THE WAR OF THE WORLDS (EPISODE ONE) / DIRECTOR: CRAIG VIVEIROS / SCREENPLAY: PETER HARNESS / STARRING: ELEANOR TOMLINSON, RAFE SPALL, ROBERT CARLYLE, RUPERT GRAVES, NICHOLAS LE PROVOST / RELEASE DATE: NOVEMBER 17TH
The BBC’s long-awaited adaptation of H.G. Wells’ seminal The War of the Worlds finally arrives on BBC One this month. Episode One has just received a screening at the BFI on London’s Southbank followed by a Q&A with the show’s writer, director, and star Eleanor Tomlinson. STARBURST was there, front row seat. Here’s our thoughts…
Published as a novel in 1898, The War of the Worlds is inarguably one of the great cornerstones of science-fiction; every single alien invasion story, book, film, and TV production has its roots deep in Wells’ ground-breaking work of literature. To many, it is about as sacred as sacred texts get. It’s been adapted for radio (most famously in Orson Welles’ notorious 1938 radio broadcast that sent the American public in a tailspin of terror) and twice for the cinema (George Pal’s glorious Technicolor version, set in 20th century America, back in 1953 and Steven Spielberg’s underrated 2005 contemporary update), not forgetting the legendary 1978 star-studded double album created by Jeff Wayne, which is easily the most faithful version of the original text. But it’s that very text - the story of the arrival of Martian Tripod war machines contained in cylinders fired from the surface of Mars laying waste to Victorian/Edwardian England, in case you’ve really never stumbled across it before - that’s the problem for anyone trying to bring the story to the screen for a modern audience. As writer Peter Harness explained at the BFI Q&A, the structure of the book, largely told from the perspective of its nameless, faceless narrator, really doesn’t lend itself to the demands of a modern TV audience who need to be able to invest in a story’s core characters if they’re to be carried along by the drama and the sheer visceral excitement of the narrative. This new adaptation is probably aimed more at a broad TV audience possibly unfamiliar with the intricacies of the novel and those expecting or hoping for a beat-by-beat adaptation of the novel are not only on a hiding to nothing but also possibly surprisingly naïve about the way modern TV works and talks. Harness has indeed make some substantial changes to Wells’ work because he really had to and whilst some of them are sure to raise an eyebrow or two, most of them work to give the story a fresh imperative and, more importantly, to create characters who feel a little more believable and relatable to a 21st century TV audience than those created at the end of the 19th century. Your mileage will inevitably vary as to how much you agree with or accept those changes but only the most stubborn fan of the original novel would disagree that those changes are essential if the story is to support three hour-long episodes.
We begin with one of the most famous opening narrations in the history of fiction - Richard Burton did it most memorably in the Jeff Wayne project - and yes, hackles will rise at hearing the famous “no-one would have believed” introduction voiced by Eleanor Tomlinson as the series’ all-new lead character Amy whose story the series is most definitely telling. This War of the Worlds is the product of a more socially-aware, diverse, gender-conscious society but the fact that Harness and Mammoth Films (who produced the series for the BBC) have chosen to reflect this in the casting of the popular Tomlinson as the new show’s driving force may inevitably cause some eye-rolling in certain sections of the audience. In the novel the narrator’s wife (the only female character) is quickly shunted away to safety only to return at the end of the book; that’s not going to wash in 2019 and Harness has created a new template to power his story that was always, by necessity, crafted to chime with modern sensibilities.
Amy and her partner George (Rafe Spall) are scandalising polite Edwardian society (Harness has set his story in the early years of the 20th century, arguing that Wells was similarly vague about the exact time in which his invasion took place) by carrying on an extramarital relationship in defiance of the norms of the era. George is a struggling and rather ineffectual journalist, Amy is a bright, confident, ever-smiling scientist. The couple have moved to a new home in Woking and their friend Ogilvy the astronomer (Carlyle) tells them of strange emissions he has detected from the surface of Mars. One evening a huge meteor-like object crashes to Earth in nearby Horsell Common. Amy, George and Ogilvy rush to investigate (the military and the authorities don’t appear to be interested, oddly) and find a steaming, rattling, quivering sphere imbedded in the mud. Before long the object is shaking off its muddy carapace, revealing a jet black oval object, which rises into the air, pulsing and vibrating. By now a substantial crowd of observers has gathered; they’re not around for long as the object ejects a strange black dust that turns anyone it touches into a pillar of flame. Back in London rumours of strange activity are dismissed as a natural phenomenon; until something huge and metallic and striding about on three insect-like legs rises from the landing place of the sphere and starts to expel clouds of black smoke that devastate everything and everyone in its path. More objects fall from the sky. The war of the worlds has begun…
It’s an agreeable and enjoyable first episode but to fully engage with the series you will genuinely need to accept the creative validity of the changes Harness has made to the original story which is likely to be a stumbling block for many purists. It could be argued that he’s over-egged the pudding a little in some regard; Rafe Spall’s George is a bit too drippy and Tomlinson’s Amy a bit too post-#metoo and they seem an unlikely match as they’re so different and it’s hard to imagine what she’d see in someone so weak-willed. But their relationship (and Amy’s very existence) apart, Harness has kept pretty much to the through-line of the book and once the ‘meteor’ arrives there’s a real sense of creeping dread as we await the arrival of fiction’s most famous space invaders. It seems a little odd that we don’t get iconic ‘unscrewing of the cylinder’ sequence until we remember that this has been done before and whilst this new version, with the black sphere taking to the air, seems like something out of Doctor Who, it’s a striking visual with devastating and thrilling consequences.
Later on the tripod rises from the pit - sadly we’re not there to see it - and it embarks on its rampage. Here the episode disappoints a little as we’re not allowed to witness much of the devastation it wreaks. There are a few explosions, a lot of people screaming and running and the odd puff of black smoke. But it seems a bit tame with buildings damaged but not destroyed and, at the end of the episode, George caught up in an explosion which seems to have done little more than knock over a few bicycles and handcarts. The first reveal of the tripod rising above a church (the symbolism isn’t hugely subtle) is impressive and inspiring but there’s not enough of it. This is what we tuned in for and we need a few more of these money shots. The tripod itself is fairly faithful to those we’ve seen before (insectoid legs apart it’s oddly reminiscent of the machines shown in the failed 1980s BBC children’s series The Tripods) but the first episode doesn’t indulge us yet and we can only hope that we get to see them in full effect in the series’ remaining two episodes.
There’s much to admire in this first episode bar the odd stumble (would George really pause in the middle of an attack by a creature from outer space to whine to Amy about his wife’s refusal to grant him a divorce?) and ‘flash forward’ scenes set in a devastated, red-tinted apocalyptic landscape suggest that the story will deviate even further from the one we’re used to. This may not turn out to be the definitive version of a classic but, at this stage, it appears to be a well-considered and sensitive updating and we await the remaining episodes with some trepidation albeit with the fear that the series may lose its way as the story progresses and it risks concentrating more on gender box-ticking than the bruising, bloody battle between two different civilisations, which, at the end of the day, is what we’re all here for. Approach with caution and with an open mind and you’ll find this more enjoyable than you might have expected.