A spectacular failure of an adaptation of HG Well’s classic novel, that held so much promise.
HG Wells’ The War of the Worlds is a classic story, ripe for adaptation. There have been several successful versions already, from Jeff Wayne’s superb musical to the big blockbuster spectacle of the 1953 and 2005 movies. Its influence can be seen in everything from Independence Day to Doctor Who. So a BBC adaptation with it’s high record for lavish period drama should be a winner right?
Unfortunately Peter Harness’s three-part adaptation of The War of the Worlds misses the mark by some distance. It is a series that looks gorgeous but lacks the substance to make this prestige telly. It’s made doubly worse by coming straight after the BBC‘s equally lavish but far superior His Dark Materials. While that series boasts rich characterisation and epic world building, The War of the Worlds is altogether a more soulless affair.
The biggest tragedy is that Harness was clearly going for the human experience, introducing characters whose journeys you are supposed to be invested in from to the very end. In the first episode this largely works, thanks to the engaging performance of Eleanor Tomlinson’s Amy, a progressive, determined female figure holding her own in a world of men, without ever losing her compassion and dignity. As the central character in the story, just manages to rise above the weak scripts, even when events take a depressing nose dive in the final episode.
The rest of the cast are decent too. Rafe Spall plays the somewhat tortured George, who has thrown caution to the wind and left his lifeless marriage to live with Amy in a country village. Rupert Graves plays a very British minister Frederick, full of pride for Britain and it’s military might and disapproving brother to George. Robert Carlyle is astronomer Ogilvy, who discovers the threat arising from Mars and later becomes a confidant to Amy in the post-apocalypse world that follows. It’s a strong cast, ready to deliver very human perspective on the Martian invasion. It’s not their performances that lets The War of the Worlds down, but the story they have to work with.
There are some positives early on. Episode one is quite decent, leaning a little too heavily into Amy and George’s romance while building a hint of tension and mystery as a meteor falls to Earth in the English countryside. The build up to the first incident, the horrific eradication of the crowd is genuinely dramatic and the sight of the first tripod rampaging through the sleepy English village looks beautiful. There aren’t quite the hints yet that it will all fall apart so spectacular in the story’s final act.
The biggest issue with episode one is the world building that never really goes anywhere. The decision to move the story from Victorian to Edwardian Britain keeps the charm of the period setting but saves no real purpose; the incident with Japan and Russia is a red herring that is never explored while the might of the British Empire, about to be undone by the Martians amounts to a lot of posturing by a group of men but isn’t explored to its potential. There are moments where it feels The War of the Worlds is commenting on what happens when one powerful, warmongering empire is attacked by a superior one, but not enough to have any real impact.
Episode one didn’t wow me, but it didn’t bore me either: it laid the groundwork for bigger things to come that never materialised. While there are moments in episode two that convey the threat of the invasion, they are far and few between. The London invasion is baffling. One minute Amy is sat on the steps in the middle of the city, the next moment the tripod is there. There is no sense of impending doom, no panic to covey the attack. Somehow the Martians manage to tip tow into the centre of London. However the scene where the black mist is released and Amy and Frederick flee into the tunnels is genuinely tense.
The one sense to covet the horror of the invasion is the attack on the beach as fleeing boats are destroyed and warships hammer the tripods from the sea. But even this moment is awkwardly done; there isn’t any depth to the other characters and it’s hard to feel anything much sympathy for the panic masses as they flee for their lives. Even the young girl and older woman rescued from the carnage fail to become more than token members of the doomed group as they flee back to London for the finale.
Despite the title, there isn’t much war to The War of the Worlds; while I get it was the intention to show the invasion from the viewpoints of Amy and George, it ultimately robs the series of any spectacle. We’re told that a number of cities have been wiped out, but don’t see any of it. There feels more time spent on the initial conflict with the military in the countryside and the attack on the sleepy village then there does the attack on London. There are no sights of visible landmarks being destroyed – a tripod tearing its way through the Houses of Parliament, ripping down Big Ben would have created some sense of awe to the invasion. There’s also no insight as to how the Martians appear initial defeated. The slaughter against the second sphere aside, we get the shots of warships taking down one tripod and that is it.
And then we come to the final episode. Not only does it make for grim, depressing viewing, it’s utterly boring – something that should never be said about any adaptation of The War of the Worlds. The aliens attacking the survivors look nasty but there’s no tension as they are picked off or as George succumbs to sickness and Amy makes her desperate escape. It also feels so small; we don’t really know anything about Frederick or the woman and girl, making their deaths all rather lacklustre – even the resurrection of the debate, that England deserves what is happening – is largely brushed aside.
There’s a lot not taken from the original story and had it been executed better, Harness would be applauded for trying something different, be it through the character of Amy or the bleak future with the dying earth and red skies. Sadly it is another misfire, as this storyline takes up the majority of the third episode, it also becomes a depressing viewing experience. From the starving masses to the bodies ferried away and the slow starvation of George and Amy’s son, this isn’t riveting viewing, marked all the more worse by the boring events happening in the present. The quest to rejuvenate the earth should have had some real drama and passion behind it but the oppressive nature of what is happening saps the episode of all its energy. Whether that final shot of the green leaf and the parting clouds was supposed to be awe inspiring or not, I really didn’t care by the time the credits rolled.
This adaptation of The War of the Worlds could have been a masterpiece; ultimately it ended a miserable failure. The time setting bares no relevance, the story of George and Amy feels like something from a different period drama and when the war finally happens, the audience misses every minute of it. If episode one was decent, the second feels rushed with most of the good bits left out. The third and final instalment is a depressing turd of an episode, that ends the series on a miserable whimper than a triumph.
If you haven’t watched this adaptation yet, I would advise you look elsewhere. There are far better versions of The War of the Worlds than this one…