The BBC’s new War of the Worlds series may be one of the most faithful adaptations of HG Wells’ novel so far, keeping the basic plot and rough historical setting and mainly adding detail to flesh out the protagonists (as played by Rafe Spall and Eleanor Tomlinson).
However, by the end of the first episode it’s clear that screenwriter Peter Harness has made one change that completely alters both how we see both the original story and this three-part drama – and recently, we caught up with Harness to talk about his new take on the story.
Warning – from hereon out we’re dealing with episode one spoiler territory
You see, towards the end of episode one it becomes clear that regular cutaways throughout the episode to a desolate, arid red wasteland – which initially appears to be the surface of Mars, where the alien attack was launched – are in fact a glimpse of Earth itself in the near future, following the attack by the Martian tripods.
In other words, it’s a bit of a Planet of the Apes moment (it was Earth all along!) as we catch up with a future version of Amy (Tomlinson) and the son she bore George (Spall) a few years down the line – and according to Harness, this was a key way for him to update the 120-year-old story.
“[The change] wasn’t there from the very beginning,” he told RadioTimes.com.
“I’d been writing it for a month or two, and what I felt that it was missing was a kind of long view on it, actually. The ending of the book comes so suddenly. It has actually so little to do with anybody’s character that it’s really hard to make that work.”
In the original novel, it’s revealed fairly abruptly that the Martians have died out in the midst of their invasion thanks to a weakness to human disease and pathogens, with society swiftly returning to a relatively normal state (even the trains work again) – and Harness has said he never found this aspect of the book very convincing.
Instead, he wanted to show the real consequences that might come after an invasion, drawing on an element of the novel – the insidious growth of a red weed, which dies off with the Martians – to suggest the aliens were terraforming the Earth before they died.
“I looked at it, and it looks as though there’s a definite series of progressions to the invasion,” Harness said.
“Because they land. They send out a heat ray to get rid of whatever’s in their immediate vicinity. They send the Tripods out with the black smoke to essentially clear life off. And then the red weed comes.
“To me, that was obviously going to be a process of terraforming. In the book, it just dies off with the Martians. And that’s because Wells is quite keen to finish the book and give everyone a cheerful ending, I think.”
Harness, though, a self-proclaimed “grumpy bastard”, wasn’t so concerned with this, and instead inserted a parallel narrative – one set during the initial Martian attack and another following the older Amy’s struggles in what the production crew euphemistically called “The Red World”.
“I wanted to stay with it a bit more and see how life would play out after the invasion, and having to cope with this kind of ugly persistence that wasn’t just going away, and essentially trying to turn Earth into Mars,” Harness said.
“They’re both kind of there, in parallel, a bit more so in episodes two and three.”
In other words, as the series continues we’ll follows two Amys – one fleeing the Martian attack with George’s brother (Rupert Graves), while the other roams the ruins of London with her son.
“She’s got a very kind of steely strong edge to her character by the end of it,” Harness said.
“In a lot of ways, she’s more or less the last person standing. So yeah, that was a very interesting journey to take on.
“Eleanor’s one of those actors who can essentially just tell the story with their performance. They don’t necessarily need an awful lot of dialogue. Somehow, they just intuit the rhythm of the story, and they just tell it.
“Sometimes you think, ‘I know precisely what you’re going through. I know precisely where you’re taking me as a character, and you’re doing it beautifully.’ She’s a real star. It was a real privilege to have her do it.”
As for what Amy will get up to next in the ruins of Earth over the coming episodes, well, that would be telling – and unlike the rest of the story, we don’t have Wells’ source material to read ahead. So no peeking…
The War of the Worlds continues 9pm on Sundays on BBC One