The War of the Worlds, an OTR drama adapted from the H. G. Wells novel by Howard E. Koch, directed by and starring Orson Welles. When broadcast 30 October 1938, The War of the Worlds created havoc with its with realistic sound effects and drop in news reports. Many listeners thought Earth was invaded by Martians. Considered the most (in)famous radio broadcast of all times, The War of the Worlds continues to provoke interest and inspiration. The War of the Worlds is significant for using break in news reports to create a sense of immediacy, for allegedly creating mass hysteria.
"The War of the Worlds" radio drama was adapted from The War of the Worlds, the 1898 novel by H.G. Wells. Wells' novel is one of the earliest to examine conflict between human and extraterrestrials.
The radio adaptation of The War of the Worlds written by Howard E. Koch highlighted the conflict through a series of "break in" news announcements to report Martian metal cylinders falling to Earth and a group of tripod-like fighting machines wrecking havoc in New Jersey and New York City. Directed by and starring Orson Welles, age twenty-three, and performed by a twenty seven-piece orchestra and ten actors of The Mercury Theatre on the Air, "The War of the Worlds" is one of the earliest radio programs to confuse listeners en masse.
An edited, three-minute version
The War of the Worlds is often considered the first radio hoax. But, twelve years prior, on 16 January 1926, at 7:40 PM, the audience of the the British Broadcasting Company (BBC) was treated to Broadcasting the Barricades, written and performed by Father Ronald Arbuthnott Knox (1888-1957), an English theologian, Catholic priest, and crime writer. "Broadcasting the Barricades" is perhaps more correctly cited as the first radio hoax. LEARN more.
Welles, in a recorded interview with film director Peter Bogdanovich, says "Broadcasting the Barricades" gave him the idea for and influenced his production of "The War of the Worlds" in 1938 with The Mercury Theatre on the Air. "I got the idea from a BBC show that had gone on the year before [sic], when a Catholic priest told how some Communists had seized London and a lot of people in London believed it. And I thought that'd be fun to do on a big scale, let's have it from outer space—that's how I got the idea (Welles and Bogdanovich 1992)."
Inspiration may have come from other radio broadcasts as well. On 25 September 1930, eight years prior to the "War of the Words" broadcast, a Berlin radio station broadcast "Der Minister ist ermordet! (The Minister Is Murdered!)," a two-hour radio play by Erich Ebermeyer. The broadcast began with music but was quickly interrupted by news of the assassination of the German foreign minister. Following "The War of the Worlds" broadcast, while interviewing Orson Welles, a reporter mentioned hearing Ebermeyer's drama while in Germany and suggested Welles should have better anticipated the confusion his broadcast might produce.
Another possible source of inspiration was The Crimson Wizard broadcast 30 September 1938, just a month prior to "The War of the Worlds." The Crimson Wizard was an adventure series broadcast on WGN radio in Chicago. The title character was a hunchback scientist named Peter Quill. He was pursued by a Communist spy ring called The Red Circle. LEARN more.
Inspired by the airplane bombing of Guernica during the Spanish Civil War, MacLeish worked on "Air Raid" seven months prior to its debut. Welles certainly knew of the radio drama and its use of a news announcer to provide vivid updates. A photograph shows him talking with MacLeish, actor Ray Collins, and director William N. Robson during a rehearsal. This knowledge may have inspired him to try something similar with The War of the Worlds.
Welles, Orson and Peter Bogdanovich. 1992. This is Orson Welles. New York: HarperCollins. ISBN 0-06-016616-9 Audio book version: HarperAudio, 30 September 1992. ISBN 1559946806 Audiotape 4A 6:25—6:42. See also "Interviews with Orson Welles." Internet Archive. Available: https://archive.org/details/InterviewsWithOrsonWelles/OrsonWellesInterview01.mp3
The next day, 31 October 1938, many newspapers ran stories about "The War of the Worlds" radio broadcast. The front page story of the New York Times ran under the headline Radio Listeners in Panic, Taking War Drama as Fact. Transcripts of this and other newspaper articles available here. Over the next two weeks, 12,500 articles and editorials appeared in newspapers across the country, most blaming listeners for misunderstanding the radio drama broadcast.
See Transcript: The War of the Worlds. War of the Worlds. American Experience. PBS 29 October 2013. Portions of the video available at this website.
The War of the Worlds had, through the CBS network, a broad listening audience. Many listeners tuned in late, and did not realize the program was fictional. So, it is easy to see how confusion, even chaos, would have been more widespread, and why newspapers might have, without restraint, reported panic created by the new, and competing, radio medium. Grilled by the press the next morning, Welles apologized for the unintended effects of the previous night radio broadcast, saying
I am terribly shocked by the effect it has had. I don't believe the method is original with me or peculiar to the Mercury Theatre's presentation. . . . Radio is new and we're learning about the effect it has on people.
Welles was twenty three years old at the time. Listen to how effectively he portrays himself as surprised with the outcomes of his radio broadcast the night before. Video available here.
In truth, Welles' morning performance before reporters was just like his radio performance the previous night: fictional. In a recorded audio interview with director Peter Bogdanovich, published in 1992, Welles agreed with Bogdanovich's statement, "But you claimed to be innocent afterwards."
"Of course I did," answered Welles, "they were suing me for twenty million dollars, you know. The only thing was that they didn't have records of it at the time and I came on at the end and said this was Halloween eve and this was our little way of soaping your window and saying boo. In other words, admitting malice. But luckily they didn't catch that" (Welles and Bogdanovich 1992).
When asked by Bogdanovich whether he knew the radio broadcast would have the effect it did, Welles replied, "Only the size was a surprise. My idea was to send a lot of the lunatic fringe out. I just didn't know how widespread the fringe was" (Welles and Bogdanovich 1992).
In the years prior to these recorded conversations with Bogdanovich, Welles was not as forthcoming, but he did admit to not being as innocent as he protrayed himself to be in the morning after press meeting.
For example, during the 19 June 1955 episode of Orson Welles' Sketch Book, a series of six short television commentaries by Welles for the BBC, Welles reflected on "our little experiment with radio." Video here. Listen to Welles say, at 2:13, "I suppose we had it coming to us because in fact we were not as innocent as we meant to be. When we did the Martian broadcast we were fed up with the way in which everything that came over this new magic box, the radio, became swallowed . . . believed. . . . So in a way our broadcast was an assault on the credibility of that machine. We wanted people to understand that they shouldn't take an opinion predigested and they shouldn't swallow everything that came through the tap, whether it was radio or not."
In the same commentary, Welles tells stories of his continued amazement with the outcome of his War of the Worlds broadcast. Video available here.
Six episodes of Orson Welles' Sketch Book were broadcast on BBC television, 24 April-3 July 1955. Written, directed, and starring Welles, each episode was a 15-minute reflection on some aspect of his career. This episode, the fifth in the series, was entitled "The War of the Worlds." Video available here.
On 28 October 1940, both Orson Welles and H. G. Wells were in San Antonio, Texas. (What are the chances: two days before Halloween and the two-year anniversary of the original radio broadcast?). Neither had ever met the other. An enterprising interview show host, Charles C. Shaw, from KTSA radio, got them together to talk about the famous radio play. For seven-and-a-half minutes they discussed The War of the Worlds radio broadcast and Welles' new film Citizen Kane, as well as a recent Russian production of Hamlet. They discussed the effect of war on the arts, totalitarianism vs. freedom, and the recent changes in Russia. The talk ended with Wells mentioning his new book, Babes in the Darkling Wood. This article by David Haglund, Orson Welles meets H.G. Wells, from Slate provides background, context, and a chance to listen to a portion of the Welles and Wells conversation.
The ability to confuse audiences may have been first and best revealed by "The War of the Worlds" radio broadcast. This article, War of the Worlds, Orson Welles, and the Invasion from Mars tells why many listeners thought they were reacting to something genuine.
The book The Invasion from Mars: A Story of the Psychology of Panic (Princeton: Princeton University Press 1940) by Hadley Cantril provides an exhaustive study of the broadcast and the days following, and attempts to place the events of that night into the context of then current political and social upheavals. Cantril, a Princeton University professor, looks at a wide variety of subjects, including the conditions that might have inhibited critical ability, the way the play was perceived, and its historical setting.
Another interesting analysis, by Stefan Lovgen, is "War of the Worlds": Behind the 1938 Radio Show Panic. As the title suggests, Lovgen explores some of the circumstances that may have contributed to people knowing or not that the radio broadcast was a hoax.
From Mercury to Mars: A Hard Act to Follow: "War of the Worlds" and the Challenges of Literary Adaptation, by Shawn VanCour, focuses on the broadcast's often overlooked second act to make several interesting connections between radio writing, monologues, and radio narration.
RadioLab: War of the Worlds is an hour-long deep dive into the original broadcast. Scroll down the page and listen to "The Annotated Guide" as well. Both provide great insights into how and why "The War of the Worlds" was so effective, or controversial. By the way, this is the first ever episode of RadioLab recorded in front of a live audience.
Film critic Leonard Maltin's Theatre of the Imagination explores the life of Orson Welles and the history of the Mercury Theatre on the Air. Included are interviews with John Houseman and others who worked with Welles on the original broadcast. NOTE: once on this website, scroll to the bottom of the "Miscellaneous / Related" section where you will find this program. Listen or download as you please.
12 November 1944
The first remake, written by William Steele (who had written for Welles's The Shadow) and Raul Zento. They rewrote Koch's script for the Cooperativa Vitalicia radio network.
12 February 1949
A crowd gathered outside the building housing Radio Quito and El Commercio, the newspaper, angry at being deceived. Eventually the crowd burned the building, looted equipment, and smashed the presses.
9 September 1957
Edward R. Murrow adds perspective to the original radio broadcast of The War of the Worlds in the television docudrama The Night America Trembled. The show was broadcast live from Studio One. There was no mention of Welles.
The original broadcast of The War of the Worlds released on vinyl record. Welles receive no royalties.
31 October 1968
Buffalo, New York
Radio station WKBW, under program director Jefferson Kaye, modernized the radio drama, mixing reports of Martian attacks with popular songs. Kaye interrupted the show with a disclaimer. The show was repeated in 1971 and 1975.
30 October 1974
Providence, Rhode Island
Radio station WPRO aired a modernized version of The War of the Worlds. Following complaints from listeners, the Federal Communications Commission open an inquiry, and officially reprimanded the station for airing the program. This was the first time a program like this ever received an official reprimand.
31 October 1975
American Broadcasting Company
The Night that Panicked America, a made-for-television movie dramatizing events around the original "The War of the Worlds" broadcast. Of note are the scenes recreating the original radio broadcast as a live interplay between actors, Foley artists, producers, and network executives.
Jeff Wayne's Musical Version of The War of the Worlds produced by composer Jeff Wayne. This musical retelling of the novel by H. G. Wells features Academy Award nominated actor Richard Burton, Justin Hayward (of The Moody Blues), Chris Thompson (of Manfred Mann), Phil Lynott (of Thin Lizzy), Julie Covington (of Evita and Rock Follies), and David Essex (of Evita, The China Plates). Most of the lyrics on the album were written by former Elton John lyricist Gary Osborne. The official album comes with several paintings by Peter Goodfellow, Geoff Taylor and Michael Trim that help to illustrate the story from beginning to end. To promote the album's release, a special "radio edit" version was produced and distributed to radio stations in an attempt to make the concept album more accessible to radio listeners.
Based on this success, Highlights from Jeff Wayne's Musical Version of The War of the Worlds, including the radio edits, was released by CBS.
9 November 2007
War of the Servers, a film by machinima group Lit Fuse Films; based on Wayne's musical. Strange beings called Mingebags invade the servers of the popular game Garry's Mod. One player must try to survive while searching for his friends amid the chaos and war.
Tom Roe, a founder and program director of WGXC Radio (90.7 FM), a program division of Wave Farm, for a number of years, performed The War of the Worlds as a radio broadcast, but each year the original story foregrounded current international wars and conflicts. Listen to Roe's 2008 performance, The War of the War of the Worlds.
30 November 2012
A re-recorded version, Jeff Wayne's Musical Version of The War of the Worlds: The New Generation was released with narration from Liam Neeson and new versions of the original songs sung by Gary Barlow, Joss Stone, and Maverick Sabre. Listen / download the tracks from both albums.
29 October 2013
Public Broadcasting Service
Part of the American Experience history series. An account of the original radio broadcast. 
Schwartz, A. Brad. Broadcast Hysteria: Orson Welles's War of the Worlds and the Art of Fake News. New York: Hill and Wang, 2015.
War of the Worlds Invasion: The Historical Perspective is a website maintained by freelance writer John Gosling as a focal point for his interest in the 1938 radio broadcast. Gosling attempts to provide an overview of every book, film, television series, radio show, comic and musical ever inspired by the original novel, and to place these into an historical context. Subscribe to the newsletter and get the latest updates.
War of the Worlds.org claims to be the official website.
The War of the Worlds Online website provides references to all things WOW.