The War of the Worlds: The surprising true story behind the BBC sci-fi adaptation

The new series adds elements from HG Wells’ own life to his timeless tale of alien invasion

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The new three-part BBC adaptation of The War of the Worlds makes a few interesting changes to HG Wells’ short original novel, but perhaps the most notable is the relationship between lead characters George (Rafe Spall) and Amy (Eleanor Tomlinson).

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While in Wells’ original novel the characters were left unnamed with minimal backstory, in screenwriter Peter Harness’ version of the story they have a complex romantic backstory, with George running away with Amy after an arranged marriage to his cousin turned sour – and unusually, this subplot is actually based on events in HG Wells’ own life.

“Amy and George have got a fairly unusual relationship,” Harness told RadioTimes.com. “It’s certainly inspired by what Wells was going through at the time, and his frustration with the morality and Victorian sensibilities around him.”

Harness even took the names of the characters straight from Wells’ life, which he described as “a bit of fun” at a recent screening, and inspired by the fact that Wells – who was living in Woking while he wrote War of the Worlds – must have had his reasons for choosing to set his fictional alien invasion there.

“As far as I can remember he was referred to as George by his friends, and he did marry his first cousin, and left her for a woman called Amy. And they lived in that house, Lynton on Waybury Road,” he recalled.

“It’s interesting to put him and his life situation, which he was going through while it was writing it – so obviously there must have been bizarre things playing in his mind about society and whether it deserved to have a bomb up it.”

Specifically, Wells left his wife and cousin Isabel Mary Wells in 1894, having fallen in love with his student Amy Catherine Robbins, later known as Jane, with whom he moved to Woking. The pair had slightly less trouble getting married than their fictional counterparts, with the pair wed the following year in 1895.

Still, their short time living together pre-marriage (a scandal at the time) seemed to be particularly creatively fulfilling, with Wells planning and writing The War of the Worlds and The Time Machine, completing The Island of Doctor Moreau, writing and publishing The Wonderful Visit and The Wheels of Chance, and beginning work on later books When the Sleeper Wakes and Love and Mr Lewisham.

“The more I think about it, he was very clearly pissed off with everybody in Woking and Waybury, that he decided ‘Well I should send a Martian to blow them all up,’” Harness laughed.

“I always think it’s fun to surprise people,” Harness continued. “It’s fun to give people what they think they expect, and not necessarily in the way that they’re expecting it.

“I know that that’s not necessarily for the purists. But in a way, I feel I took a lot of the component parts of the book, and knitted them together in a slightly different way.

“It’s not for me to say, but it feels, to me, as though all that invention and the different twists are all either taken from Wells himself and his life, or taken from suggestions that he makes in the book.”

In other words, most of the bigger changes in this series are pure, uncut HG Wells – even if they didn’t actually appear in the original novel.

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The War of the Worlds continues 9pm on Sundays on BBC One