War of the Worlds: 2019 BBC Adaptation Proves Bleak, Broken Slog

The BBC 2019 adaptation of H.G. Wells' War of the Worlds is streaming for free in the US on Peacock now. It's the only adaptation that's actually a period piece instead of a modern-day take. It premiered the same year another TV series adaptation was launched, a French-Anglo co-production set in the near-future starring Gabriel Byrne that had its second season earlier this year.

War of the Worlds: 2019 BBC Adaptation is a Bleak, Broken Slog
"War of the Worlds" still courtesy of BBC

The BBC adaptation is a 3-part miniseries starring Rafe Spall and Eleanor Tomlinson as a couple in 1905 England when the Martians invade. Right from the start, it changes nearly everything from the original book. It might be one of the enduring mysteries why filmmakers can never make a properly faithful adaptation of War of the Worlds.  This version is a major lesson in how not to adaptation a classic book. You can see all the notes in the changes the producers and writers decided on to make the story more "relevant" when it never stopped being relevant since its publication in 1897.

Wells' original story featured a nameless narrator trying to get back as the Martians destroy England around him and witnesses the carnage and helplessness of a country being invaded by a superior force, much like the colonized lands must have experienced. This TV version splits the point of view between George (Spall) & his love Amy (Tomlinson) and front-loads their story with political soap opera before the invasion begins. George's older brother Frederick (Rupert Graves) is a junior minister and assistant to the Lord Chamberlain, the representative of the British Empire and its hubris and might. George and Amy are pariahs from polite society because he left his joyless arranged marriage to be with her, marking them as victims of an oppressive class-bound English society. Tensions with Russia and fears of invasion are high, though the Lord Chamberlain assures the public that all are no match for the might of the Empire. Such is hubris.

The script makes Amy more of the protagonist than George, a female-focused corrective to the fact that the nameless hero's wife has virtually no presence in the book beyond being the prize he has to find at the end. In principle, there's nothing wrong with that. The problem is in the script's choices in how it tells the story. It introduces a pointless flashforward structure that takes place years after the end of the invasion to show the world is dying to reflect a nuclear winter or climate change.

The big problem is this adaptation gets rid of the best setpieces from the novel and is also pointlessly, relentlessly bleak. Nothing wrong with bleak, but it was written in the most plodding and boring way possible. Wells' original story had a perfect structure, good enough that the 1953 George Pal movie kept it and so did Steven Spielberg's 2005 movie. This version ignores and breaks that structure without doing something better with it, turning the whole 3 episodes into a slog. This War of the Worlds sets out to be overtly political even though Wells' book was already political and wasn't even subtle about it. It was an attack on imperialism during the height of the British Empire and was one of the first novels to bring up atheism.

It makes a lot of Wells' themes and political points explicit by having the characters say them out loud as if afraid viewers might miss it. Its images of panic and destruction are an obvious reflection of the trauma of 9/11. There's a sequence at the coast to mirror the refugee crisis, only here it's British people trying to flee instead of people from overseas trying to come in. This adaptation is another example of fixing what's not broken and breaking the whole thing in the process. The worst and typical example of "TV and movie producers and screenwriters changing things that don't need to be changed just to show how clever they are." The makers could have had a winner if they stuck to the book. Instead, they needlessly snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.

If you want to put yourself through this. War of the Worlds is now streaming on Peacock.

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About Adi Tantimedh

Adi Tantimedh is a filmmaker, screenwriter and novelist. He wrote radio plays for the BBC Radio, “JLA: Age of Wonder” for DC Comics, “Blackshirt” for Moonstone Books, and “La Muse” for Big Head Press. Most recently, he wrote “Her Nightly Embrace”, “Her Beautiful Monster” and “Her Fugitive Heart”, a trilogy of novels featuring a British-Indian private eye published by Atria Books, a division Simon & Schuster.
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