The War of the Worlds: How Not To Adapt A Novel


My first proper introduction to the classic alien invasion story, The War of the Worlds, was the rock opera by Jeff Wayne, which remains one of my favourite albums of any kind. When I got round to reading the original novel by H.G. Wells, I thought that was brilliant as well. Recently, I listened to a version on Audible that combines the music of the album with the expanded content of the book; predictably, it is also great. So I was looking forward to the recent three-part adaptation of the original story on BBC – but it turned out to be a huge disappointment.

Unlike the 1953 and 2005 film adaptations, which both moved the Martian invasion to the then-present day, and the main story from the UK to the USA, the trailers indicated that this TV series would have the same setting as the novel, so I thought it was going to be a reasonably faithful adaptation. This is not the case. The basic story is turned into a romantic melodrama where the journalist protagonist has a live-in lover whom he cannot marry due to his first wife refusing to divorce him. There is more focus on these characters and their relationship than what the Martians are doing, and so for a story called The War of the Worlds, we don’t actually see a great deal of warring between the worlds. The whole thing is painfully slow-paced, particularly the final episode. There’s no gradual build-up when the Martians arrive; it’s just straight from the heat ray zapping everyone to the first tripod wreaking havoc, and we don’t even see the Martians themselves until Part 3. Any hopes of seeing the iron-clad Thunder Child in action were not realised. We also keep going back and forth between the present – which is Edwardian rather than Victorian, for some reason – and a point a few years after the invasion, where the survivors are struggling to get by on a gloomy, terraformed Earth; these scenes aren’t interesting, and make each episode feel disjointed on top of the other problems.

Some of the changes simply make no sense. When it comes to the design of the Martians themselves, the series is at least a bit more imaginative than the previously mentioned film adaptations – where the aliens have humanoid bodies – and portrays them as giant three-legged spiders, the idea presumably being that they built the fighting machines in their own image. Yet one wonders just how these creatures with no hands or other grasping appendages (Wells’s original Martians have tentacles) were able to build anything so complex in the first place. The spider-Martians are also surprisingly agile, considering they evolved in the low gravity of Mars and will weigh over twice as much as what they’re used to on Earth – again, this is addressed in the novel, where the Martians need their machines just to get around at all. One of the great things about the novel is that Wells not only designs the Martians to be truly alien but explains just how they evolved to be that way, in keeping with the scientific knowledge of the time; they are essentially giant heads which have discarded the digestive system and given full priority to the development of the brain. Little such effort appears to have been made with these spider-Martians.

The terraforming of Earth in the series mirrors the spread of the invasive red weed in the novel – but there, it’s never made clear whether the Martians deliberately planted the weed or it arrived via accidental contamination. I always thought it was the latter, since the Martians never appear to make any use of the weed, and don’t seem given to sentimentality or homesickness. In the series, it’s indicated that the Martians are deliberately turning Earth into the image of Mars; but given that Earth is shown to become a barren wasteland as a result, this seems like the Martians shooting themselves in the foot, destroying the very resources that they want to make use of. We know in the novel that the Martians are leaving Mars because it’s become too cold and inhospitable for them to survive, so why would they want to make Earth like that?

In all other versions of the story, both the Martians and the red weed are ultimately killed by being infected with terran bacteria to which they have no immunity. The series follows the same concept, but decides to be more specific: the Martians are taken ill after feeding on sick humans, and the red weed survives for years until a typhoid culture is employed against it. But again, this doesn’t make sense. Why are both species portrayed as vulnerable only to specific bacteria or pathways of infection? Bacteria are literally everywhere: the Martians should become infected just by breathing, and logically, the red weed should have encountered another strain that could infect it in the time presented.

Incidentally, another BBC series adapting a novel – His Dark Materials – is currently airing on Sunday nights, and that’s proving to be a lot better than The War of the Worlds was. His Dark Materials also happens to be a lot more faithful to its source material, and the parts that don’t work so well tend to be deviations, such as taking plot elements from the second book and introducing them early into the first. I’ve said before that an adaptation of a book, whether for film or TV, doesn’t have to be 100% faithful: there are many examples of an adaptation making changes that work a lot better, at least in a visual medium, and occasionally even in a general sense. But the people behind the adaptation should have a good idea of what makes the source material worth adapting and should be preserved, and the team behind His Dark Materials appear to have a considerably better handle on that than those behind The War of the Worlds.

About R.J. Southworth

Hi there. I've been blogging since January 2014, and I like to talk about all sorts of things: book reviews, film reviews, writing, science, history, or sometimes just sharing miscellaneous thoughts. Thanks for visiting my blog, and I hope you find something that interests you!
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1 Response to The War of the Worlds: How Not To Adapt A Novel

  1. Martin says:

    I managed about 8 minutes of one episode… Cant beat the original book/film & of course the Jeff Wayne album 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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