H. G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds is considered one of the author’s best works, and it set the standard for alien invasion stories. Under the stewardship of Peter Harness and Craig Viveiros, the BBC adaptation takes the story back to a period setting.
The year is 1905: Britain rules the waves, and the sun will never set on the Empire. This image gets shattered when aliens from Mars invade the planet. Two people who get caught up in the invasion are George (Rafe Spall) and Amy (Eleanor Tomlinson), an educated couple living in sin. They set out to survive the invasion and the aftermath.
The War of the Worlds is a great story, and it shows with the number of times it has been adapted. Some of the most famous were Orson Welles’ radio adaptation in 1938, the ‘50s adaptation, and the Steven Spielberg/Tom Cruise in the 2000s, and 1996’s Independence Day was War of the Worlds in all but name. The BBC mini-series was the first adaptation to be set in England and moving the story to the early 20thcentury. I was personally excited about this mini-series because I thought it would be more loyal to the source material. These hopes were sadly misplaced.
The War of the Worlds was a short novel: it’s less than 200 pages long, and most of the characters were nameless, so changes were bound to happen. The series does keep some of the key sequences, like the main character sending his wife to his brother for safety, the attempt to cross the English Channel, and the main character getting trapped in a building. But for the most part, this version of The War of the Worlds was its own story.
This version of War of the Worlds was wasted potential. The creators took a fast-paced novel and made it into a slow slog. The series started slowly due to the need to establish its characters before the invasion. Still, the first episode spent more than half its run time looking at how George and Amy became ostracized due to their living situation. The series only picks up during the final quarter of the first episode when the Tripods attack Woking and most of the second episode, which was focused on the actual invasion.
The creators of the series made a really strange choice with how they structured the show. The series flipped back and forth from two different timelines. Half the story was set during the alien invasion; the other half took place many years later in a post-apocalyptic version of London. This extinguished any tension in the story because we know that Amy survives the invasion. The first episode did end up with a seemingly effective twist where Amy goes to the Admiralty building in London in the hope that she can meet up with George. But the twist was ruined when it revealed what happened – so it ended up making no sense. It was like two different writers worked on the script, but they didn’t consult each other.
The series could have easily used this template – the first episode would have looked at the aliens arriving and the response from the government, scientists, and locals, the second would have been about the actual war, and the third could have looked at the aftermath of the invasion and how humanity would rebuild. It’s a simple three-act structure. The creatives could have had fun with the concept by showing how people in Edwardian England could have reacted to and interpreted these events and added a twist to the alien-invasion and post-apocalyptic genres.
The series had some weak special effects. Being a British TV production, the special effects were never graduated to be the best, although His Dark Materials and the latest seasons of Doctor Who have had excellent production values. The CGI for the Tripods were passable, but the rest of the CGI looked like Doctor Who during the early years of the modern series. The CGI backdrops of a destroyed London were particularly notable because they were so poor.
The War of Worlds should have been a slam-dunk considering the source materials and the potential of the historical setting. Instead, the BBC has provided one of the worst adaptations of a great novel.