Posts Tagged ‘Eleanor Tomlinson’

What the hell is the point of the BBC adaptation of The War of the Worlds? This is not a rhetorical question. After what felt like an endless wait and much teasing publicity, what eventually oozed onto the screen was possibly the most God-awful thing I’ve seen on TV all year, including second-season episodes of Space: 1999. The absolute best one could say about it is that it is well down to the usual standards of a BBC adaptation of an SF or horror classic, even worse than their version of The Lost World and quite as bad as their take on The Day of the Triffids in 2009.

There is a weird double standard within the Corporation when it comes to this sort of thing. Andrew Davies or whoever may take the odd liberty and stick in some nudity which doesn’t appear in the original text of a non-genre novel, but they are usually pretty restrained when it comes to the general thrust of the story and its subtext. And so they should, because what’s the point of doing an adaptation if all you’re going to keep of the original is the title and a vague sense of the premise?

And yet this is what we got when it came to The War of the Worlds. Let me put it another way: if the same creative talents get employed to oversee a new adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, I confidently predict that what emerges will focus on a turbulent lesbian romance between one of the minor Bennet sisters and the scullery-maid, all wrapped up in a frame story possibly concerning the Boer War, and quite likely performed on ice, to boot.

The back-of-a-stamp, idiot’s synopsis for both is pretty much the same: early in the 20th century, projectiles from Mars arrive on Earth, disgorging metallic tripods which proceed to devastate civilisation, their occupants pausing to snack on any locals unfortunate enough to cross their path. Doing so without having your pre-trip jabs proves to be a mistake, as Earthly bacteria end up wiping out the Martian invaders. But that is more or less the extent of their similarity to each other.

I was seized by a terrible sinking feeling before the first episode even got properly going, as the continuity announcer let rip with some blether about ‘spheres from Mars’. Spheres? As any fule kno, your self-respecting Martian invader travels by cylinder, not sphere. Then again, these were not Wells’ Martians – huge-eyed, glistening, tentacled creatures the size of bears – but apparently the work of someone angling for a job on the sequel to A Quiet Place: all angular, scuttling legs (the dubious logic involved seems to be that the Martian Fighting Machines resemble tripods because they themselves are tripedal, an idea pinched, whether knowingly or not, from John Christopher).

But these are just cosmetic issues and don’t really take us to the nub of the issue. I would have thought it was simple good manners on the part of an adapter to do the original writer the courtesy of focusing on the characters from the actual source, not new creations, and likewise focus on settings and incidents from the text, rather than making new ones up. Yet we ended with a story a good chunk of which was set in a doomy post-apocalyptic wasteland, an Earth tainted by the Red Weed, with various survivors staggering about miserably. Key amongst these were the character played by Eleanor Tomlinson, and her small son, played by a small boy whose name I can’t be bothered to look up: wife and child of the Rafe Spall character, who I guess was supposed to represent Wells’ original narrator. Tomlinson and the kid are not in the book. The post-apocalyptic wasteland is not in the book.

I mean, what the hell? Really, what the hell? In what sense of the word does this qualify as an adaptation? The brutality to the English language is nearly as appalling as the brutality to one of the foundational texts of science fiction. Let us see what the writer responsible had to say when interviewed about his aims for the new adaptation:

The version of The War of the Worlds that I wanted to make is one that’s faithful to the tone and the spirit of the book, but which also feels contemporary, surprising and full of shocks: a collision of sci-fi, period drama and horror.’

Let us put to one side the mystery of what exactly he thought was the ‘tone and spirit’ of Wells’ book and consider the rest of this startling utterance. I was certainly surprised to the point of shock at various points throughout the three hours of the series, but contemporary? What, honestly, the hell? This is an adaptation of a late-Victorian novel, set in Edwardian England, so what are you bibbling on about when you say you want to make it feel contemporary? How is that remotely supposed to work? If you want to make The War of the Worlds feel contemporary, the best way is to set it in the present day: George Pal and Steven Spielberg figured this out when they came to make their versions, both of which – perhaps not coincidentally – genuinely do seem to capture the tone and spirit of the novel much, much better than the new BBC effort.

(I am fairly sure that ‘contemporary’ is modern writer code for ‘female lead character’. Certainly, in this version, Wells’ actual narrator is too psychologically fragile to survive, and his brother is too hidebound and seized by jingoistic impulses to make it through. Of Wells’ men, only Ogilvy, a very minor character in the book, makes it through to the end of the new version, and this may or may not be because we are invited to assume he is gay. My God, I wish I were joking.)

I expect that the makers of this thing will defend their work by saying that it does stay faithful to Wells: the novel’s original subtext (in which the British Empire gets a taste of its own medicine from technologically-superior colonisers from elsewhere) is clumsily elaborated in a long speech in the final episode. Well, for one thing, Wells didn’t feel the need to articulate his subtext in quite such an ideas-for-the-hard-of-thinking way. The whole point of subtext is that it should be obvious without needing to be made explicit, and I suspect the reason it did need making explicit was that the story had been so thoroughly mangled by this point that the original message was no longer discernable without the aid of expository dialogue.

Instead we got a story we didn’t seem to be about anything, much. The innards of the story had been roughly scooped out and replaced by… well, not a great deal of anything, really. Some stuff which was presumably about climate change. Other bits riffing on imagery from recent real-world disasters. A lot of faintly mystifying material about Edwardian social mores. Possibly some of this was there in the name of making the adaptation more ‘contemporary’ – but, really, it’s a book from 1898. It’s never going to feel contemporary unless you do severe violence to the story. Why would you bother trying to bring it to the screen, if contemporary is what you’re after? Let it be itself, let it be a late-Victorian novel full of late-Victorian ideas about evolution and society. Put modern special effects in it, to be sure – but don’t lose track of what the author actually intended it to be like, and to be about. If you do that, you just end up with something that bears a vague, superficial resemblance to the source novel, but isn’t actually about anything and has nothing to say for itself. This is an adaptation in name only, made by people who seem only marginally interested in H.G. Wells. It takes real determination and talent to screw up such a great story so thoroughly.

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