Thursday, May 5, 2011

Everything I Know I Learned from Orson Welles

This week, on May 6, we mark the 96th anniversary of the birth of actor, writer, and director Orson Welles.

When I visit schools, I often explain to students why I write nonfiction instead of fiction. I talk about the cool fiction stories that they might have read, stories that are funny or scary or mysterious. “But,” I tell them, “if I tell you a story that is funny, or scary or mysterious, and then I say ‘This really happened…this is a true story,' I think that is magical.” Seeing “Based on a true story” at the beginning of a movie has never failed to make me sit up a little straighter and pay closer attention. The True Story—it just gives me goosebumps.

Orson Welles understood that. He was the one, after all, who found fame for taking a fiction story about an alien invasion and turning it into a mock radio newscast. By recasting H. G. Wells’ novel The War of the Worlds as a True Story, Welles managed to give his listeners a ripping good case of goosebumps.

Wells’ novel was already well-known in 1938, when The War of the Worlds was performed as a Halloween broadcast on October 30 of that year. The script for the radio show changed the novel’s setting from nineteenth century London to contemporary New Jersey. It paired an ordinary broadcast of dance music with increasingly ominous news flashes which periodically interrupted the broadcast. The formula mimicked typical radio news broadcasts of the day. It gave the broadcast a unique feeling of immediacy and urgency. The result was widespread panic. People tuning in were led to believe that aliens from Mars were landing in an invasion force—right here, right now. Police stations took hundreds of calls from terrified people convinced the Earth was being invaded. Some swore they could smell poison gas or see flashing lights in the distance.

At the end of the play Welles broadcast a disclaimer reminding listeners that the episode was in honor of Halloween. It was just his equivalent, he said, of “dressing up in a sheet, jumping out of a bush and saying ‘Boo!’” Don’t believe it. Welles knew just what he was doing. He knew the power of the True Story.

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