BBC’s The War Of The Worlds: back in H.G. Wells’ world

Gem gives us a taste of the new BBC take on the H.G. Wells classic The War Of The Worlds and brings us up to speed on previous versions...

On a visit to the set of the BBC’s upcoming production of H. G. Wells’ The War Of The Worlds in April 2018, we got a taste of what this new take on that seminal novel promises to be. Screenwriter Peter Harness and director Craig Viveiros talked excitedly about their take on the Martian menace, the story’s modern-day political resonances, and – in a departure from the source material – this adaptation’s gripping human drama, brought to life by an impressive cast including Robert Carlyle, Rupert Graves, Rafe Spall, and Eleanor Tomlinson.

Harness’s involvement should certainly make Whovian ears prick up. After all, the man’s got form when it comes to alien invasions – he brought us the return of the Zygons in Doctor Who series nine back in 2015. Details on the creatures we can expect to be terrified by this time were, understandably, thin on the ground. It was clear, however, that a huge amount of thought, effort, and technical ingenuity’s been expended on this vision of the Red Planet’s belligerent inhabitants.

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Strange as it may seem, this is the first screen version of the novel to situate its account of the Martian assault on Earth in the place and time chosen by its author: London and the Home Counties at the turn of the twentieth century. Previous adaptations have taken Wells’ setting as the starting point for narratives based on contemporary fears of invasion and subjugation. The novel’s mixture of bare-bones characterisation and vivid, haunting imagery make it an ideal candidate for imaginative reworking, leaving its unnamed protagonist and its atmosphere of dread easily translated into more modern perspectives.

2019’s model, however, wipes the slate clean. This time, we’re back in Wells’ world, as the great powers jostle for supremacy and rumblings of political discontent threaten to disturb Britain’s Imperial complacency. Looking back from the turbulent early years of another troubled century, it’s fascinating to note the parallels between his time and ours. Harness, Viveiros, and the show’s cast offered thoughtful remarks on the continuing relevance of this tale of an empire brought low by a seemingly indestructible enemy.

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As you’d expect from a BBC production, the historical detail was spot on, with a host of grim-looking extras clad in Edwardian costume and sporting disturbingly realistic cuts and bruises. Drifting mist and penetrating, persistent rain lent a forbidding atmosphere to the bleakly beautiful Crosby Beach, near Liverpool, as preparations were made to film a pivotal scene involving a desperate flight from the pitiless alien invaders. The plight of the Martians’ human victims, helpless in the face of a technologically superior force, was only highlighted by the period-drama trappings.

Costumes and settings aside, though, one thing’s for certain. This endlessly fascinating story of human endurance – and the motivating power of human love – in the face of overwhelming odds is always worth the retelling. This festive season, we’ll be watching some very modern fears reflected in the nightmares of our past.

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Previous adaptations

The War Of The Worlds (radio, 1938)

Orson Welles’ version of his near-namesake’s tale has gone down in history for provoking mass terror among its listeners, although that story’s since been disputed. True or not, its legend – and Welles’, for that matter – shows no signs of fading. His chilling account of the alien invasion set the bar high for later adaptations.

The War Of The Worlds (1953)

George Pal’s Oscar-winning film updated the action to 50s California, drawing on Cold War paranoia and the nuclear threat for its reworking of the story. Pal’s depiction of the devastation wrought by the alien invasion used WWII footage, a bitter reminder of the global conflicts Wells’ novel anticipated.

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Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of The War Of The Worlds (LP, 1978)

Creative responses to Wells’ novel have taken a variety of forms. Jeff Wayne’s two-disc concept album conveyed the horror of the Martian blitzkrieg by means of progressive rock and orchestral drama. Its long afterlife as a touring show makes it one of the most influential versions of this unforgettable tale.

The War Of The Worlds: Next Century (1981)

Perhaps no greater proof of The War Of The Worlds’ continuing power to shock is needed than the fact that this Polish film by Piotr Szulkin was banned on release by his country’s government due to its tongue-in-cheek parallels with contemporary politics. It would be two years before it finally received its premiere.

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War Of The Worlds (TV, 1988–1990)

This two-season Canadian/American series served as a sequel to the 1953 movie rather than the book itself, but its tale of government cover-ups and a reawakened alien threat in the US of the 1980s captured a new generation’s suppressed fears. Its cast included luminaries such as Patrick Macnee and the magnificent John Colicos.

War Of The Worlds (2005)

Steven Spielberg’s big-screen adaptation, narrated by the ever reliable Morgan Freeman, cast Tom Cruise in the role of a father desperately trying to protect his children as his world is obliterated around him. Spielberg taps into the climate of fear and confusion in the years after 9/11 in his memorably bleak film.

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War Of The Worlds: Goliath (2012)

This interesting Malaysian animated film sets its account of the Martian peril in a steampunk New York of 1914, fifteen years after the alien invaders’ initial defeat. As WWI looms on the horizon, our unfriendly neighbours take advantage of the escalating tensions to have another crack at dominion over Earth.

War Of The Worlds – The True Story (2012)

This extraordinary pseudo-documentary version of the novel, directed by Timothy Hines, won critical acclaim but slipped beneath the radar. Our loss, as it turns out. The film’s mixture of archive footage, clever editing, and fiction nodded to the groundbreaking 1938 radio show while doffing its cap to its literary source.

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Alien Dawn (2013-2014)

This American/Canadian sci-fi comedy series, aimed at kids, was broadcast on Nicktoons before its abrupt cancellation. Its take on Wells’ work played fast and loose with the source material, as you might expect from a show with a possibly alien skateboarding teenager as its main character.

The Great Martian War 1913–1917 (2013)

As the centenary of the First World War approached, this Canadian/British made-for-TV film explored the conventions of the documentary format, as several other adaptations had done before it. Its originality lay in its presentation of an alternate history of the ‘war to end all wars’, reworking real events to incorporate those of Wells’ fiction.

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The War Of The Worlds starts on Sunday the 17th of November at 9pm on BBC One.