To call BBC Television’s 2019 adaptation of The War of the Worlds ‘divisive’ would be an under-statement akin to calling H.G. Wells Martian conflict ‘a slight tussle’. In the minds of many fans of the famous novel, the combination of the BBC, renowned for its sumptuous costume drama, and the period setting of Wells’ magnum opus achieved an almost mythic status that no television drama could ever have hoped to live up to. That said, only some of the many criticisms that have been hurled at this 3-part serial are unjustified; for although it is exciting, visually stunning and well-acted, it makes many arbitrary mistakes and its desire to be ‘modern’ weighs it down like the anchor of the Thunder Child (which does not appear in this version).
I first read H.G. Wells classic novel The War of the Worlds when I was around 14, in a second-hand 1978 Pan edition released to tie in with the release of Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version. I’d seen the 1953 George Pal movie and I’d recently rediscovered the Jeff Wayne LP after being traumatised by it as an 8-year old when my brother used to play it in our shared bedroom. I’d also read the Marvel Classic Comics version reprinted in Doctor Who Weekly, so I knew that the Victorian setting was the correct one. None of those versions, however, held a candle to H.G.’s novel, which absolutely blew me away! My early teenage years were a time of great literary discovery for me, when I moved on from Terrance Dicks and Nicholas Fisk to Ray Bradbury, Harry Harrison and, of course, H.G. Wells. Even though Wells was almost 40 years in the grave when I first read one of his novels, The War of the Worlds spoke to me; his poetic use of language fascinated me and it has been in the top end of my favourite books of all time.
So, I guess that makes me one of those fans that I mentioned in the opening paragraph, but I don’t have fixed ideas of how my favourite book should be adapted. Steven Spielberg’s 2005 movie version took enormous liberties with the text, but I still rather like it; okay, so it relocates the action to modern day America and has some weird stuff about the sleeper Martians being activated by bolts of lightning, but it remains tonally faithful to the 1898 novel. I was disappointed that Spielberg never went down the period route though, so when the BBC announced that they were producing an adaptation set in (almost) the correct period, I was, like a lot of people, quite excited. The BBC has a history of adapting Wells’ scientific romances; one of their first ever attempts at TV science fiction was an adaptation of The Time Machine and I have very fond memories of Barry Letts and Terrance Dicks 1984 classic serial of The Invisible Man.
But whereas Letts and Dicks felt an obligation to be in some way faithful to their source material in the 80s, modern TV is a different kettle of fish. British TV drama in the ‘teenies’ is all achingly modern, stamped to a rigid format that is part Scandi-thriller, part Indie drama and a massive chunk of Netflix aspiration. There’s very little straying from the formula, so it was inevitable that the BBC’s new primetime adaptation of The War of the Worlds would adhere to the same formula. In the hope of attracting some of Poldark’s Sunday night audience, it’s also a star vehicle for actress Eleanor Tomlinson, necessitating a change from Wells’ male-centric narrative to a one where the Journalist’s wife is a much more significant character. This version adapts the common device of calling Wells’ unnamed protagonist George, ably played by Raif Spall with Victorian… sorry, Edwardian stiff upper lip firmly in place. The Journalist’s wife, played by Tomlinson, is named in the novel; she’s called Carrie, but in this version she’s arbitrarily renamed Amy.
The isn’t the first version of the story to expand the role of the Journalist’s wife, last year’s full-cast audio Jeff Wayne’s The War of the Worlds – The Musical Drama replaced the sequences of the Journalist’s brother in the novel with his wife, to great effect. This version is less effective; essentially, the narrative is split between George and Amy – but there isn’t really enough story to go around and the net effect is that each gets less to do. Throw into the mix expanded roles for the brother and Ogilvy the astronomer (a cursory character in the novel) and the action is spread a little thin. It doesn’t help that, with only three episodes to tell the tale, iconic elements from the novel, such as the battle between the Fighting Machines and the battle steamer Thunder are completely excised.
Let’s look at what the BBC’s War of the Worlds gets right; firstly, it’s pretty much the only adaptation so far to show the heat ray correctly, as a shimmering beam of pure heat rather than some kind of a laser beam. The scenes of the heat ray sweeping across crowds and people just bursting into flames are straight out of the pages of the novel and tremendously well realised. Similarly, this version gives a lot of time to the black smoke, something that most adaptations of The War of the Worlds choose to skip over. Wells’ concern with the black smoke was over the development of weaponised poison gas, which hadn’t even been effectively used in battle at the time he wrote the novel. The fact that chemical warfare is still a going concern 120 years later, shows that Wells was right to be worried and this version of the story is right to still include it. Unfortunately, the fighting machines dispensing both of the above are found lacking; the crystalline design of the alien mechanisms is an interesting idea but doesn’t really work for me. Should any effective mechanism be dropping pieces of its structure every time it moves?
Similarly, the Martians themselves are disappointing. The way they are represented here is as monsters, rather than a being of superior intelligence capable of travelling across space. In the novel, the Martians are monstrous because of their unfamiliarity; they may prey on human beings, but they’re not obvious predators. The Martians here are very obvious predators, hissing and creeping like giant spiders, they just don’t convince as an advanced technological race. Their means of transportation to Earth is confusing as well. They come as some kind of ball of raw material that scatters when attacked, creating the Martians, their fighting machines and the red weed in an incredibly short time frame. Much like the peculiar means of arrival employed by the Martians in Spielberg’s film, it doesn’t really cut the mustard. What is the problem that people have with machines and personnel coming to Earth in a giant cylinder? If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
The serial’s biggest failure in my view is in its presentation of the mass flight of people from London upon the advance of the fighting machines. In Wells’ novel, this is a suffocating, claustrophobic description of a seething mass of humanity, rich and poor alike, packed together, climbing over themselves to get away from this unknown invader, but here there is never a convincing depiction of the ‘route of civilisation’. The main depiction of this mass migration is the scene on the beach, but even the tactical use of mists and smoke cannot hide the fact that the crowds are all disappointingly thin. London was a city of 6 million people at the turn of the century – where are they? Yes, the deserted villages and half-demolished stately homes are all very well presented, but you can’t write off the disappearance of millions of people as an afterthought!
The problem is that The War of the Worlds spends too much time trying to make some point or another. If it could spend a bit less time saying ‘look, we’re making a point about climate change’ or ‘look, we’re making a point about church and state’ and a bit more time saying ‘look, this is what happened to the rest of mankind as well as these three or four people’, then it would be all the better for it. It’s well known that H.G. Wells was making a point about British Imperialism with The War of the Worlds, but that was a subtext, delivered with artful subtlety; here it’s delivered like a hammer-blow, in letters 20 feet high: IT’S ABOUT THE BRITISH EMPIRE! DO YOU GET IT? DO YOU? I just wish that the series could have credited the viewer with a bit of intelligence to work these things out for themselves. I look forward to the adaptation of The Time Machine from the same team: THEY’RE RICH PEOPLE AND THEY’RE POOR PEOPLE! DO YOU SEE?
Now, I’m not saying that the BBC’s The War of the Worlds is terrible, or even that I didn’t enjoy watching it. As a Sunday evening serial, it’s good (if somewhat depressing) end-of-the-weekend entertainment, but as an adaptation of the classic novel by H.G. Wells, it’s pretty poor. It’s not just that a lot of the plot and character changes are arbitrary; it’s that the story isn’t very well told. To an extent, it relies on a pre-knowledge of the story. You don’t see enough of the fighting machines or their destruction of Britain; the story is very insular, which is okay, but you also have to tell people what’s going on. I didn’t really like the flash-forward stuff and felt let down when the real-time story fizzled out and that stuff became the main narrative. The ending felt flat and disappointing; the Martians are dead, but who cares? We didn’t see much of them anyway.
Don’t get me wrong, this was a step in the right direction. Fans of The War of the Worlds have waited a long time for a TV or film version set in the appropriate period, but it strays too far from the core text. For all its changes, the Spielberg movie was closer to Wells’ novel than this and that feels like a wasted opportunity from the BBC. I think that the definitive version of H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds is yet to be seen in the visual medium. I only hope it arrives in my lifetime!