“No-one would have believed in the first years of the 20th Century, that we were being watched by intelligences greater than man’s – yet as mortal as his own. That as men busied themselves about their various concerns, they were scrutinised as narrowly as creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water.
“Yet across the gulf of space, intellects vast, cool and unsympathetic regarded this Earth with envious eyes. And slowly, and surely, drew their plans against us.”
With this (slightly paraphrased) retelling of HG Wells’ immortal opening, the new BBC adaptation of his 1897 novel The War of the Worlds kicks off with a bang – and despite some rumoured delays that prevented this three-part drama from airing last winter, the finished article is a largely compelling and artistic retelling (at least, based on the first episode), even if it does lag in places.
While Wells never named his unlucky protagonist, who was buffeted around London by the invading Martians and their feared Tripod craft, in this version (penned by Doctor Who, McMafia and Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell scribe Peter Harness) our heroes are Rafe Spall’s George, a disgraced journalist and his partner Amy (Eleanor Tomlinson), with the pair’s backstory (which we won’t spoil here) lifted directly from HG Wells’ own life.
The domestic drama of The War of the Worlds slots in much better than you might expect – at times within the first minutes, I became so engrossed in George and Amy’s story that I briefly forgot that Martians would soon be arriving in style, which has to be a compliment – and it reliably raises the personal stakes when Woking does come under attack.
Said attack starts slowly – a meteorite lands in Surrey, and an astronomer called Ogilvy (Robert Carlyle) investigates alongside George and Amy – but escalates as the episode continues, the aliens break out of their shells and begin exterminating Earthlings with cool efficiency.
Slightly shifting the story from 1897 to the early twentieth century (Harness has persuasively argued that Wells may have intended to set the novel in his near future anyway), the series’ depiction of vastly advanced alien technology pitted against Edwardian weaponry is oddly humbling, with scenes where human towns are torn to shreds and civilians randomly burst into flames possessing a nightmare-like quality.
In fact, powerful visuals abound in this series, with regular cutaways to insect life calling back to those immortal opening words, and a shot of a craft leaving Mars gradually appearing like a cruel, inhuman eye as it draws ever closer – but this is also a drama that definitely has some things to say. Arrogant British Imperialism serves as a backdrop to the alien invasion (and apparently more so as the series continues), while the social mores of the time also provide some light political commentary.
Certain changes Harness has made to Wells’ source material that we can’t really discuss here (suffice to say, they’re quite exciting) also hint at woes facing us in the present day, and are sure to invite plenty of discussion after the first episode has aired.
Of course, not everything is perfect. For every exciting visual shot from director Craig Viveiros, there’s also an astonishing number of intense close-ups of Eleanor Tomlinson’s worried face every few minutes, her zoomed-in features turning up so regularly it becomes a little distracting (if not outright funny) as the first hour continues.
Sometimes, the first episode’s sense of pace and peril also saps a little, particularly during the scenes where a few slightly bored-looking extras gaze up into the sky at a giant, CGI peril that they aren’t nearly frightened enough by, and despite generally solid VFX work there were also a few shots that didn’t quite convince for me.
Overall, though, this is a solid and interesting adaptation by Harness that I’m looking forward to seeing more of as it unfolds. Other literary adaptations may themselves be looking on with envious eyes…
This review was originally published on the 8th November
The War of the Worlds airs on BBC1 from Sunday 17th November