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Posts Tagged ‘HG Wells’

One of the ways of spotting a remake is that they often have much more on-the-nose titles than modern movies: names like The Magnificent Seven are really not fashionable these days, unless of course they carry significant recognition value. Such is the case when it comes to a movie like Leigh Whannell’s The Invisible Man. There have been so many adaptations and other productions derived from H.G. Wells’ original novel that, ironically enough, nearly everybody must have seen one: there’s the 1933 version with Claude Rains, the Soviet version from 1984, the TV show with David McCallum, Memoirs of an Invisible Man with Chevy Chase, the other TV show with Vincent Ventresca, Abbott and Costello meet the Invisible Man, the other other TV show with Pip Donaghy, The Invisible Woman, the other other other TV show with Tim Turner, and so on.

That said, the notion almost seems to have fallen into abeyance since Paul Verhoeven’s typically restrained take on the story, in 2000’s Hollow Man – the only production openly acknowledging Wells was 2003’s The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, which still took pains to make clear that it featured an Invisible Man, not the Invisible Man – well, I suppose lawyers have to eat the same as everybody else. Whannell’s Invisible Man doesn’t actually credit Wells, which is odd given that the title character has the same name as the one in the novel, also because this is supposedly the latest entry in the very-long-running Universal Monsters franchise.

Unfortunate readers unable to afford therapy may recall The Mummy from a couple of years ago – a badly botched update on another classic tale, supposedly intended to launch a new shared universe featuring the bandaged one, Dracula, Frankenstein’s creature, Dr Jekyll, the Creature from the Black Lagoon, and so on. (You may even recall Dracula Untold from a couple of years before that, which was also intended to do the same thing, before being stricken from the canon for somewhat unclear reasons.) Well, so underwhelming was The Mummy‘s reception that Universal canned the whole idea and have gone back to doing individualised stories featuring these characters. This is, therefore, not the promised update featuring (one presumes) the voice of Johnny Depp, but something rather different.

The film opens in a lovely, super-modern cliff-top house, from which we find Cecilia Kass (Elisabeth Moss) making a clearly long-in-the-planning surreptitious nocturnal departure. Apparently her boyfriend, top optical boffin Griffin (Oscar Jackson-Cohen), is an oppressive controlling nightmare, and Cecilia just can’t take it any more. So off she sneaks, in a lengthy and actually rather tense sequence.

She ends up staying with James (Aldis Hodge), a cop who’s a friend of her sister’s, and slowly starting to lose the tension and anxiety which living with Griffin has left her with. The process of her recovery is expedited somewhat when the news breaks that Griffin has committed suicide, leaving a considerable wodge of his fortune to her. Now she can start to live again, can’t she?

Well, of course she can’t. Odd things start to happen around the house – objects appear and disappear inexplicably, someone starts sending emails from Cecilia’s laptop, her drinks are mysteriously spiked with a strong tranquiliser. Cecilia’s friends and family are sympathetic, assuming that her ordeal has resulted in her becoming a bit frayed around the edges. But Cecilia suspects something else – could Griffin still be alive and much closer to her than anyone suspects…?

Griffin is indeed the name of the Invisible Man in the original novel, but that’s the beginning and the end of any resemblance to H.G. Wells – the plot is different, the emphasis is different, even the invisibility works differently (which does have a genuine impact on the story). Possibly as a result of this – and this is going to sound like a joke – the Invisible Man himself is sort of a marginal figure in his own movie, with Jackson-Cohen getting strikingly little screen-time. The focus is always on Elisabeth Moss, with the original scientific romance retooled as a fable about paranoia and stalking.

Which is all very well, but the structure of the story requires a long, slow aggregation of events before Cecilia figures out she has an unseen stalker somewhere in her vicinity. Whannell dutifully goes through with this, but the problem is that while Cecilia is thoroughly confused, for the audience there is no sense of mystery or suspense – the movie is called The Invisible Man, after all, and you would have to have your refractive index set very low indeed not to be able to work out what’s going on. There is some pleasure to be gained from watching Whannell do his thing – the direction in this movie is pretty good, with Whannell particularly keen on a shot where the camera suggestively drifts off to focus on an apparently empty corner of the room, the implication being that it is actually occupied – but the first half of the movie does feel rather laborious.

It perks up a bit once Moss finally puts two and two together, and various scenes where cast members get to do their ouch-I’ve-just-been-punched-by-someone-invisible acting ensue. The story becomes rather involving as Cecilia’s straits get progressively more and more dire: you do start to wonder if they’re planning to go really dark with the ending, for once.

Well, obviously I can’t go into details, but I regret to say that the mid-film recovery does not last. The Invisible Man does have a functional and reasonably satisfying climax – the problem is it goes on for another fifteen or twenty minutes after this, attempting to contrive a startling twist ending. To be honest, I felt it fumbled the conclusion rather badly: this is the kind of twist which just doesn’t hang together in any real way, doesn’t even make a lot of sense on its own terms, feels deeply suspect in all kinds of ways and only really serves to make the film longer and less satisfying. The rest of it is hardly brilliant, but it’s the ending which comes close to capsizing the whole undertaking.

Shame, really: Moss is quite good (although I note the proposed spin-off, a remake of The Invisible Woman, is down to be a vehicle for Elizabeth Banks, as producer, director and star), the direction is inventive, and the supporting turns are also decent. But the script just isn’t quite up to scratch. It probably scores points with the Progressive Agenda Committee for finding a way to be so female-focussed, but there doesn’t seem to have been any real consideration of what an audience’s expectations are for a film called The Invisible Man, or how such a film should function. Not quite as bad as The Mummy, probably, but Universal continue to serve their monsters very poorly.

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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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I am given to understand that there were some grumbles that the TV schedule for the festive season just past was in some way sub-standard, with rather fewer ‘treats’ than people have become used to. It may not come as a surprise if I reveal that I am not the kind of person to be particularly stimulated by Christmas specials of Call the Midwife, Strictly Come Dancing or (God help us) Michael MacIntyre’s Big Show, and lavish all-star Christie adaptations don’t really do it for me either. However, on reflection, I must admit to a little surprise and mild disappointment, for at one point all the signs were that one of the BBC’s Christmas offerings was going to be a new adaptation of The War of the Worlds.

Now, when I think about it, I’m actually quietly certain that this thing is going to be a disappointment to me whenever it actually appears, because the BBC, which is usually pretty faithful when it comes to bringing Jane Austen or Anthony Trollope to the screen, has historically shown no such fidelity when it comes to classic genre fiction – see, for instance, the atrocious version of The Day of the Triffids they inflicted on the world at Christmas 2009. But such is my fondness for The War of the Worlds that I will stay optimistic until it actually arrives.

I should make this clear – The War of the Worlds, the novel? Love it. The radio version? Love it. The concept album? Love it. Stephen Baxter’s authorised sequel? Love it. The Spielberg movie? I can appreciate its merits. The 1980s TV show – well, now, let’s be sensible. I watched pretty much the whole first season, which many would say was going above and beyond the call of duty. One of the (many) problems with the War of the Worlds TV show is that it’s operating two steps removed from H.G. Wells, in that it is basically a small-screen sequel to the 1953 movie produced by George Pal and directed by Byron Haskin. You will not be terribly surprised to learn that I really like this movie, too, even though it has an extremely liberal attitude towards the source novel.

After a slightly frantic set of credits, the film gets underway, as any self-respecting iteration of The War of the Worlds must, with the famous ‘No-one would have believed…’ passage from the book, updated to reflect the film’s 1950s setting. Through the wonders of gorgeous special effects and rather dubious astronomical exposition, we learn that the planet Mars is dying, and its inhabitants have only one option when it comes to migrating to another planet – it’s Earth or bust!

Everyone on Earth is oblivious to this, of course, even after what seems to be a rather unusual meteorite lands in the California hills. The locals are delighted, thinking that their ship has come in and a new tourist attraction has arrived, but rugged scientist Clayton Forrester (Gene Barry) is less convinced – the new arrival seems to be radioactive, and didn’t behave like a normal meteorite. He goes off to the local square dance with impressively-banged local girl Sylvia (Ann Robinson – not that one) to pass the time while the rock cools down.

Needless to say, the town is in for a surprise, for the meteorite unscrews and a death ray on a stalk proceeds to obliterate the locals left to keep an eye on it, while a powerful magnetic field knocks out the town’s electricity. The army is called in, with a view to containing the Martian invaders – for other Martian cylinders have begun landing all over the world, with reports of chaos and destruction filtering through – and the kindly local priest makes a brave attempt to establish peaceful contact with the aliens. Naturally, the Martians smoke him. The US military aren’t about to let this sort of behaviour carry on unchecked, and unleash their might at the alien war machines, only to find them impervious to earthly weapons. The authorities are forced into a desperate, futile rear-guard action as the Martians expand their terrestrial dominion, and all seems hopeless for the human race…

My general feeling about both The War of the Worlds and The Time Machine are that they are foundation stones of science fiction, but also books which are now sort of dated: both of them are driven by social and philosophical concerns and are indeed essentially topical satire – of the British class system, in the case of The Time Machine, and the British empire with The War of the Worlds. Unsurprisingly, the satirical and allegorical element of the novel does not survive into the film, which is instead almost as pure a piece of Red Scare thrill-mongering as you can find. It is telling that, for all the indications that this is a global catastrophe (we are shown the Eiffel Tower toppling, and Martian war machines in front of a ruined Taj Mahal), there is not one mention of the Martians attacking the Soviet Union, or indeed that the USSR even exists. Wells’ concerns have been extracted and replaced by those of 1950s Hollywood.

I could easily fill the rest of this piece by cataloguing all the other numerous and comprehensive differences between the original novel and this adaptation: most obviously, there is the shift in setting, from southern England in the early 20th century to California in the 1950s, and there’s also the fact that the Martians in this movie cruise around in sleek manta-ray hovercraft, rather than the iconic tripedal fighting machines of the book. It’s really the case that virtually none of the specifics of the novel’s plot survive into the film, which concerns itself almost exclusively with the first half of the book.

This concerns the initial Martian landings, their crushing of the forces sent against them, and the panic and chaos that convulses human society. Other than the conclusion, the second half of the novel – which deals with the Martian occupation of England, and goes into slightly more detail about their nature and technology – is entirely absent. This is no doubt partly due to the technical limitations of the period – it’s hard to imagine how the special effects of the 1950s could have rendered the spread of the red weed, for instance – but Wells’ more philosophical musings are not really the stuff of an American sci-fi movie, while in another key respect the film is entirely at odds with Wells’ conception.

Whether you consider the end of The War of the Worlds to be an outrageous deus ex machina or a subtly-foreshadowed denouement entirely of a piece with the rest of the book is probably a matter of personal taste, but it survives in the movie more-or-less intact. However, Wells intent has been comprehensively subverted, in another fundamental change. Wells’ atheism is discarded, and – like many classic SF movies from this period – the themes of the film are presented in almost spiritual terms. People take refuge in churches; there are many references to prayer and miracles; when one boffin gravely announces the Martians will conquer the world in six days, Ann Robinson reminds us all that this was the same length of time it took to create it. In short, the film is basically reminding the audience that technological superiority is all very well, but victory only comes by the grace of God – the death of the Martians here isn’t simply a matter of biological process, but presented as divine intervention. The end of the film, with church bells tolling and a grateful population flocking to give thanks, appears to have been an influence on at least two other films – the film version of Day of the Triffids, and the British catastrophe movie The Day the Earth Caught Fire.

It seems, therefore, that very little of the actual substance of the novel survives into this adaptation. Why, then, am I so fond of it? Well, quite apart from the fact it often has a kind of hokey charm unique to itself, it’s also the case that while the film changes virtually every detail of the book, it captures its tone and spirit with an accuracy which is hugely impressive. The Martian onslaught against the US army, death rays slashing in all directions as the human guns fail to hit their targets, is absolutely of a piece with the novel; the eerie scenes with Forrester and Sylvia trapped in a ruined house, Martians all around them, are also closely inspired by the similar section in the book. The climactic sequence depicting the breakdown of law and order and near-rioting in the streets as the Martians advance on downtown Los Angeles also catch the essence of Wells’ description of ‘the rout of civilisation… the massacre of mankind’ extraordinarily well, in the circumstances.

In the end I’m almost moved to describe the movie of The War of the Worlds not so much as an adaptation as a cover version – it retains only the most basic outline of Wells’ book, changing virtually every detail of narrative and theme. And yet it also seems to have locked onto the most vivid and powerful segments of the story and retained them, in terms of their emotional impact and effectiveness. It’s a fairly irregular way to go about adapting a book, but the result is a movie that still somehow does credit to the source material. Not many adaptations of classic SF novels stand up as well as this one.

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The thing about H.G. Wells’ novels – the great ones, the ones that everyone knows and remembers – is not necessarily that they are classic novels as the term is generally understood. They tend to have fairly simple plots, they are not over-burdened with characters, those who do appear are generally not drawn with much in way of depth or complexity, the dialogue rarely sparkles. And yet it would be odd if they were formed in any other way. Someone I’ve been unable to track down once said that the main character of an SF novel should be an idea, and I think there is more than a little truth in that.

I’ve just re-read The Island of Doctor Moreau, written by Wells in 1896 (after The Time Machine but before The Invisible Man and The War of the Worlds), and it would be amusing to imagine the results were the typical novel-writing coach to get their hands on it. Anguished shrieks – the protagonist doesn’t do enough, there’s virtually no plot, it takes too long to get going, the story would happen even if the protagonist wasn’t there, and so on. And all of these things are true.

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Obligatory capsule-synopsis begins. The narrator, a shipwrecked biologist, finally ends up on the titular landmass after being rescued by Montgomery, a mysterious, dissolute figure. Montgomery is accompanied by some caged animals he is transporting and a grotesque, unsettling servant. In turns out Montgomery is in the service of the eponymous doctor, who for the previous ten years has been…

Well, the three men are not alone on the island. Moreau has been busy with the animals Montgomery has provided for him. Using surgery and other, more obscure scientific means, he has given the beasts the semblance of human appearance, human speech, and human thought, and provided them with a pseudo-religious moral framework to govern their actions. But Moreau’s creations always deteriorate, revert back towards their original bestial state, and the dominance of the human beings is built on a fragile foundation…

So: while Moreau himself is a barely two-dimensional character, and not in the book much, by far the biggest issue with this book, in a structural critique-your-novel sense, is that the narrator has no real agency. None of his choices impact the development of the story, which would – we may assume – have developed in a virtually identical manner had he not been there. (Curiously enough, one may note that the makers of the now-rather-obscure 1977 film adaptation, starring Burt Lancaster and Michael York, seem to have come to an identical conclusion, for their own corrective surgery on the story rectifies just this issue – in addition, of course, to providing a role as love interest for Barbara Carrera, who if memory serves gets her kit off at one point somewhat gratuitously.)

And yet none of this matters. The narrators of The Time Machine and The War of the Worlds have equally passive, onlooker-ish roles in those books. What The Island of Doctor Moreau shares with them is an astonishing capability to crowbar open your brain and insert extraordinarily vivid and imaginative ideas and images there: there’s a reason why other writers, especially in the mainstream, have been patiently ripping Wells off over and over again for the last century.

What makes The Island of Doctor Moreau different to those other books is that, with The Time Machine and The War of the Worlds, it’s relatively straightforward to decipher what those books are actually about – The Time Machine is a fable which satirises the British class system, while The War of the Worlds is, on some level, an allegory about the development of the British Empire. With The Island of Doctor Moreau, if there is a particular subtext to the story, it’s not immediately clear what it might be.

Not that there are any shortage of candidates. Like The Time Machine or the best works of H.P. Lovecraft, it’s impossible to read this book and not be struck by a sense of a generation of intelligent, thoughtful men struggling to come to terms with the question of humanity’s place in the universe, post-Darwin. The book suggests that there is nothing privileged or unique about this – by the conclusion the narrator finds he can no longer truly distinguish between Moreau’s beast-men and the genuine kind in any meaningful way. Beasts can become people, and vice versa.

Of course, the book works as science fiction of the purest kind, about a scientist with questionable ideas misusing his power – a cautionary tale, whether it’s about vivisection or genetic engineering or any other form of uplift. But, given Wells’ interest in British society, another, slightly uncomfortable interpretation is also available, what I suppose I would have to call the post-Imperial reading. The Europeans have seized upon the animals and remade them into something approaching a more civilised state, but at the same time they are only too aware of the precariousness of their own position: at one point Montgomery stresses the importance of their remaining dignified at all times, lest they lose the respect of the beast-men.

It reads all too much like one of George Orwell’s pieces about the last days of the British Empire, and the problem, of course, is that this reading – Moreau’s transmogrification of the animals into something approaching human as an allegory for the ‘civilisation’ of indigenous people by the empire – seems incredibly racist to someone today. It equates non-Caucasians with animals (several of the beast-people are explicitly described as ‘negroid’), and suggests that the ‘civilised’ state is only a veneer which will inevitably crumble sooner or later. That Wells implicitly objects to Moreau’s project and is, by and large, sympathetic to the beast-people is really neither nor there.

As I said, this is a really uncomfortable reading of the book – everyone by now surely knows that Lovecraft was grotesquely racist, so we’re used to that, but you kind of expect better from someone like H.G. Wells, don’t you? I usually baulk at judging works and people from so long ago by modern ethical standards, but even so. That said, I think Wells redeems himself and the book by making it clear this is not solely a book about the empire and race, in that sense at least. The only race he’s interested in is the human variety, undifferentiated, and the nature of our own society.

He spends a lot of time detailing the Law under which the beast-people live – they have their own mock-priest, and various of the injunctions placed upon them (to keep their animal nature in check) are detailed. Impulsive creatures descended from animals whose baser instincts are supposedly controlled by a spurious religion…? One gets a strong sense of yet another level of satire going on here.

Wells was one of those people who would probably describe themselves as ‘spiritual, but not religious’ – organised religion and its representatives often come in for a kicking in his books, and this one seems to me to be no exception. And the satire here is general enough for us to suppose it is not limited to adherents of those religions off in those funny other places, but to the good folk of the C of E and other faiths closer to home. The closing section of the book, thankfully, reinforces this more generalist view – on his return to civilisation, the narrator finds himself unable to live around other people any more, for he has become uncomfortably aware of the bestial nature they all share. All people, everywhere: the nameless island is, after all, described as ‘the whole balance of human life in miniature’.

Perhaps it’s slightly odd that the subtext you would expect to find in The Island of Doctor Moreau – one about animal rights, and the destructive impact of humanity upon nature – is the one that isn’t really there: Wells’ narrator expresses outrage and horror at the suffering undergone by Moreau’s animal subjects, but you never get the sense that this is what the book is in any way about. Wells seems to have been more interested in people than in beasts – although it may equally be the case that the lack of a meaningful distinction between the two is really what the book is about. There are many choices; that’s one of the things that makes this book so great.

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H.G. Wells is rightfully celebrated as one of the founding fathers of science fiction, but he is rather less well-known as one of the pioneers of tabletop wargaming. Wells’ Little Wars is way down on the list of his books in terms of general name-recognition, outside the better-read segments of the wargaming community, but it’s difficult to read it without concluding that the great man is staking out the territory a huge number of subsequent games have occupied in the century or so since its first publication.

It’s essentially a description of the rules that Wells and his friends – we are invited to assume that Jerome K Jerome was a regular opponent – concocted to play wargames using a mixture of infantry, cavalry, and artillery pieces. Some of Wells’ system feels distinctly odd to me, as a modern gamer – beyond the very occasional use of a tossed coin, it makes no use of randomisation, gunfire is handled by the players physically launching pellets at each other’s miniatures, hoping to knock them over, and there are some (fairly unwieldy, if you ask me) rules for models being taken prisoner – but time and again Wells either hits upon a consideration which will be familiar to any modern player – army comp, how much terrain to use, unit coherency – or comes up with a gaming convention which is still in use today – for instance, one player setting up terrain and the other getting choice of sides. I rather think that, were Wells to walk into any branch of the UK’s leading wargames store chain, he would find much more that he recognised than was strange to him. Would he, perhaps, recognise power-armoured SF warriors and colossal titans toting melta-cannon as somewhat-distorted descendants of his own creations? I don’t know. I would like to think so.

In any case, these two threads of Wells’ career come back together, sort of, in Osprey Games’ War of the Worlds: The Anglo-Martian War of 1895, written by Mike Brunton (whom I dimly recall as a GW writer back in the mid 80s, when they didn’t just sell their own miniature games). Osprey are one of the newish, small wargames publishers that I have become rather more familiar with since severing my own engagement with Games Workshop. This book, along with the rest of the range it belongs to, are slightly odd in that they are composed entirely of ‘fluff’ – in other words, they’re all background, with no actual game rules included.

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To be honest, a War of the Worlds tabletop game would be a rather odd prospect, given that the whole point of the story is that the war is a one-sided slaughter pretty much from start to finish, with the Martians suffering only a few token casualties along the way. However, the book, which presents itself as a ‘historical’ account of the war written from a modern perspective, is rather engaging – although I am admittedly a bit of a War of the Worlds devotee, and thus most likely biased.

The book takes an ambivalent approach to the ‘facts’ of the Martian invasion as recounted by Wells himself (perhaps most obvious from the title of the book itself, which dates the conflict to 1895, when the author explicitly specifies it took place in ‘the early years of the twentieth century’). The text indicates that Wells was ‘not the most accurate of war correspondents’, and inclined to present the Martians as more of an implacable menace than was actually the case, which is presumably the justification for some of the divergences from Wells in the new book. However, unlike most books and films inspired by Wells, they agree with the author that the Martian invasion was limited to southern England (no global despatches on this occasion).

Things get underway with an overview of the disposition of the two forces prior to hostilities commencing: the stuff on the British army is a little bit dry but historically interesting, the material on the Martians and their technology obviously a bit more imaginative: Brunton comes up with some interesting amendations when it comes to Martian biology and the nature of the silicaceous-boned servitors brought with them from Mars. The revelation that the Heat Ray was actually a maser should really surprise no-one, though.

Past this is an account of the war from beginning to end, which is… well, it’s faithful to Wells up to a point. The thing about The War of the Worlds is that much of it concerns the initial weekend of the Martian arrival, and the days on either side, with the government having effectively collapsed by Monday (the same day as the Thunder Child‘s battle with three Fighting-Machines). Wells’ primary narrator spends most of the next fortnight in the cellar of a ruined house, emerging into a devastated landscape where the last of the diseased Martians is about to expire (do I really need to give a spoiler warning for a book published in 1898?). What the army and the Martians have been up to in the interim is mainly a matter of hearsay, as far as the book is concerned, so you would have thought this would be fruitful territory for Brunton to expand on.

But apparently not. The Osprey book diverges considerably from the actual chronology of the novel, with the Martians arriving on a Saturday, not a Friday, and the Thunder Child engagement happening ten days later rather than three. The saturation use of the lethal Black Smoke by the Martians to destroy the defences around London is only obliquely referred to, although Brunton does come up with a few instances of actions taking place not mentioned in the novel – heavy fighting around the Palace of Westminster, for instance. On the whole, though, he seems happy enough to deviate from his source material in terms of the details, but very reluctant to make really significant additions to it in terms of narrative.

Hey ho. As I’ve said before, The War of the Worlds is such a magnificent book, and such a brilliant idea, that it takes a really concerted effort to totally stuff it up (for the record, I think Greg and Sam Strangis were the only ones who really managed it), and Osprey’s The War of the Worlds is entertaining enough, especially when it’s not dealing with the particulars of the novel. There have been many worse offenders, after all, and there’s a sense in which the novel has surely become a sort of folklore, or collection of ideas and images which different people play with in different ways: it seems to be an irresistible, endlessly rewarding game.

Post-invasion history is also touched upon, with the Russians being the only foreign power to get their hands on a Heat Ray projector – the technological bounty brought by reverse-engineering Martian devices, which Wells alludes to, doesn’t really seem to have been an issue, however. Brunton also suggests a reason for the Martians not making another attempt, but nobody tell Stephen Baxter about that (Baxter’s own War of the Worlds sequel is out next year).

Perhaps inevitably, the Osprey book engages in the usual metafictional conceit where every significant literary figure from Victorian England lives in the same city: I remember reading Anno Dracula back in 1994, when this seemed terribly new and interesting. Now it just feels routine. The results are not quite as grotesque as in the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen‘s version of the Martian invasion: we hear of Fu Manchu’s role in the upheaval afflicting London, and of Colonel Sebastian Moran bagging himself a trophy like no other. (It’s not quite the same thing, but we also learn of a young Winston Churchill’s exploits in the war.) Elsewhere, the author looks further afield, with perhaps more laboured results: we are told that, luckily, the Martian landing which damaged the botanical gardens at Kew did not result in the escape of any triffids, while many years later a ‘lost’ Martian cylinder turned up, mistaken for an unexploded bomb when it was discovered under an underground station in Hobbs Lane. Hmmm.

Whatever you may think of this sort of thing, the writing itself is consistently brisk and engaging, and the art is very nice: these are slightly steampunky-looking Fighting-Machines, and not entirely faithful to Wells’ description, but then that fits pretty well with most of the rest of the book. Quite who this is aimed at, though, still bemuses me a little: there’s pretty much zero wargames content for anyone intent on recreating a series of one-sided massacres on their tabletop, while it’s simultaneously neither detailed nor expansive enough to be a totally satisfying addition to the already-sizable War of the Worlds canon. The slimness of the volume when you consider its price is also likely to be an issue for many people. Hard-core fans of The War of the Worlds, in all its incarnations, will likely find a lot to enjoy here, though.

 

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It occurs to me that I have never hosted one of your actual parties, which is probably just as well as I have no confidence in my ability to administer one effectively. That said, one thing I think I would be quite good at is mixing different people up to get sparky and interesting results. A, meet B! I think you’d get on really well! C, here’s D – have a drink together! Keep it clean!

Having said all that, putting interesting names together doesn’t always necessarily produce the results one might have hoped for. Antonio Banderas and Angelina Jolie as a couple on screen? How incendiary would that be? Well, as it turns out, not at all. When it comes to a more fantastical genre, you wouldn’t necessarily expect Ray Harryhausen, genius of stop-frame animation, and Nigel Kneale, famously sour author of horror-SF screenplays, to be natural collaborators, but you would at least expect the results to be memorable.

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Well… of course, they did both work on the same movie, Nathan Juran’s 1964 First Men in the Moon, based on HG Wells’ planetary romance of the same name. Like Mark Gatiss and Damon Thomas’ 2010 adaptation of the same book, the movie makes a virtue of the fact that lunar exploration has shifted from science fiction to science fact since it was written. It opens with an only moderately implausible manned UN mission landing on the Moon in the mid 60s – but they are, to put it mildly, startled to discover a tattered Union Jack already there, together with a document claiming the Moon for Queen Victoria and the British Empire.

Back on Earth, the document is traced to Bedford (Edward Judd), an extremely old man who when questioned is happy to discuss this ‘lost’ moon voyage, which took place in 1899. In the flashback which constitutes most of the movie, Bedford, a financially-embarrassed young man, discovers his neighbour, Professor Cavor (Lionel Jeffries), is secretly developing a gravity-shielding substance, the potential value of which is incalculable. They strike up a partnership on the understanding they use Cavorite to construct a gravity-resistant sphere and explore the Moon. Along for the ride, as it turns out, is Bedford’s fiancee (Martha Hyer), who really doesn’t make any contribution to the plot and is basically just there to glam proceedings up a bit.

Arriving on the Moon, Bedford and Cavor discover an advanced native civilisation in place: that of the insectoid Selenites. The Selenites seize the sphere and seem intent on learning all they can about the visitors from Earth…

Well, given that Nathan Juran’s earlier films included The Deadly Mantis, 20 Million Miles to Earth, and Attack of the Fifty Foot Woman, the least you can say about First Men in the Moon is that it has a touch of class about it, what with Wells, Harryhausen and Kneale all making a contribution. And it’s a perfectly decent, family-friendly genre movie – very dated by modern standards, of course, but that’s inevitable given the film’s vintage and subject matter. The problem with it is that it doesn’t feel like the work of any of the trio.

Mostly this is down to the first half of the movie, which is knockabout filler set firmly on Earth. It takes a very long time for the sphere to launch, and this is filled by some broad slapstick with gravity-defying chairs and comedy yokels, and a somewhat laborious subplot about Bedford swindling money by selling a cottage he doesn’t actually own (as well as simply filling time, this appears to be here to set up some tension between Judd and Hyer, not that they are a particularly dynamic screen coupling).

It’s a bit of a trek to the point where the sphere lifts off, but at this point the film perks up considerably and becomes rather more faithful to the source. The tone becomes surprisingly dark, and the previously jokey relationship between Bedford and Cavor becomes fractious: Cavor is appalled by Bedford’s instinctive violence when they first encounter the Selenites, and Bedford’s concern for Cavor’s wellbeing seems largely motivated by selfishness, given the fact that he’s the most experienced in the workings of the sphere. One senses Kneale’s own natural misanthropy rushing to the fore here: the movie is by no means pro-Selenite, but it certainly doesn’t depict the humans positively, either.

The lack of a real hero marks this out from the jolly adventure films that Ray Harryhausen usually worked on, but then this is one of his films that never contributes much to the ‘Best of Harryhausen’ YouTube compilations, simply because there aren’t that many creatures in it, and no memorable big set-pieces like the cowboys roping the allosaur from Valley of Gwangi or the skeleton battle from Jason and the Argonauts. The modelwork of various spacecraft arriving and departing from the Earth and the Moon is well-executed, of course, but it’s not really what you expect from Harryhausen. When the giant moon-caterpillars turn up, they’re not exactly a premium piece of work either, although the stop-motion Selenites towards the end of the film are quite nice. (The film switches between man-in-a-suit aliens and Harryhausen animations, presumably depending on how many Selenites they needed in any given shot.)

Another issue is the lack of a strong climax – although this is something inherited from the novel, which concludes with a series of enigmatic radio messages. The Gatiss version got around this very neatly and satisfyingly, but here there is more of a struggle – there isn’t quite the conclusion you might expect, and what is here is suspiciously reminiscent of that in another extremely well-known Wells novel. This is a bit more clodhopping than one might expect of a writer with Kneale’s reputation, and one wonders just how much of the script is actually the work of credited co-writer Jan Read.

Still, the art direction is pretty, the score has its moments, and Lionel Jeffries in particular gives a well-rounded and engaging performance. But the fact remains that this is a film with serious pacing and structural problems, and in which none of the big-name creators  seem to have brought their A-game.

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One of the ways in which cinemas have been boosting their profits recently has been through the screening of, well, other cultural things which are not movies. On more than one occasion I’ve turned up at the local Picturehouse to find a scheduled movie delayed due to a live broadcast from the opera over-running, while plays, football matches, and transmissions from art galleries are also fairly common events.

Personally, I’ve always been a bit suspicious of this sort of thing, for all that I’m sympathetic to cinema-owners’ need to turn a profit. It’s not just that broadcasting a stage show or the ballet takes up space where they could actually be showing a proper movie, it’s just that I think there’s a proper context for everything – just as I think by far the best place to watch a movie is a cinema, so the best way to watch a live show is, well, live.

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Nevertheless I was coaxed into giving this sort of thing a chance by the as-live screening of the latest incarnation of that perennial chart-botherer, the musical of War of the Worlds. Or, to give it its full and extremely unwieldy title, Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of The War of the Worlds: The New Generation – Alive on Stage. (Jeff Wayne is clearly a man who knows when he is onto a Good Thing – rumour has it there is a statue of a Martian Fighting Machine in the garden of his mansion.) I first properly discovered this extraordinary blending of founding-text SF and prog rock when I was about ten, and I’ve been listening to it ever since (not continuously) – the original version, anyway. I’m very fond of it, and the chance to hear it over a proper sound system was an appealing prospect.

Surely everyone know the story of HG Wells’ The War of the Worlds by now? There have certainly been enough adaptations and riffs on it (as befits what is probably one of the five or six best ideas in the history of fiction). Martians invade the Home Counties at the end of the Victorian era, crush all resistance with vastly superior technology, topple human society, start thinking about full-scale colonisation but reckon without the pestilent, germ-saturated atmosphere of Earth, to which they have no resistance. The Jeff Wayne version is basically the same, but with a somewhat underdeveloped romance and some songs added.

If watching a live show on a cinema screen seems like an unsatisfactory compromise, it does suit this particular show quite well, as it is itself a borderline-peculiar multimedia production incorporating filmed sequences, on-stage pyrotechnics, musicians, and singers, and the presence (through the miracle of ‘3D holography’) of Liam Neeson as the narrator. Neeson’s physical absence leads to a few dubious moments (at one point he has to punch out someone actually present on stage) but he lends the undertaking an appropriate level of gravitas.

It goes without saying, I hope, that a prog-rock-disco-orchestral fusion steampunk-inflected musical version of a Victorian SF novel including roles with names like ‘The Sung Thoughts of the Journalist’, ‘The Voice of Humanity’, and ‘Beth, Parson Nathaniel’s Wife’, is quite colossally uncool and even borderline absurd – well, to be fair we’re well across the border and probably well on the way to naturalised citizenship. All this was true of the original album.

And yet – and I’ve no idea what strange alchemy is at work here – for all of its uncool absurdity, the War of the Worlds album is also quite breathtakingly brilliant, with some killer tunes, tremendous performances, and memorable lines (one of Wells’ throwaway pieces of dialogue has almost reached proverbial status simply because it’s been incorporated into the lyrics of the album). The question is, how much of this has been preserved in the sort-of-live show?

Well, the stage show kicks off with the understudies (as astronomers) getting some dialogue about odd things happening on Mars, which leads us into some rather spiffy fully-CGI’d footage of the Martian High Command planning the invasion (rather more impressive and sophisticated than most of the footage which accompanies the show, which blends live action and CGI with varying degrees of success) – all very well, but I think that not to start with ‘No-one would have believed, in the last years of the nineteenth century…’ is a bad call, and it also lessens the impact of that initial da-da-DAHHHH from the string section.

From this point on the live show follows the album very closely in musical terms – indeed, apart from a few little tweaks and additions to the script, the New Generation version seemed virtually indistinguishable from the original. As an actual spectacle, there’s a bit of an issue with some of the numbers outstaying their welcome – the animators run out of things to put on the screen towards the end of The Heat Ray and resort to showing a rather cringeworthy ray-gun jiving along to the music – and, as previously mentioned, some of the stuff on the screen is less stirring than one might have hoped for, the demise of the Thunder Child (the subject of the original album cover) being a particular disappointment. (On the other hand, the moment when a full-scale Fighting Machine first appears on stage is genuinely gobsmacking.)

And most of the on-stage performances are excellent, which given that the singing and music are what this show is about is surely the most important thing. It is, admittedly, a little odd to hear a new set of voices tackling the songs I have grown up listening to, but this turned out to be refreshing rather than jarring. I was particularly dreading the new version of The Spirit of Man, mainly because I really doubted that Jason Donovan had the chops to fill the shoes of Phil Lynott. Well, credit where it’s due: Donovan is up to the task (Kerry Ellis replaces Julie Covington with equal aplomb) and this segment is as much a highlight live as it is on the album – in fact, I can’t imagine Lynott giving an acting performance as good as Donovan’s.

The decision to reprise a full-cast version of The Eve of the War in the middle of the climax is distinctly odd, and the epilogue, with a present-day NASA mission running into problems, feels as dubious as ever, but on the whole the live show does full justice to both the spirit and the substance of the original album. I suspect seeing the live show actually, er, live, would be even more impressive, but watching it on a big screen with proper sound was a reasonable alternative. I’m just left pondering the prospects of a full movie adaptation of the Wayne War of the Worlds, which seems to me to be an idea loaded with potential. Maybe the existence of the live show is an indicator this is never going to happen – but I hope not.

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From the Hootoo Archive. Originally published 13th June 2002:

HG Wells has an enviable track record as far as big-screen adaptations of his books are concerned: The Invisible Man, War of the Worlds and The Shape of Things to Come have all been made into classic movies, although the less said about Food of the Gods and The Island of Doctor Moreau the better. It’s not surprising. Wells virtually invented most of the standard SF plots and there’s nothing like the aroma of literary respectability to entice movie moguls.

Which brings us to the new version of The Time Machine, directed by Simon Wells (yup, his great-grandson) and starring Guy Pearce. Pearce plays Alexander Hartdegen, a physics professor in 1890s New York, whose life is turned upside down when his sweetheart (Sienna Guillory) is accidentally killed. Devastated, Hartdegen resolves to go back in time and prevent her death and to do so constructs the titular Machine (not bad considering his only previous invention seems to have been an electric toothbrush). Little does he realize that this is the start of an odyssey that will eventually transport him 800,000 years into the future…

Positive points first: Simon Wells has clearly revelled in his chance to handle the family silver and visually the film is hugely impressive. All the different settings look superb and the actual time travel sequences are breathtakingly well-conceived and executed. The Machine itself looks magnificent, a whirling contraption of brass and crystal, every steampunk’s dream. Pearce is faintly endearing as the lead and Mark Addy and Phyllida Law are excellent in too-small parts as his friends back home.

And, if you’re unfamiliar with the rather fab 1960 film and especially the original novel, you’ll probably enjoy this a lot, provided you don’t concentrate too hard on the logic of the plot. But if you do know the story, well… The meat of Wells’ book, the world of the Eloi (principally played by Irish popstrel Samantha Mumba and her brother Omero) and the Morlocks (most notably embodied by Jeremy Irons), doesn’t appear until halfway through a not very long film. And, along with the rest of the story, it’s been contaminated by a sadly-familiar sentimentality.

HG Well’s time traveller went into the future motivated only by the spirit of scientific enquiry, and what he found was a grim vision of a world populated by two equally degenerate species evolved from mankind (a then-topical satire on the English class system). But Simon Wells’ hero originally travels through time searching for a way to mend his broken heart (all say ‘Aahhh’), and the Eloi he meets aren’t degenerate, but noble, windmill-building savages who just need a kick up the fundament to sort them out and reawaken the American spirit. The Morlocks, of course, remain impressively vile and are clearly bad to the bone (and, by the way, the scene where they hunt the Eloi could come straight from either version of Planet of the Apes). The rough outline of Wells’ story remains intact but its intent and meaning have been removed entirely in favour of heroic daring-do and an upbeat happy ending.

It’s a vaguely unsatisfying ending, too, and not just because it deviates from the source quite radically: the new Time Machine dares to dip its toe into the murky waters of temporal mechanics and the possibility of changing history. This sort of thing is plot anti-matter, potentially a brilliant source of ideas, but almost impossible to use without utterly destroying the integrity of the story. This film, after looking distinctly wobbly on this count for most of its length, seems to pull it off by proposing a rationale for time travel and changing history that actually makes sense… but then almost straight away it abandons these rules in order to provide the happy ending I mentioned earlier.

(There’s also a fantastically smug and irritating scene where Pearce visits a library in 2030 and finds Wells’ original novel and the 1960 movie referred to by name as works of fiction. So why isn’t this version listed? It’s the only bit of the film that doesn’t ring true: it’s intrusive and gimmicky and it doesn’t work.)

Still, The Time Machine is such a fantastic story it’s almost impossible to muck it up completely. This isn’t as good story-wise as the novel or the George Pal version, but it’s a visually striking, old-fashioned adventure. Worth going to see, but try not to think about the plot too much.

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