In light of Summer Reading Season as well as the upcoming adaptation* of another story about what might happen after a nuclear conflict, let’s look at some of the novels and fictional movies that are based on effects of nuclear war, atomic bombs, or radiation.

Nuclear war and the effects of radiation have been and continue to be recurring themes in literature and in movies, for the most part beginning after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of World War II. For example, look at these overviews of how society’s fears were translated into popular culture, in the forms of movies and books. (You can also review the history in our online The Columbia Guide to Hiroshima and the Bomb, which describes the events and reviews the thinking behind the decision to use the bombs.)

Perhaps the best-known novel about what might happen after such a war is On the Beach, written in 1957 by aeronautical engineer Nevil Shute. Two years after the book appeared, a now-classic movie version, starring Gregory Peck and Ava Gardner, hit the theaters. (The plot: radiation from a nuclear blast has killed almost all life on earth. There are survivors in Australia, who react to their approaching deaths in different ways [understatement]. But might there still be survivors elsewhere?)

Here are some of my favorite movies of this genre:

  • Them! (1954) describes what happens after the first nuclear test — which took place in New Mexico in 1945 — causes ants to grow to a giant size and destroy everything in their path.
  • It Came from Beneath the Sea (1955) is a Ray Harryhausen envisioning of what might happen in the ocean after the bomb.
  • Gojiro: Godzilla (1956) is the king of creatures who keeps destroying Tokyo. The double title reflects the Japanese original and this cheesy but such fun American creation into which Raymond Burr was added.

Not surprisingly, many books have been written about the pervasiveness of this theme in American popular culture. Find them by entering the phrase “nuclear warfare in motion pictures” as a SUBJECT. The fascinating results include Celluloid Mushroom Clouds, and Film and the Nuclear Age: Representing Cultural Anxiety. (Also don’t miss the very informative Paranoia, the Bomb, and 1950s Science Fiction Films, which isn’t included in the list.)

Let’s use the library catalog (the advanced search, of course) to find more movies and books about this theme:

  • Nuclear warfare in books: in ANY FIELD, enter the phrase “nuclear warfare” and the word literature; as FORMAT choose Book
  • Movies: in SUBJECT, enter the words nuclear and drama; as FORMAT choose Video/Film; and for LOCATION choose Milton S. Eisenhower Library
  • Try some other ways of searching; for example, “atomic” is an older term and might bring you some results that “nuclear” would miss

Finally, I’m sorry to report that Richard Matheson, who wrote the stunning book The Shrinking Man (1956), died on June 23. The book was made into the unforgettable film The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957). As a matter of fact, the American Film Institute Catalog reports that modern critics often refer to it as “one of the best science-fiction films ever made.” Don’t miss his other two best-known movies, Duel and I Am Legend (only circulates to Peabody affiliates; otherwise, view it at the Friedheim Library). And enter the phrase “twilight zone” as a TITLE to locate the DVD with all of the original episodes, many of which Matheson wrote (including Nightmare at 20,000 Feet with William Shatner).

*Next summer, TNT will show something based on The Last Ship, a book written in 1988 by naval officer and journalist William Brinkley. What happens when the crew of a navy ship may be the only people alive after nuclear weapons are fired? The story is riveting and amazingly realistic. Unfortunately, as you’ll see in the trailer, the story seems to be about viruses instead of nuclear strikes. (Bad idea, people! The book is great and certainly doesn’t need viruses!) Read the book.


2 thoughts on “Nuclear War and Fiction

  1. Thanks for your comment, Jim. Yes, there are some wonderfully written examples of differing reactions to cataclysmic events. Two of my faves are Max Ehrlich’s THE BIG EYE, published in 1949, and Karen Walker’s THE AGE OF MIRACLES, published just last year. These stories have drama, sorrow, and the gamut of good and bad behaviors that humans would probably display when told that the world will definitely end (Ehrlich) or that life will completely and utterly change because Earth’s rotation is getting slower and slower (Walker). Don’t miss either of these; you’ll never forget them.

  2. I first read On the Beach back around 1970 and re-read it a couple of years ago. While some of the scientific assumptions may be faulty, it’s a powerful (and depressing) book. You don’t find out WHY only Australia is still populated until later in the book, as the details gradually come out on to what happened and how. It is a good study on how humans might react to cataclysmic events in very different ways.

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