Bringing War of the Worlds to a 21st-Century audience
“I like to make a collage. Make watching it as similar an experience to reading it, if I can.”
This is how Peter Harness, a man who has adapted a few literary classics for the screen in his career, describes his approach.
Rural Edwardian England is the backdrop to his latest ‘collage’. But forget pressed flowers and period postcards – this one is spattered with the death, destruction and alien laser-fire of HG Wells’s War of the Worlds.
Although not the very first tale to deal with aliens attempting to conquer the planet, the 1898 novel (it was serialised in UK and US magazines the previous year) is one of the earliest examples of this kind of plot.
It has enjoyed numerous adaptations in the 122 years since its publication. Alongside the 1953 and 2005 cinema versions, the latter directed by Stephen Spielberg, the most infamous version came in the form of a 1938 radio play presented by Orson Welles. Delivered in the form of a news broadcast, it reportedly made some listeners believe a Martian invasion really was happening live and on air.
So how do you take an icon of sci-fi literature and adapt it for a 2019 television audience without upsetting its legions of fans, whichever version of Wells’ work is their favourite?
Peter said: “It is kind of tricky. It’s about making it dramatic and making it accessible to people who are watching it.”
The War of the Worlds is written as a piece of journalism – a sort of documentary approach. “In fact,” continues Peter, “the narrator is never named and you never get to know very much about him as a person and his life, what the emotional effects of the alien invasion are for him, which is very hard to put across in a piece of drama.”
Due to the ambiguity in the original work, Peter was able to design the characters who lead us through the plot himself, ‘beefing up’, as he puts it, those mentioned in the book.
This led to male lead George, played by Rafe Spall, having a wife in this telling of the story. Amy, played by Poldark actress Eleanor Tomlinson, is the strong woman it’s difficult to spot in the novel.
Peter explains that, when adapting a classic novel that’s been in print for 100 or 120 years and been out of copyright for a while, you don’t necessarily need to pass your adaptation by somebody, but he and his team were in touch with the Wells estate.
Excitingly, this version of War of the Worlds also contains some scenes and situations which are 100% from the House of Harness and have never appeared in any previous version, including the original novel - although Peter is coy about telling us which.
There are at least five well-known versions of War of the Worlds still in circulation (the novel, Orson Welles’ 1938 broadcast, a musical version by Jeff Wayne from 1978, the 1953 and 2005 big screen adaptations) which begs the question why, with so many other alien invasion stories written in the past 122 years, do we keep going back to this one?
Peter replied: “It’s more or less the first invasion story. I would argue that it is the first one.
“It’s the first time that idea of alien beings from another planet come into the consciousness of humanity, which is incredible, really.”
He continues: “It’s also the horror of just going about your normal daily life, quite happily and, suddenly, you’re totally overpowered by something unexpected, ruthless, unyielding and uninterested in you as a lifeform. You can essentially do nothing at all and that’s horrifying.”
Peter sees Wells’s story as a metaphor for the actions carried out by the European powers in the colonial wars in Africa, where an alien people arrives in a new land with their own agenda. In 1938, he says, it was updated by Orson Welles to reflect the uncertainties at the end of the decade.
With Nazism on the rise, his script – in the format of an interrupted radio broadcast with reports of New Jersey citizens fleeing the invaders - perhaps unconsciously pre-empted the air raids that would soon hit Europe. News bulletins about the threat of war thousands of miles away were known to appear unscheduled during US radio shows of the time, and Welles riffed off this everyday part of life to provide the shocks.
Perhaps it is this versatility that makes War of the Worlds such a relevant piece of literature. Peter pays tribute to its author: “I’m a huge fan of his brain and his ability not just to think five or 10 years in the future, but hundreds and thousands of years in the future, and to fairly accurately predict things that have happened and things that will happen.”
As for the ending, Pete sees it as one of the best in literature: “You can almost see Wells getting to the end of the book and clearly thinking: ‘what do I do now?
“And then, he comes up with this brilliant idea.”
The War of the Worlds is on Sunday nights on BBC One. Find out more here.