Today on the #DundeeUniCulture blog we are sharing this fantastic review of a recent TV adaptation of H.G. Wells’s classic novel The War of the Worlds, written by University of Dundee’s very own Dr Keith Williams. Keith teaches Wells at Level 4 UG and on our Science Fiction Master’s – find out more about the course by visiting the website:
Keith has also published a study of H.G. Wells, Science Fiction and Film back in 2007.
This review has been reproduced by kind permission of the H.G. Wells Newsletter.

Review of ‘The War of the Worlds’, first transmitted on BBC 1 November 2019

Despite not attempting anything Wellsian on this scale since their well-regarded 1984 serialisation of The Invisible Man, there were great expectations for this BBC 1 period version of Wells’s 1898 scientific romance about interplanetary invasion, directed by Craig Viveiros. However, while the former was a close adaptation, allowing the themes of Wells’s fiction to take new life on screen, the latter is a definite re-imagining perhaps displaying less implicit trust in the inherent value of its source and ability to speak to us across time. Hence if ever the old cliché about the curate’s egg – ‘very good in parts’ – applied to such an undertaking, then it does to this.

The series’ opening credits are a visual overture to its key themes of politics, evolution and humanity’s place in the cosmic food chain: period footage of colonial parades and mass graves is spliced with close ups of menacingly swarming insects and carnivorous plants, shown in queasily distorted perspective. The programme is also adept at foregrounding some of the mobility of proto-cinematic narrative perspectives in the text, not least Wells’s interplanetary and telescopic views, as well as switches between high and low-angled human and Martian scales. Their tripod fighting machines, with their single cyclopean lens, resemble monstrous walking cameras or projectors, reflecting Wells’s most recurrent tropes. Re-setting the action in the historical Edwardian era is arguably in line with Wells’s framing narrative. This looks back on the Martian invasion – and the ‘great disillusionment’ with the terrestrial order it precipitates – from an imagined early twentieth-century future. However, other changes in writer/executive producer Peter Harness’ script are more questionable. Wells’s science-journalist (played by Rafe Spall) is conspicuously demoted to a supporting role in the action and de-anonymised with Wells’s own middle name, George. In the most radical departure, both his narrative control and psychological focalisation have undergone ‘gender reassignment’, to re-centre on George’s partner in sin, played by Poldark’s Eleanor Tomlinson. She is identified as ‘Amy’, a move allowing the script to be infused with biographical details from Wells’s own pariah situation while writing: ie his scandalously progressive menage with former student, Amy Robbins, while awaiting divorce proceedings. Though showcasing Wells’s defiance of Victorian morality and support for the cause of the New Woman, placing such personalised issues at the drama’s core sometimes jars with its primary themes, rather than working in synergy with them in challenge a whole social order, on both ideological and domestic scales. The astronomer, Ogilvy (quickly incinerated in the novel by the very aliens he bet odds of a million to one against reaching Earth) also undergoes topically-based transformation. Neatly embodied by Robert Carlyle as a ‘confirmed bachelor’ (in the nudging sexual euphemism of the time) Ogilvy survives to play a climactic role in battling the environmental consequences of the invasion. Moreover, social upshifting from Wells’s lower-middle class background (George’s wife resides in the kind of Downton-like family pile Wells’s mother was merely housekeeper of) downplays the extent of his resistance to bourgeois values from an underprivileged position. Similarly, George and Amy enjoy an idyllic semi-rural cottage, rather than the tiny semi-detached the actual couple rented in suburban Woking, where the novel is set.

Wells’s framing narrative is also redistributed in short sections throughout the dramatic present. This is sometimes disorientating, as near the end of Episode 1, visualising a hooded figure and child trekking across a silent, post-apocalyptic landscape. They either seem mysteriously transported to the Martians’ home planet or refugees on an Earth re-engineered for alien habitation (as emerges later). Such moments can be strikingly poetic, nonetheless. Indeed the programme designers should be commended on the oxydised palette and uncanny desolation of such scenes. However, other time shifts stall Wells’s narrative pacing and its shock and awe to British imperial complacency, for which the novel is renowned.

As for the Martians themselves, their cylinders are reimagined as black spheres, which absorb the image of anyone rash enough to approach like uncanny holographic devices: one of the more literal tropes through which parallels with the terrestrial colonialism of the British are reflected back at them. The spheres levitate into the air, after apparently seeding titanic, semi-organic tripods, ready to burst from craters left beneath. Gawping crowds, then increasingly desperate artillery batteries are first to experience the firepower of invisible heat rays as the spheres hover above, only to burst like soap bubbles afterwards.

Whereas Wells’s narrator comes face-to-face with the first Martian as soon as its cylinder unscrews, we wait until Episode 3 to glimpse the creatures inside the BBC’s CGI machines, when they finally emerge to feed (oddly after already beginning to succumb to lack of earthly immunities). The Martians, as with Spielberg’s unnamed ETs in his 2005 adaptation, are three-legged like their fighting machines. They appear to hybridise tarantulas and crustaceans, limbs ending in scarily spatulate blades, but looking distinctly unfit for manipulating advanced technologies. This may be because Wells’s big-brained cephalopods with their bunches of tentacles have become such a pulp cliché that they are parodied in The Simpsons. However, the programme consequently forfeits his ‘big reveal’ that the Martians are hyper-evolved humanoids – that ‘Aliens-R-Us’, in a warning against dehumanising adaptation to our own techno-mania and mistreatment of other races. Similarly, rendering the Martians carnivorous jettisons Wells’s metaphor of colonial blood-sucking from subjugated bodies and resources.

The specific thrust of Wells’s table-turning satire of British imperialism and genocide – the ‘How-would-you-feel? ’ imaginative force of the novel – is alternately served and dissipated by the programme makers’ shift forward into real historical time. The explicit parallels are now with the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-5, rather than the naval arms race with Wilhelminian Germany. On the other hand, George’s brother ‘Frederick’ (Rupert Graves) has a new role at the Admiralty as aide to the Minister for War, which opens a plot line allowing jingoistic expansionism to be indicted in other ways. Initially the Minister is smugly confident a mere amy division will be enough to see off foreigners with the effrontery to beard the British empire in its heartland. That quickly turns to devoutly wishing for Martian superweapons to secure its supremacy against terrestrial rivals in perpetuity, just before he is engulfed by their ‘black smoke’ and liquefied viscera pour from his mouth. The theme returns closer to home in Episode 3, prompted by Frederick’s morale-boosting reference to the relief of Mafeking in the Boer War (1899-1902), while pondering how to escape imprisonment near a Martian base. George and Frederick quarrel about whether the invasion constitutes a judgement on Britain’s own grotesquely asymmetrical warfare against its colonised peoples, ruthlessly exploiting uneven technological development and assumed racial prerogative.

The imaginative lesson of the novel provides grounds for its framing narrative to end with an optimistic vision of post-war reconstruction: a Wellsian ‘world state’, based on species-wide consciousness of ‘the commonweal of mankind’, now empire has been humbled and humanity fortuitously redeemed by the Martians’ vulnerability to earthly bacteria. In the programme, things remain more complicated. A rump British state remains convinced of its providentially favoured status, embodied by the clergyman who leads the ragged community of survivors and illustrated in the penny dreadful Amy’s son reads. After its alleged victory against the alien foe, British society’s gravest problem is the environmental catastrophe left by their red weed and black smoke. Only churchyards are immune and cultivatable, seemingly miraculous proof of a Christian cosmology in which God remains an Englishman. Only Amy, as student of biology, knows the truth – that the Martians’ own biological needs were their downfall. She knows this because her most traumatic memory is gradually unearthed by flashbacks – the fact that George sacrificed himself so his pregnant partner could survive, infecting the feasting alien with typhoid. Her scientific knowledge leads Ogilvy to develop a serum from the blood of their son. The final scenes show samples of treated red weed dying around literal green shoots of recovery, as clouds of pollution part over Amy’s head. Although, arguably somewhat cheesy, this outcome keeps faith with the novel’s challenge to Creationist thinking, preceded as it is by a heated exchange between Ogilvy and the theocrat about Darwinism, the cost of human survival and ecological balance.

Despite its obvious interpolations, this re-imagining has qualities making it well worth viewing and comparing with Hollywood’s mega-budget productions. This is not least for its creative dialogue with its source, which prompts reconsideration of the insight and relevance of Wells’s original themes and how future versions might continue to engage with them.

Dr. Keith Williams, University of Dundee, 3/4/20

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *