‘When Worlds Collide’ Book and Movie Comparison and Review

I love classic science fiction, as some of you might know. Both old science fiction novels and science fiction films from the 1950s. I recently came across a film that I particularly like: ‘When Worlds Collide’ from famous producer George Pal, who also filmed ‘The War of the Worlds’ from H.G. Wells’ famous novella which I also adapted into a graphic novel (which will be released June 29th by Carlsen in a new and colored version!). George Pal was of Hungarian origin and emigrated from Europe to the States in the 1930s. In Hollywood he quickly made a name for himself with his “Puppetoons”, small short films animated using the stop-motion method (he had already worked as an animator for UFA in Berlin). After he had made “Destination Moon”, a film about a journey to the moon based on the latest technical findings (1950), Paramount Studios hired him to film the successful science fiction novel ‘When Worlds Collide’ by the team of authors Edwin Balmer and Philip Wylie. The novel, which is about two rogue planets on a collision course with Earth, had been a huge hit in the 1930s. Pal, who was very taken with the material (and other books by Wylie), said yes, and it turned out – in my eyes – a highlight of 50s science fiction cinema. But first to the story in the book: Bronson Alpha and Bronson Beta, two planets that have been torn from their orbits, are racing towards Earth at great speed, as discovered by two astronomers, Cole Hendron and Sven Bronson. Bronson Beta, a planet assumed to be habitable, revolves around Bronson Alpha, a gas planet that will ultimately collide with Earth and destroy it in the process. Yet there is hope when it turns out that Bronson Beta will fall into the gravitational pull of the sun and ultimately take the position of Earth in the solar system. But how to get there? In no time at all, the construction of space shuttles is tackled, supposed to bring a selected community – attention, the word “selected” will be important later – to doomed Earth’s replacement. In the following, authors Balmer and Wylie describe in detail the worries and needs of the scientists in planning the hazardous enterprise, the construction of the rockets and the handling of the escape plan. When Bronson Beta, the first to reach the solar system, passes Earth in order to later be captured by the sun, massive natural disasters of biblical proportions occur.

And now we come to the core of the problem I have with the book: I like stories that attempt an epic dimension, but I don’t like it when the characters in them are too Darwinian and grimly accept that some people simply are “chosen” – and some are not. The novel also includes the attempt to describe a ‘new coexistence’ between ‘man and woman’ but does not go beyond a simple description of hard-felt emotional states when the daughter of Cole Hendron discovers her affection for pilot Dave Ransdall, resulting in Tony, her fiancé, being faced with the question of how he deals with it. Stony-faced he states in the novel that this emotional and personal kind of defeat is simply the game of the world in which everyone is now involved – and in which perhaps the concept of marriage needs to be rethought anyway, carrying ‘it all’ in the classic sense ‘like a man’ more or less emotionally unaffected. Hendron’s daughter on the other hand soberly discovers that she may simply have to ‘give in’ to both of the men, not allowed to make a clear decision. Exciting thoughts, yes – but it is the tone in which the characters talk about these facts in the book which arouses unpleasant associations with other developments at the time the book was written. This tone of ‘you have to go through this’ – we remember what was perceived as ‘inevitable’ during the 1930s? It’s also in many other places in the book, for example when the populations of the world are greatly decimated due to natural disasters. Can you really describe these circumstances of world’s ending like a necessity?

I’m writing this because I read a few negative reviews of George Pal’s film lately, which was made two decades later, after World War II. For some today’s reviewers, it seems, the film loses to the book, because on the one hand it adds a religious aspect more or less completely absent in the novel, on the other hand the ‘rival’ plot between Tony Drake and Dave Randall (his name in the film adaption obliberates the ‘s’) mentioned above is treated different: first, Pal relocates the plot to the then modern world (1951) and adjusts the scientific aspects (the construction of the rocket becomes the construction of a ‘space ark’ shuttle with a kind of launch pad with a slope, etc.) to new circumstances as well as the type of man who appears in the book. Tony here goes from being jealous to an ultimately sincere lover by being more gallant and elegantly resigning next to Dave Randall, even making sure Dave and Joyce can get together – which is ultimately an evidence of true love for Joyce because he only cares for what makes her happy, not what makes HIM happy. But in Pal’s film adaptation he does all of this like a true gentleman (played by Peter Hansen), and not like a man who just has to ‘pull through it’. At this point I think the film is much more modern than the book. Apart from the fact that in the film the crew of the ship fleeing Earth is put together by lottery – that is, under fair conditions – and not via advance selection as in the book (note the term ‘selection’ and think about the 1930ies in general?).

But the criticism of Pal’s film bothers me in other ways as well: In some places, they say, it is too slow, too indecisive, illogical – when is science fiction ever only logical? It doesn’t have to be, it just has to establish open rooms for unusual mind games. And this is what Pal’s film adaptation does in a wonderful way: slowly building the tension up to the point at which the natural disasters take over. And that’s wonderfully staged with miniatures: Mountains burst and release lava, floods break in over coastal panoramas, water masses swell by rear projection onto Times Square, cloud formations argue with each other and fight against the physical forces that pull between the planets (on wonderful matte paintings by Chesley Bonestell). The only thing I have to complain about here is that there just isn’t enough of it in the movie. From my point of view, there could be more miniature tricks and paintings, but the short time frame for production (WWC was more or less just one year in the works) and assumedly the budget didn’t make way for more – and in the end it serves well as it is: the amount of works put in this film shows, imagine just the effort Bonestell had to tackle in one year, he painted multiple backgrounds for this film (according to him, only one isn’t by him, and that’s the flyover of drowned New York City). And the landing on the ‘new world’, Bronson Beta, named ‘Zyra’ in the movie! Just wonderful.

So, from my point of view of 10 out of 10 points for Pal’s film version, it is a colorful, dramatic Technicolor (and that was expensive at the time of filming in 1951) film with heart, with charme and wonderful actors – and speaking of colors here, especially the costumes: Carefully selected they are by master Edith Head, resulting in, without exception, EVERYONE in this film looking elegant and beautiful. The colors of the costumes are extremely well chosen and subtly adapt to the plot.

But in order not to let the book completely go under: Here is a cover, which I once made out of a fundamental joy in the plot itself (front cover jacket illustration above, complete motif below). It picks up on the charm of the Pal film adaptation and connects it a little with New York skyscrapers that would have fit in the 30ies, the time the Balmer/Wylie novel was written.

Per aspera ad astra!