No one would have believed that in the early years of the twenty first century, a major adaptation of an undisputed classic of science fiction, positioned as the first faithful period production of the novel, The War of the Worlds by H G Wells, could be so comprehensively misconceived, so full of promise and potential yet as utterly defeated as an army convinced of its supremacy over an adversary better prepared and equipped both strategically and technologically.
Directed by Rillington Place‘s Craig Viveiros from a script by Peter Harness who previously adapted Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell for the BBC and broadcast domestically in three hour-long parts and in two longer segments abroad, an arrangement which does no favours to the lopsided structure, many of the deviations from the original text should not in principle derail the project, yet in execution it is a squandered opportunity of misguided ambition and arrogance to attempt an improvement by rewriting a classic.
Shifted from the late nineteenth to the twentieth century, the early summer of 1905, the principal characters are George (Prometheus‘ Rafe Spall), a journalist, married but separated from his wife and living with Amy (Jack the Giant Slayer‘s Eleanor Tomlinson), George’s brother Frederick (The White Queen‘s Rupert Graves, a government minister, and their astronomer neighbour Ogilvy (Stargate Universe‘s Robert Carlyle) who first observes the curious ejections from the surface of Mars in a telescope whose resolution far exceeds even modern instruments.
Believing them to be volcanic activity, it is not until the skies over Woking are rent by the arrival of a colossal fireball which impacts in the forest near their home that it is apparent that the event was more significant. Crowds arrive, measurements are taken, and George attempts to interest his newspaper in the story, but it is not until activity begins that the full import of the event can be understood, by which time any warnings are too late.
First published in serial form in 1897, The War of the Worlds is primarily told through the observations of a single unnamed narrator who witnesses the arrival of the Martians in semi-rural and their subsequent rapid dominance of the land and to a lesser extent his younger brother who resides in the city of London who together chronicle “the massacre of mankind,” the devastation of an entire society as those few who are able make their way to the coast in the hopes of escape and those left behind are culled.
The narrator’s wife a minor character in the novel, moving a female character to the foreground does not in itself present a problem yet there is no reason for her to be replaced by a mistress other than to shift the focus from the alien invasion to domestic melodrama, offering confrontations between George and his estranged wife, the hectoring Lucy (Aisling Jarrett-Gavin) with her shrill foreshadowing (“If you want to marry again you may do so when I’m dead!”), one emancipated female apparently regarded as sufficient representation in the updating of the text.
Frederick accusing George of abandoning his duty, the animosity it subsequently engenders between the brothers becomes tedious and distracting as Amy must turn to the minister when she becomes separated from George during the attack before the three are reunited only to become hostages in an abandoned schoolhouse where they are stalked by Martians, the scene taking place of of the extended siege in the novel when the narrator and the Curate are trapped in a collapsed house.
A frustrating deviation, it is far from the only one, and as the production progresses Harness abandoning any pretence of remaining faithful to Wells’ text, the iconic Thunderchild sequence no more than a single shot in the background as the evacuation by sea is replaced by a far less dramatic alternative before a jump of five years presents a different scenario as Amy and her child face the ongoing threat of the toxic red weed, less dramatic but more budget friendly than the Martian menace which has expired during the interim.
The scope of the first episode swiftly restrained to a more mundane and restricted perspective, the scale of the invasion which drove Wells’ vision is never truly conveyed and the lingering looks of angst and turmoil of George and Amy’s laboured emotion are a poor substitute for the intellectual horror of realising that one is part of a species on the verge of extinction with no recourse or comfort through religion or technology, a literary masterpiece reimagined as a tedious soap opera devoid of the speculations on Martian physiology and psychology and the comparisons of their desperate species and our crumbling society.
As with previous adaptations, the Martian’s own appearance takes little from Wells; the tripod fighting machines unimaginative and disappointing, their technology is vastly and needlessly more advanced than that of Earth, and while the heat ray is correctly invisible other than its catastrophic effect the invaders have also apparently mastered zero gravity and nanotechnology, irrelevancies which serve no purpose other than to presumably satisfy the urge to be seen as contemporary. Frustratingly, the promise of a faithful presentation so completely broken, it is unlikely another will be attempted, and beyond the original novel it is Jeff Wayne’s timeless musical version which remains the definitive version of The War of the Worlds, superior to this in every way.
The War of the Worlds is currently broadcasting on BBC One