The War of the Worlds

Back in… gosh, I really don’t know… maybe 1985… maybe 1986… we went into primary school as usual and found our teacher was ill. A regular substitute (whom I’d liked for years), called Mrs Hamer, took our class for the day. Now that I look back, this was probably a last minute thing, so she was scrambling to give us something to do. As a kid, of course, it all seemed wonderfully planned out.

“I want you all to lie on the floor,” she told us, “And I’m going to play you a cassette. My nephew let me record this off his LP. I want you to close your eyes and concentrate. See if you can imagine the story…” And so that’s what we did. We lay down among our desks and closed our eyes. And waited.

No one would have believed
In the last years of the nineteenth century
That human affairs were being watched
From the timeless worlds of space
No one could have dreamed that we were being scrutinised
As someone with a microscope studies creatures
That swarm and multiply in a drop of water
Few men even considered the possibility of life on other planets
And yet, across the gulf of space
Minds immeasurably superior to ours
Regarded this Earth with envious eyes
And slowly and surely, they drew their plans against us

“Well,” I thought, “That was interesting, I wonder – WAIT, WHAT ON EARTH IS THAT?!”

An orchestra had just kicked on on the recording. Dramatic violins, strings. My head exploded. Yes, if you still haven’t twigged, this was Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of The War of the Worlds which had been released in 1978. I was transfixed for the whole production. The story thrilled me and the music moved me. Mrs Hamer had picked the perfect thing for us to try and imagine. My 10 or 11 year old mind had been raised on all sorts of sci-fi and I knew enough of the Victorian era, to picture fighting machines from Mars up against totally outclassed – but very brave – English military forces.

Soon after I sought out the novel. I devoured it in a day, as I recall. I thrilled to the way it was written, as if this had actually happened. There were comments in it about being able to see a preserved alien in a museum and how experiments on captured weaponry hadn’t gone well. I’d never read anything like this, and I had to stop myself at times to remind myself it was a story. It had made its mark.

My next stop was to seek out the movie version, which I’d heard about. I’d also heard of the Orson Welles radio broadcast and the panic it had caused in the US back in the 1930s but, for some reason, I wasn’t too interested in audio. I wanted to see the movie. I think I found it at the local library on VHS. Took it home and… was totally disappointed. It was set in the US… it wasn’t the Victorian era… the Martian war machines looked nothing like they should. I was outraged. I thought it was total junk!

Since that time, I hoped someone would do a good version of the story on film. None came. A 1988 mini-series was a sequel to the US film from the fifties. A 2005 Steven Spielberg film filled me with hope the first time I heard about it… then dashed that hope, by being a modern-day story. Only a tiny indie film (released the same year as the Spielberg movie), offered some hope, but I couldn’t get my hands on it. Years later, when I finally saw it, I thought it was the worst movie I’d ever seen. Terrible performances, primarily, but the effects were rubbish too. Could no one make a proper version of the book without messing it up in some way? Was it really so hard? Why was no one doing it right?

Enter the BBC version. Aha! Set in the Edwardian era, but close enough to the Victorian era, so not massively different. And the BBC does period pieces better than anyone. This had promise!

The result, sadly, still left me wanting someone to do a good, time-correct, version of the book.

It begins with the introduction. The narrator isn’t the journalist who wrote the book… it’s a woman’s voice. We soon learn she’s in a relationship with the journalist character and their local town looks down on what they’re doing because he’s married to someone else and, even at this early point I’m wondering why we need an off-beat love story being inserted? And why is the journalist not the person telling the story, given that’s how the book runs and also how you’d expect the story to be told, ie: by the actual storyteller in the ensemble? This is The Last Jedi level of ‘subverting expectations’.

I wondered at this point who wrote the thing, so stopped to check. Peter Harness. Oh great… the bloke who wrote Doctor Who stories like Kill the Moon and The Pyramid at the End of the World, both stories you will hear very few people stand up and defend. My hopes started dropping.

(Although this aired in the UK in three parts, I watched it locally as a two-part series. So when I talk about parts one and two, it may be a different experience to what overseas readers experienced.)

Part one still held some promise. I liked Robert Carlyle’s performance as Ogilvy the astronomer very much. Of note, Harness inserts a heavy-handed suggestion that he’s gay during his first scene. I’ve seen some articles suggest it’s to show he’s a modern guy, “ahead of his time” in an old world setting, although I’m not quite sure how that line of thought really works as people have been gay throughout time, plus he’s clearly not openly gay and the idea is never followed up on, or utilised as a plot point anyway. It’s like it’s there so Harness can… well, I’m not even sure what he hopes to achieve by doing it, which makes the whole thing seem pointless. It’s like, OK Peter, your take on Ogilvy is that he’s gay. Sure. But why are you telling us this? Without any pay off, it seems bizarre to introduce this as a Really Important Thing To Know (it’s basically the first thing we learn about him), then take it nowhere?

Rafe Spall as the journalist, or George, held promise, too. He seems like a good, solid kind of guy (notwithstanding leaving his wife and children for a younger woman), and scenes in his newspaper office show that he’s got a bit of spine and some morals. This was all good stuff, although where his character went in the second part, I found quite weird. Not only was he removed as being the narrator of the story right from the start, he’s also turned into a rambling crazy man later on. Typhoid is given as a possible reason why, but his character becomes very second-rate, disappearing for a chunk of the story and, when he returns, playing second fiddle to his girlfriend and even his brother’s character. So if you admire the journalist character of the novel or even the Jeff Wayne musical, he’s AWOL here.

The star of the story – well, at least in Harness’ eyes – is a character that doesn’t even exist in the novel: George’s girlfriend Amy, played by Eleanor Tomlinson. She has an answer for everything and the camera lingers on Tomlinson’s face every opportunity it can, as she makes remarkable escapes, brow-beats senior politicians and military men, and is eventually revealed to be still surviving 6 or 7 years after the alien invasion (if the age of her child is any indication), and long after George is dead.

If that’s not enough, she then meets up with Ogilvy again (surely a 10 million to 1 occurrence, given what’s happened), and the two then science it up to discover, 1) What killed the aliens in the first place and, 2) How they can get the Earth to regenerate from the red weed and other pollutants left behind by the invaders. Yes, it’s very weird and quite far-fetched in the end. Nothing like the novel.

Throughout the piece, Harness takes elements of the story, and bungles them. When the war machines unleash their black smoke on London, it’s very exciting; almost like the novel. But then Harness has a government minister get a lung-full of it and, while it doesn’t overly trouble him at first, the script then has him undergoing some sort of scary transformation and chasing our heroes (not dissimilar to how characters in the Doctor Who story The Waters of Mars reacted after being touched by tainted water), yet this is never shown to happen in any other circumstances, even though a huge chunk of London’s inhabitants are hit with the smoke, too? It’s like it’s just there to be a “cool scene” and nothing more, so we must presume no one else in London reacted like that? What?

Similarly, the whole vibe of the novel, that the aliens caught an infection relatively quickly and died – lest humanity was wiped out in weeks – and then we had to rebuild, is stretched into this ridiculously long time period. While we can assume the aliens also died relatively quickly in the Harness version of the story, the way Earth is living in nuclear winter-like conditions for years – again, Amy’s child from George is 6 or 7 years old – seems very unrealistic. Aside from doing it this way so we could see George and Amy’s child (although god knows why; the character is very one note and boring), I don’t see why it needed to be stretched out this long. Given the conditions shown, I don’t believe humanity could have lasted that long. Ogilvy and Amy talk about the coming crop season being their last chance. Why now? With the sky covered over, and Earth looking more like Mars, I think crops would have failed years before now. Again, it makes no sense and seems to be just there so we see the child.

The most frustrating part of all this is that there’s a grain of a decent adaption in play. Some of the scenes are done well and I feel I could edit chunks of it together and have it resembling the novel’s narrative in a lot of ways. Some things still annoyed me though and can’t be edited around. The aliens in the novel came in cylinders and part of the scariness in the novel was the way they would unscrew. In this TV adaption they’re perfect spheres that can levitate and do all sorts of tricks. Why? Why change it? Again, the word I keep coming back to is frustrating. The production looks great… money’s been thrown at it… but the way it deviates from the novel to tell other stories seems pointless. Doubly so when those stories – like George having a wife and kids but is “living in sin” with Amy – don’t really add anything to proceedings. What would fundamentally change if Amy had been his wife in this piece? Not much. You’d lose Amy bitching to Ogilvy that the village considers them pariahs… and you’d lose some initial bad blood between George’s brother and Amy (but even that could still exist due to a different circumstance), but you’d also gain not having scenes like George going to visit his wife and ask her to sign divorce papers. Such riveting viewing. It’s what everyone expects when they sit down to watch The War of the Worlds. Basically it becomes this constant question of why, Why, WHY, Peter Harness? The changes wreck a fine narrative, and don’t add anything in its place.

All of this said, I may surprise you now when I say I was fine with the overall mini-series. Once I accepted that Harness had chucked out some great parts of the story, changed others, and I presume in a bid to subvert expectations, made his lead character someone who wasn’t even in the original novel… I accepted it. The story is well filmed and many of the performances are very good. The effects are great for TV and, taken in isolation, it’s fine. But when we’re talking about a story I’ve been obsessed with since the mid 1980s, and not only that but a version finally set in basically the right era, and with a decent budget… well, to get so close and only deliver something “fine” but different to the original, really hurt me to watch in some ways, too. The original story means that much to me.

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