When Mars Attacked: Orson Welles, The War of the Worlds & the Radio Broadcast That Changed America Forever is a book written by David Accord that examines the making of, and the fallout from, Orson Welles’ legendary War of the Worlds radio broadcast in 1938. When Mars Attacked is a gripping account of the events that led to the broadcast of the adaptation. The first few chapters briefly outline the history of Orson Welles, how he became involved in radio, and the circumstances that led to the program having the kind of impact it ultimately had.
The first thing to note about this book is its writing style: it’s written in the same style as most fictional books are. By that, I mean, it reads like a novel, with details and nuances littered throughout, instead of a dry biographical work. Accord utilizes this technique with stunning skill. From page one, he makes you feel like you’re watching a movie based on his book. The way he can build up an entire world around a small scene, getting you to feel what the characters are feeling, is an accomplishment that any nonfiction writer should strive to achieve.
The chapters themselves are fairly easy reads. There’s no need to bog down this story with frivolous details; Accord gets straight to the point. He manages that balancing act of giving the reader enough details to clearly visualize what they’re reading but not overwhelming them with so many details that they’re bored out of their minds. Because Accord is a master at this skill, reading When Mars Attacked becomes a fun experience. At times, it really reads like some of the best “based on a true story” movies play out. You’re given all the context needed and then ushered through the events as they happened while also exploring the reactions of those present at the time of the event. While it’s clear that Accord, like many, hold Orson Welles in high regard, Accord doesn’t hold back any punches either, at times describing Orson Welles in less-than-flattering terms. Several times throughout the book, Accord uses flowery language to basically say that Welles often lied and pissed people off with his lies.
When Mars Attacked does a good job of dispelling some of the more ridiculous rumors about the panic that succeeded the initial broadcast of War of the Worlds, but he also takes care to keep the suspension built up. He starts the book by preparing you for the explosive events that are to come. And even though the reality of the aftermath wasn’t quite as exciting as folklore would have you believe, Accord manages to make the truth just as interesting as the rumors are. It’s fascinating reading how he explains what caused people to react the way they did.
Essentially, there were a few major reasons why so many people thought it was a real broadcast. The broadcast was up against the most popular radio program in the country, The Chase and Sanborn Hour, so it wasn’t a particularly successful show. However, this particular episode of Chase and Sanborn wasn’t very good, so many people began dial-turning after the first few minutes. They land on CBS after they’ve already started their broadcast of War of the Worlds so these new listeners miss the disclaimer that aired as the program started saying it was a work of fiction. The next disclaimer wouldn’t arrive for another thirty minutes, by which time enough damage was done.
Reading Accord’s account of these moments gives you a sense of the tension those who witnessed it must have felt. On the one hand, you have a group of actors and radio personnel who just wanted to put on an enjoyable broadcast. On the other hand, you have a group of Americans who are exhausted and paranoid after years of economic depression and the looming fear of war, who mistakenly believe that these “news announcements” they are hearing from their radio are real. Because why wouldn’t they be? Every other time they hear announcements like this, it’s true. Accord manages to get you to sympathize with both parties. Nobody’s the “bad guy”. Naturally, you’re sort of rooting for Welles and company, because they’re the subjects of the book, but you also can understand the very real fear Americans felt in the immediate aftermath.
The book ends with a section that talks about how we as humans like to believe we wouldn’t fall for something like this again. Which seems incredibly prescient given all that’s happened in the past few years in American politics and media. There’s one quote in particular that really caught my attention:
Dorothy Thompson argued that Orson Welles had inadvertently demonstrated the power – and danger – of mass media when put into the wrong hands. When the public is vulnerable, paranoia can strike in an instant. She warned that if we can fool ourselves into believing the Martians are out to get us, then we can frighten ourselves into believing other irrational threats, as well. Today, it’s aliens; tomorrow it could be an ethnic or religious minority, or anyone who thinks, worships or acts differently than we do. If the incident teaches us anything, it’s that perhaps we should do a better job of monitoring ourselves – in particular, the degree to which we place our trust in the mass media. Are we too trusting? Have we become too reliant on certain sources of information? Do we question what we are told? Can we sense when external pressures – the economy, international developments – begin to chip away at our basic capability to reason and perceive the situation as it really is, not as we fear it might be? (Accord, from the Epilogue chapter)
It’s those words I want to leave you with. Should you read When Mars Attacked? Yes, you should. It’s a well written, easily digestible account of an interesting moment in the history of American broadcast media. But it also serves as a bit of a warning for the future: we can’t trust everything we read, see, or hear just because we think it comes from a source that normally tells the truth. The truth can be manipulated by those who want to.
(4 out of 5 wands, because there was the occasional typo or oddly worded or formatted sentence. It’s not a perfectly written book, but it’s a good read.)