What a disappointment! The BBC have managed to turn H G Wells’ iconic science fiction masterpiece into a dull, underwhelming yawnfest. I’d been looking forward to this three-part adaptation ever since it was announced. The selling point was that, unlike previous versions, this one would be set in the original locations and time period as the book. Unfortunately, that is pretty much all that the book and this series have in common. The first episode was watchable, if confusing. The second episode was mediocre. The third episode was awful. If it hadn’t been scheduled for right after His Dark Materials (canny move, BBC) I might not have bothered watching after the first episode.
If you don’t wish to see spoilers, I suggest you stop reading this post now and come back to it after you’ve watched the series.
The original story is about the Martians invading, the effects this has on humanity, the resistance effort, and how the invaders are eventually conquered by germs. The novel is written by an unnamed narrator, in a somewhat journalistic style as a record of what happened. Obviously any adaptation has to add a little more warmth and emotion in order to engage our hearts as well as our minds. Jeff Wayne’s album is a great example: sticking to the main points of the story, keeping some original text but increasing the empathy factor by exploring (and naming) some characters. The 2005 film starring Tom Cruise is also a very good example: even though the times and places are different and the events are more epic, there is a balance between the disaster-movie element and the characters’ feelings. While the new BBC series was always going to suffer from having several previous adaptations to compare with, I think many viewers were hoping for something more definitive, a straightforward version that would please fans of the original. That’s exactly what we didn’t get. It’s as if they went deliberately out of their way to alter the story, by bringing some characters we don’t care about to the forefront and pushing the exciting bits to the back. It was more soap than sci-fi.
The main character is Amy, who is unconventional and progressive – female scientist, unmarried and pregnant, cool-headed and is never seen to cover her auburn hair with a hat. Her partner George is a journalist. Together they find themselves escaping the chaos with George’s much older brother, a politician. There’s also an astronomer, Ogilvy. And not forgetting Benny the dog, who disappears in the first episode and is never mentioned again. While I didn’t have a problem with these characters as such (indeed I think H G Wells would have liked them, they’re the sort of people who are featured in his ‘social novels’), there was too much focus on their relationships and their problems. Sometimes I even forgot there were rampaging Martians outside. There was a distinct lack of pace, which wasn’t helped by a flash-forward storyline, set a few years ahead when the Earth is looking more like Mars and single mother Amy is shuffling about wearing a hood. Skipping back and forth between the two times was distracting and broke up the tension. That’s not a good thing, because we need tension. There were a few tense moments in the series but I could count them on one hand. I kept looking at the clock to see how much of this I had to sit through.
The Martians themselves were also disappointing. They arrive in a sphere, not a cylinder (which I grant you is not that important, but I love the tension in the original story, of waiting for the lid to unscrew). They do have giant tripods, which look like how you might expect. But having waited until partway through the third episode to see the creatures themselves, and finding that they are also tripods? Why would tripods be inside the tripods? The creatures need to have tentacles or at least more supple appendages than those clumsy three legs. Otherwise how do they construct and operate their highly superior technology?
There are some big themes shoehorned into this adaptation. Criticism of colonialism (which is actually evident in the book but the BBC are wielding it with a sledgehammer here), environmentalism, fake news and the media, social inequality. I find that too much attention is drawn to these, ultimately making this adaptation patronising, as if the audience can’t think for themselves.
In the last episode, one by one the characters were eaten by Martians (including George, who goes outside to reason with them, thus allowing Amy to run away and live into the dusty red future) and I laughed. It was too ridiculous.
What’s your opinion of this series? Am I being too harsh? Which adaptation of The War of the Worlds is your favourite?