Thursday 14 November 2019

Is BBC's War of the Worlds adaptation gearing up to be this year's big dud?

The BBC’s version of the classic has the signs of a troubled project, writes Pat Stacey

The War of the Worlds - Eleanor Tomlinson as Amy and Rafe Spall as George - (C) Mammoth Screen - Photographer: Matt Squire
The War of the Worlds - Eleanor Tomlinson as Amy and Rafe Spall as George - (C) Mammoth Screen - Photographer: Matt Squire

Pat Stacey

Brace yourself — the Martians are coming! The BBC’s three-hour, three-part miniseries version of HG Wells’s seminal science-fiction classic The War of the Worlds lands on BBC1 on Sunday, November 17.

Wells’s novel, first published in book form in 1898 and never out of print since, has been adapted multiple times for film, television and radio. In 1978, Jeff Wayne even turned it into a musical album, which he’s since reworked into a highly lucrative touring arena show.

But the BBC is making a big play of the fact that this is the first screen version of The War of the Worlds set in the original late-Victorian period. All the previous ones used a contemporary setting and tended to reflect the particular concerns and anxieties of the day.

The most famous, and infamous, version remains Orson Welles’ radio play, broadcast on Halloween in 1938. Presented as a series of live news reports from California, it supposedly panicked a huge number of listeners — already on edge at the possibility of another world war — into believing Earth really was under attack by Mars.

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Historical research has revealed the so-called mass hysteria was wildly exaggerated. While a relatively small number of listeners who hadn’t caught the beginning of the programme (or the on-air announcement beforehand) were panicked into believing it was real, the vast majority knew exactly what they were listening to.

Byron Haskin’s 1953 film — shot in glorious Technicolor and boasting special effects that still impress — fed into the Cold War paranoia sweeping America at the time. The final scenes also had heavy religious overtones (a jibe at those godless Commies, maybe?) that would surely have annoyed the atheist Wells.

Steven Spielberg’s 2005 film, starring a subdued Tom Cruise as a divorced, working-class dad, put a post-9/11 spin on the story.

The aliens didn’t attack from the skies; they erupted from under the ground, where they’d been lying in wait for thousands of years. They were the enemy lurking among us.

The BBC promises this new version will be the most faithful yet. To be honest, we should take that with a large pinch of salt.

The trouble with bringing The War of the Worlds to the screen is the lack of any fleshed-out characters. It’s presented as a factual account of the invasion, but we learn little or nothing about the narrator, who’s never named, other than that he’s a writer of philosophical papers and has a wife (who doesn’t appear as a character) and a brother.

None of the characters has any depth. They’re barely characters at all, in fact — more vague sketches. So any adaptation is going to have to add quite a lot to what’s in the novel.

The BBC hasn’t yet released previews to critics, but the miniseries has already been shown in Canada and New Zealand. Frankly, the reactions aren’t exactly encouraging.

The lead characters are George (Rafe Spall) and his partner Amy (Eleanor Tomlinson), a very modern couple who’ve chosen to live together, unmarried, in defiance of society’s conventions, and become outcasts as a result.

George is a journalist, Amy is a scientist, and apparently she’s the real protagonist. You can already envisage the Daily Mail labelling it ‘War of the Woke’.

If the critics’ reviews are less than glowing, citing the slow pace and paucity of Martian appearances, the viewer comments on IMBD are savagely negative. While it’s rarely wise to trust internet opinion, the truth is The War of the Worlds has all the hallmarks of a troubled production — and a potential dud.

It’s been almost three years since the project was announced. It was supposed to be shown over Christmas 2018, but was put back because the special effects work was unfinished.

The general expectation was that it would be at the centre of this year’s Christmas/New Year schedules. Instead, it’s been slipped into November, which is traditionally the pre-Christmas lull. None of this inspires much confidence.

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