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Crystal Downing


Rime of the Ancient Martian

War of the Worlds—the remix.

Like most film adaptations of classic works, Steven Spielberg's The War of the Worlds functions as a gloss on its source, a gloss that not only retells but also interprets the original text according to the values of its adapters. It puts me in mind of the gloss Samuel Taylor Coleridge added to his most famous poem. When "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" was first published in 1798, it told the story of a sailor who, after capriciously killing an albatross, was forced to hang the sea bird around his neck until he responded to nature with love rather than violence.

Filled with creepy incidents aboard the mariner's ship, Coleridge's poem was not considered "great literature" in its own day. In fact, Coleridge's friend and collaborator, William Wordsworth, denounced "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" as having "done injury to the volume" in which it appeared. Hence, when Coleridge republished "The Rime" nearly two decades later, he added a prose commentary—a gloss—to the side of his original verse stanzas. Only after the appearance of the gloss in 1817 did readers start to regard Coleridge's poem as high art.

Similarly, Wells' science fiction was snubbed not only by contemporary literati as too "popularistic" but also by fellow science fiction writer Jules Verne, who condescendingly wrote, "[T]here is no rapport between his work and mine. I make use of physics. He invents." Only after the 1938 broadcast and the 1953 film did The War of Worlds attain the status of "classic" text.

What Coleridge did in his gloss to "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" anticipated what any film adaptation of a novel must do. Due to the constraints of both time and the medium of film, it is impossible to include every incident or mental reflection that appears in the original source. Just as Coleridge would gloss 12 lines of poetry with only two lines of summarizing prose, film adaptations often telescope several source incidents into one brief summarizing scene. On the other hand, like ...

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