The War of the Worlds on the BBC – a review

A long-delayed review of the BBC’s War of the Worlds (now that election things are past), and I find myself in a muddle for comment.

There is a snarling, lefty theme in two places which grates horribly and is not in the original, but for that later – as a whole the theme and presentation are ambitious and exuding a pervading cloud of inevitable, hopeless doom, just as in the book.

Peter Harness’s three-part adaptation of H G Wells’s work was broadcast by the BBC in November, and is still available on the iPlayer, and in the shops on DVD for Christmas.  It was greeted at the time of broadcast with some howls of rage from reviewers in advance – anonymous shall be the reviewer who said “it’s all woke in Woking” and others accused it of political correctness gone mad (or words to that effect).  It was certainly different, and with modern preconceptions filling in the gaps, but the main problem screaming out of the box is this: It is not H. G. Wells.

The scene is set in Edwardian Britain, in suburban Surrey and then in London; so far so much like Wells (though Wells wrote in 1898 and hinted at its being set at that moment): the series references the brief war scare of 1904. It begins just as the book does, in a picture-perfect suburban village: Wells’s narrator lived in Maybury, a village now engulfed in Woking, and here it begins, and on Horsell Common where the first cylinder lands (or in this retelling, a sphere). Like the book, the series counterpoints the confident civilisation of the period with sudden destruction to show how fragile the show of empire is.

A major contrast between the book and this series is that the Martian invasion is brief in the book and civilisation begins to pick itself up again afterwards, but in the series the whole world is affected and for many years after. Its postscript world, smothered in the red weed is one in which all civilisation has broken down, in which it resembles more that a later book by Wells, The War in the Air. That book looked at how flimsy an apparently well established society can be when once broken (and don’t we now know it when we look at what was Syria). The War in the Air is more realistically Hobbesian in its picture of a destroyed society than Harness portrays for us here.

In context, Wells was writing in the midst of a fashion for ‘invasion literature’, which is a whole different subject. He even opened his novel with a riff off the book that started the trend, The Battle of Dorking. Today though we have other concerns for our own culture’s fragility.

Wells constructed his book as a personal account, by a journalist or writer describing first-hand his experience of the Martian invasion.  It is wholly centred on the (unnamed) narrator, except for some chapters describing in the same tone the adventures of his (equally unnamed) brother. All other characters come in and out of the action as observed actors, not principals. Even the scene of action is limited: the narrator barely strays from Surrey; his brother journeys from London and Essex, and it is strongly suggested that the Martians go no further either. All the action is over the course of a month or so. That keeps even a world-changing event as an intimate personal experience. Conventional wisdom though is that this does not make for good television so Harness chose another route allowing for dialogue and grand, wasted vista.

In Peter Harness’s retelling of the story the narrator is  named George (Wells’s middle name) and he is modelled on Wells himself and his not-quite-wife and named Amy after Wells’s second wife (though I keep wanting to call her Demelza: she is played by Eleanor Tomlinson and in an identical manner to her portrayal of Demelza in Poldark), and she takes the main role. In the original book, the narrator and his wife are unnamed, though there is a ‘George’ mentioned: the lost husband and last hope of a delirious lady on the road, and in bits, that little narrative reappears here, expanded and applied to the main characters.

It makes it a little puzzling to find bits of the book here and there; snatches of monologue / dialogue from the book, characters becoming other characters, and one character definitively slain by the first heat-ray in both productions turning up alive at the end of this one. It is well done as a work on its own, but what kept getting at me throughout is that it is not H. G. Wells.

It is a hard book to render into a different medium, but many have turned their hands to it. Orson Wells famously panicked America with a radio adaptation in 1938 at the ‘eve of war’; Jeff Wayne wrote a techno-rock musical version, which works well; more recently, in 2005, Stephen Spielberg pulled a blinder with his film version that was far more faithful to the book, and better for it, but then Spielberg is a genius. He got over the monologue problem but having the narrator (played by Tom Cruise) leading his daughter to a hoped-for safety.

Back to the BBC drama though.

Is it woke in Woking?

Well, not as such. Any new BBC modern adaptation will be under suspicion for that, but most of the scene comes out well. The writer tries to be more Wellsian than Wells in setting the scene, for Wells in his ideas was a political radical – anyone who could be thrown out of the Fabian Society for extremism is going it some, and travelling in Soviet Russia, praising in the midst of the terror famine while bunking up with Gorkiy’s mistress is not exactly a shy Tory. He does not let this out in the War of the Worlds though: its strength is in its conventionalism. It was written in his high period, before he lost that magic: as Chesterton said of the later work: “Mr. Wells is a born storyteller who has sold his birthright for a pot of message“.

The opening domestic scenes are not radical: Amy being a capable lady with ambitions to study equally with men, though not in the book, would be nothing unusual for the literature of the late Victorian / Edwardian period nor anything unusual in real provincial society. One trope of retro literature is the ambitious woman held back by a disapproving husband, but that does a disservice to the menfolk of the age, who were more likely to support their wives’ ambitions, and did so, and young, Tory husbands led the way. No, that aspect is not radical nor left-wing.

It does depart from the book – the wife there is a cypher. She is a prime motivation for the narrator’s actions but is not a fully coloured-in character, as to colour her in would change the personal structure of the narrative.

The lefty bit is none of this; it is the class-warfare. No-one is authority is anything but a caricature: the unseen proprietor of the newspaper which employs George, ‘His Lordship’, is portrayed as a cruel patrician, and the Minister who employs his brother is a pompous, out of touch, elderly fool straight out of central left-wing casting. (The actual Minster of War in 1904 was a rather vigorous, 49-year old H. O. Arnold-Forster, who was a writer, Mr Harness might note.)

(On screen, the Minster’s dying concern, portrayed as mad militarism, is how to get hold of one of the Martian tripods as a war-fighting machine. That is in the book as the idea of the thoroughly working-class artilleryman.)

Then at the end comes a swipe at religion, with a preacher trying to drag people to the Dark Ages, but again that is no more than a lefty idea. The alleged split between science and religion is largely the invention of Thomas Huxley, of whom H. G. Wells was a student – Huxley gets a mention in The Island of Doctor Moreau, and in later years his son, Aldous, caused Wells to despair at being surpassed as a writer. This religion as anti-science idea is nowhere in the book though. It is an unnecessary dig.

I might forgive the writer for falling for clichés, but surely he could have tried harder. The story overwhelms such failings though and though it is not H. G. Wells, the overarching theme from the book is here too: as it shows mankind’s differences swept away as a new master race descends, and is ultimately defeated by the humblest of God’s creations (and that line at least did get in).

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Author: LittleHobb

Solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short

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