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The War of the Worlds – a long overdue British adaptation ★★★★

The first British TV adaptation of H.G. Wells’ acclaimed novel The War of the Worlds is set to be released on 17 November at 9pm on BBC One. I was lucky enough to attend its preview and talk to director Craig Viveiros, writer Peter Harness, and actor Eleanor Tomlinson (Colette, Poldark).  

The film follows unmarried couple Amy (Eleanor Tomlinson) and George (Rafe Spall), who find themselves in the midst of a Martian invasion during the Edwardian era. At the time of its publication in 1898, Wells’ work was the first novel to detail humanity’s conflict with an alien race and has become a timeless classic in the science fiction genre. 

Harness explained that “the version of The War of the Worlds that I wanted to make is one that’s faithful to the tone and spirit of the book, but which also feels contemporary, surprising, and full of shocks.”

The novel’s critique of British imperialism, Victorian superstition, scientific progress, and Darwinism is cleverly reflected in the series. What sets it apart from the book, however, is the show’s inclusion of Amy’s journey.

The final scene, where Amy grapples with grief while remaining reluctant to display her anguish to loved ones, is testament to Tomlinson’s acting. For Harness, the finale was the perfect opportunity to capture the central conflict between optimism and pessimism. Harness admits, “I am quite a miserable bastard. I don’t like an allegory, but it’s good to have a plot and finale which sparks resonances with contemporary issues.” The series carefully considers finding a truthful version of Edwardian England. 

These “contemporary themes” that Harness is keen to portray are evident from the title sequence, whose archive footage draws clear parallels with the British Empire and the theme of colonialism. Viveiros drew on the example of the Tanzanian genocide, saying that it is “writing about what it must be like when people are going about their everyday life and then to suddenly be attacked by weaponry and races that can wipe you out.” Though the series is science-fiction approach, the underlying themes are real and immediate. 

Soundtrack and effects were particularly important for the production team. The insect-life visualisation of aliens and links to a ‘Red World’ evoke the invading force and fear of the “other” present during the Industrial Revolution. The clever design of the Red World examines how Amy adapts to the new world order imposed on her. 

There have been several adaptations of The War of the Worlds, and now it’s finally returning to Britain. While Orson Welles’ infamous radio broadcast prompted an alleged mass hysteria about the end times, Viveiros hopes that this series serves to “raise questions about the state of the world.”

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