When Orson Welles
began adapting various famous works for CBS Radio in 1938, he decided to adapt The War of the Worlds
to a contemporary American setting, and, rather than a regular radio play, aired what seemed like a regular night of music, until reports of strange phenomena on the surface of Mars and what seem to be meteorites landing in locations across America...
By the time large alien tripods emerged from the cylindrical meteorite and began destroying the American countryside, many listeners believed that the events taking place were really happening, and panic ensued. Welles himself ended the program by saying that the program was little more than "dressing up in a sheet, jumping out of a bush, and saying 'Boo!'" and suggesting that the audience shouldn't be taken in by make-believe stories on the radio.
The show made Welles and the show broadcasting it (The Mercury Theatre on the Air
) famous internationally overnight. For instance, the Campbell Soup Company jumped at the chance of becoming the sponsorless show's underwriter to become The Campbell Playhouse
. Whether or not he used the format to intentionally troll radio listeners
is still up for debate. The broadcast was actually recreated in 1949 in Quito, Ecuador
by director Leonardo Páez, definitely
as an intentional prank, although not on the diabolical level that's been attributed to him. A huge riot erupted when listeners were finally told it was a gag. An angry mob with Torches and Pitchforks
set fire to the station, with 100 workers trapped inside. Seven people died.
It was tried again in an updated version by WKBW
in Buffalo, New York in 1968. Conceived
by engineer-director Dan Kriegler and program director Jeff Kaye, it used the station's news staff and contemporary music and commercials and put the action in nearby Grand Island. Instead of a script, Kaye wrote out a series of events and had the news people read them as they would normally. In spite of fairly frequent "this is a dramatization" announcements, the show's format meant that people who tuned in late were going to think, at least for a few minutes, that it was real. A local newspaper, several police officers and the Canadian National Guard (which sent troops to the border) were among those deceived. WKBW updated the format again and rebroadcast the show in 1971
The incident was dramatized in the 1975 TV movie, The Night That Panicked America
co-starring John Ritter
and touched upon in feature films like Radio Days
by Woody Allen
. It was analyzed in a hysterically funny episode of NPR's Radio Lab
in 2008, talking about the power of mass media and humanity's need for storytelling.
The radio version contains examples of:
- Adaptational Badass: The Martians, despite going up against more contemporary military technology (United States National Guardsmen equipped with gas masks and machine-guns, military airplanes, etc.), manage to prove much more durable and threatening than in the original novel, and without having the force-fields they are depicted with in later film adaptations.
For example, only one fighting-machine is brought down in combat , and it took an artillery barrage and a bomber plane crashing into it to eliminate it. Also, the Black Smoke is deployed before said machine is destroyed, and it's shown to render gas masks useless. And the real kicker is that the very first fighting-machine deployed by the Martians was pitted alone against an army of 7,000 National Guardsmen that were all using rifles and machine-guns, and left only 120 known survivors.
- After the End: The last ten minutes or so of the story involves Professor Pierson writing a journal of the lifeless, half-destroyed cities that are left.
- And Now For Something Completely Different: About forty minutes in, the narrative changes completely to the aforementioned professor writing in his journal, and then briefly follows the professor and a stranger discussing Martian theories before returnign to the journal again.
- Battle Discretion Shot: When the first of the Martian fighting-machines rises from the cylinder, the radio feed from the National Guard stationed at Grover's Mill is conveniently cut short right before the soldiers open fire on the machine, and we are instead treated with a report on the aftermath of what turned out to be a Curb-Stomp Battle (that the Martian won) from the CBS studio.
- Commercial Break Cliffhanger: Averted. As The Mercury Theatre of the Air didn't have a sponsor, there didn't need to be a break in the program for advertisements; this helped keep up the Kayfabe of the broadcast. The only break acts as a transition between the faux-radio program and Pierson's After the End narration.
- Decoy Protagonist: At first, Carl Phillips the news reporter appears to be this story's counterpart to the unnamed protagonist of the novel, with Professor Pierson the astronomer being the Ogilvy stand-in. Then it gets subverted, when Carl Phillips is found incinerated by the Martians' Heat-Ray, and Pierson fills the role of protagonist after being shown to survive the attack.
- Emergency Presidential Address: Averted by Executive Meddling. It was originally intended for the unnamed Secretary of the Interior to be President Franklin D. Roosevelt, but CBS objected to this detail. That didn't stop Welles from having the actor imitate Roosevelt's voice.
- Deadline News: Eventually, the report gets cut off completely with one, lone reporter repeatedly asking if anyone is out there.
- Found Footage: A Ur Example and perhaps the only radio version of this trope.
- Killed Mid-Sentence: The at-the-scene radio reporter, Carl Phillips. Or, at least, the on-site radio equipment is destroyed while he's in mid sentence. His charred remains are later identified.
- Mockumentary: If you consider a fake news broadcast to be a Mockumentary, then this program is the Trope Maker. (If you don't, then the Trope Maker is probably This Is Spinal Tap).
- New Media Are Evil: Some suggest that most people weren't taken in by the faux-news format (or at least did little more than ring police to ask what was happening) and that newspapers embellished the facts to make radio look bad.
- Switching P.O.V.: The first part is comprised of various reports and interviews from different people. The last part follows a lone professor.
- This Just In: The studio begins to overflow with reports of the Martian walkers arriving and destroying power lines and transport routes.
- We Interrupt This Program: The first ten minutes of the show involves "Ramon Raquello and His Orchestra" playing Thirties dance music, with the plot occasionally interrupting to provide breaking news.