This review contains spoilers.
Screen adaptations of H.G. Wells’ The War Of The Worlds are like buses – they’d be better if they stank less.
No, sorry. It’s because you wait around for one for ages and then two come at once. An eight-part modern-day reimagining from Fox and Canal+ is currently airing in France, overlapping with this three-part BBC adaptation in the UK. (The ‘author death + 70 years’ copyright limit expired on Wells in 2016. Next year, it’s George Orwell’s turn, so gird your loins for a lot of Animal Farm.)
This version was written by Peter Harness (Wallander, Doctor Who) who handled the daunting task of adapting Susanna Clarke’s 700+ page Jonathan Strange And Mr Norrell beautifully in 2015. That – it’s worth mentioning – was terrific. Really good. Absolutely lovely stuff.
This adaptation, directed by And Then There Were None and Rillington Place’s Craig Viveiros, is less successful. It’s mostly down to tone and pace, but also expectations. Hear the title The War Of The Worlds and your mind sets off fireworks. Martians! Heat rays! The music of Jeff Wayne! Fighting machines and dun-dun-DUN-doodle-oo-doodle-oo! That’s not what this version sets out to deliver.
Instead, episode one takes the trouble to invent a romance and a family relationship, and to establish the political context of 1905 England. Edwardian social conservatism vs emerging liberalism, the Russo-Japanese war and Anglo-colonial expansionism (treated allegorically in Wells’ novel) are all introduced early on as part of the backdrop. Heat rays? You’ll have to wait.
Before the running and dying can start, we meet lead George (Rafe Spall) and his partner Amy (Eleanor Tomlinson), a giddy couple in the first flush of love. George, we learn, has left his wife for the bright, beautiful (younger, more fertile) science graduate, thus alienating himself from his politician brother (Rupert Graves), his newspaper job and from the gossip-ridden mean streets of Woking. Denied a divorce, the couple are living together out of wedlock and she’s expecting his baby – it’s quite the scandal.
And quite a barrier to our sympathy for the couple, if it’s sympathy we’re supposed to have. This kind of moral deep water is the sort of thing best explored over seven seasons of an HBO show, where the subtleties of goodness and guilt and selfishness and love can play out through the gift of time. In a three-part series most have tuned into for the Martians, it could be overly ambitious. In episode one, George’s wife calls him a coward. If the plan is to show his journey from self-interest to self-sacrifice in just three instalments, this adaptation’s shooting for the stars. Especially as the flash-forward structure removes the fairly unlikeable George from the screen for long stretches, putting yet more distance between us and him.
Episode one’s flashforwards to a red desert wasteland build to the neat revelation that we’re not watching Mars where the story opened, but a post-invasion Earth wrecked by war. A London cemetery has been creatively destroyed by dust, red weed and sprouting crystal shards, forming an alien landscape through which walks future-Amy and her young son (played by Tomlinson’s Poldark co-star Woody Norman). The Martian fighting machines are inactive, but life has not returned to normal. It’s a worthwhile, responsible point for a drama to make about the aftermath of war, but, like the rest of this hour, not enormously entertaining.
The tone aims for moodily atmospheric but doesn’t quite get there. Scenes are drawn out with slow-motion, which, paired with the overstated ominousness of the score, sometimes tip into inadvertent comedy. Some of the comedy, such as the caricatured astronomer royal at the landing site, is intentional, but makes for a strange bedfellow with the oversaturated seriousness elsewhere.
Effort has been here to establish themes and tell a story with layers. Themes are established. Before the running and dying starts, we hear the Minister for War make a ruggedly Imperialist speech in praise of the Englishman and British Empire. Amy is given an colonial backstory that sees her having been raised under the British Raj in India.
Between scenes are symbolic cutaways to bustling ant colonies, thundering machinery and drifting screensaver shots of the stars intended to bolster the allegory and add to a building sense of disquiet, but they feel rather more like time-filling. Speaking of – across the hour the camera seems to conduct a thorough geographical survey on the wonders of Eleanor Tomlinson’s face. It’s a terrific face, granted, but the effect is a nagging sense that there’s not quite enough story to tell.
The Martian machines, once they’ve emerged from their intergalactic mossballs, also look pretty terrific, it must be said. The shot of one looming over the church tower is momentarily thrilling, as are the sounds they make.
There’s some good already then, and with two hours remaining, let’s hope it meshes together and there’s better to come.