast of The War of the Worlds. Listeners tuning in confused reality with illusion, and soon a sizeable panic had spread across the eastern portion of the United States. Wells was apparently not amused by the turmoil Welles created, unintended though it may have been. Nevertheless, 75 years later, the film will likely open to considerably less panic. And hopefully, viewers will be able to share in the unbridled imaginative power that Wells and his colleagues shared so long ago.

Archived article by Avash Kalra