War of the Worlds – BBC TV’s adaptation under the lens

Destruction! Dystopia! Deplorable? These are some of the many phrases we could choose to describe Peter Harness’ The War of the Worlds – a three-episode BBC adaptation of H.G. Wells’ 1898 novel. With divided opinion over the programme’s authenticity to the novel, effective adaptation, and overall audience appeal, it is fair to say that insufficient attention has been paid to the historical accuracy of the period being portrayed. As is natural with all book adaptations, a large amount of alteration was necessary to dramatise the fiction effectively for the screen. With an unsubtly deemed ‘Mega-budget’ for the trailer alone, it is quite clear that this was not intended to be a small-time production. As well as the commendable special effects, the programme has a prestigious cast including Eleanor Tomlinson, Rafe Spall and Rupert Graves. There is no doubt that making The War of the Worlds has been an exceptional feat, but how well does it reflect the history it is meant to be portraying, and how well does it stand as a testament to the past?

Credit: BBC/© Mammoth Screen

The first obvious change made to H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds in the BBC adaptation is the rather peculiar jump into the future to the year 1905 from the original date in the late 19th Century, a mere 8 years. This begs the question, why such an inconsiderable yet oddly specific change in period? Such a precise alteration is surely not inconsequential. Three separate and equally important thoughts spring to mind. 

Firstly, perhaps Harness wished to exhibit emotions associated with the 20th century rather than the 19th Century to his audience. To a British audience, the 19th century can perhaps be described as a century of Imperialism, European domination, economic growth and general prosperity. Despite many of us attempting to disassociate those ideas from our past, many still delegate this era as a period of ever-growing accomplishment. In contrast, the 20th Century has been viewed by modern audiences as an era of violence, of world war, and above all, of destruction; therefore, it would prove wise to associate this tale of similar emotions with a period in which the audience can recognise those same perspectives. 

Then, in order to remain relatively accurate to the tale, Harness might have had the forethought to not alter the period so much that it would affect the story. A jump from the Victorian to the Edwardian sounds like the difference of a century, but in actuality, this was only 7 or 8 years. Luckily for Harness, Britain saw few revolutionary changes during these dates. There were technological progressions and political changes, but the great majority of things stayed relatively the same. The way they fought war, the clothes they wore, their attitudes, and way of life, were almost identical. 

Finally – and possibly most importantly – is the blatant reference made towards contemporary Anglo-Russian relations. In the first episode we learn that one of the leading characters, George, is a journalist – albeit a disgraced one due to his relationship with Emma, and we see him report to his place of work where he discusses writing an article on the Dogger Bank incident, whereby the Imperial Russian navy unwittingly fired upon a British trawler fleet in the North Sea mistaking them for Japanese crafts. Surprisingly, the incident did in fact take place exactly as they described in the programme. Bar the incorrect date of when it happened, the British public’s attitudes which surrounded its occurrence were well portrayed and remained almost completely accurate. 

It is topical for Harness to invoke Anglo-Russian fears in his adaptation. Indeed, he is leading his audience to speculate whether people 100 years before them suffered the same anxieties as they do over relations between Russia and the UK

Now we must address the most common grudge against the programme: How present-day writers seem to ‘fanaticise’ appealing to a so-called “woke” audience. Harness’ work saw numerous news outlets make the quick jump to ridicule the show for its blatant and deliberate attempt at politicising a much-loved classic tale. The Sun described ‘A new politically correct BBC version’ which ‘attacks religion and the British Empire’. The Spectator did not hesitate to decimate the show’s achievements describing it ‘as bad as Doctor Who’. The Spectator continues that the BBC’s adaptation was ‘incredibly sad’, even questioning whether we ‘will ever again see a faithful, honest, politics-free adaptation on the BBC?’ 

A good adaptation of a novel should aim to honour the legacy of the writer, and The War of the World’s does this superbly. H.G. Wells was a deeply political writer and throughout his life he sought the implementation of greater privileges and rights for the working classes. His stories were teeming with allegorical meanings and morals, and sometimes they appeared to us in plain sight. Why should we not then alter the tales being retold to suit the frustrations of present-day society? Why should we not be able to use these stories to the same effect but instead enfranchising the opinions and hopes of our generation as he did with his? 

I found most responses to Harness’ The War of the Worlds to be overly critical. However, I will admit that I would not cry if I were never able to see it again. Based purely on historical authenticity, the show has, remarkably for a BBC adaptation, remained accurate to the period it wished to portray – apart from the Martian tripods, of course. It has maintained a forward-looking presentation and reflection of the history surrounding the narrative, which I personally think H.G. Wells would, maybe not have enjoyed, but certainly respected for its brilliant use of allegorical tones. In short, The War of the Worlds is an honour and emphasis of his legacy. 

Written By: Morrison Wilson