IT'S ALL VERY WELLS
HG Wells classic The War Of The WOrlds Has been adapted for tHe small screen. ian berriman talks to Writer peter Harness
There are few sci-fi stories the general public are as familiar with as hg wells’s alien invasion classic The War Of The Worlds. orson welles, george pal, Jeff wayne and steven spielberg have all adapted wells’s 1898 novel – usually transplanting his heat ray-wielding Martian tripods to the usa. now a three-part, blighty-based tV version is on its way, starring rafe spall and Poldark’s eleanor tomlinson. Doctor Who writer peter harness (“the Zygon invasion”) is the man responsible. so how has he managed to make a story with such familiar elements feel fresh?
“Maybe i haven’t!” harness laughs. “Just taking those things that everybody knows about and thinking how to do them in a way that still gives people what they want, and half what they expect, but is going to be surprising.”
the big difference about this version is that it’s no modern-day update, but a period piece, set in edwardian england.
“i think setting it at the turn of the century gives it a bigger atmosphere,” harness explains. “it makes it like a Victorian ghost story. this is what we’re after: smoke, and sparseness, and weird shapes rather than kettles walking around on legs firing laser beams. all those things, we tried to do in a slightly different way. i wanted it to feel like a horror film too, because i don’t think that’s what people will be expecting.”
if that seems a surprising choice, remember that there’s no shortage of horrific incident to include. wells’s book may be 120 years old, but it’s no cosy old relic.
“things get covered in throwaway lines, which if you see them are pretty horrifying,” harness points out. “like the stampede from the heat ray – people are getting trampled to death. that doesn’t look like much on the page, but when you actually see it it’s pretty terrifying.”
as the writer notes, it’s also a book with political subtexts which still resonate today.
“that was one of the reasons i set it at that time,” he explains. “it was the height of the empire, but when it started to die off. wells says in the book, ‘what must it have been like to be one of the natives of tanzania when we appeared with our guns and bombs?’ there are parallels with nationalist politics as well, and what it’s like to be subjected to chemical weapons attacks just sitting in your own home. so it can’t help but feel a bit political! i might be slightly old-fashioned, but i think sci-fi exists to tell stories about our world which are entertaining, but give you a slightly more thoughtful perspective.”
The War Of The Worlds will air on BBC One sometime in 2019.
Eleanor Tomlinson and Rafe Spall star.
The story takes us back to Edwardian England.