Modern science-fiction in many ways begins with H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds, the 1898 novel about a Martian invasion of planet Earth. Wells’ book has spawned numerous film adaptations, most notable among them being the 1953 version produced by George Pal and the 2005 version directed by Steven Spielberg and starring Tom Cruise. In some ways, the most culturally impactful version of War of the Worlds was not a film adaptation but the radio play done by Orson Welles in 1938 and embellished with fake news reports of an alien invasion of New Jersey that had some listeners thinking the planet was really under attack.
The War of the Worlds adaptations mentioned above all had one interesting thing in common: All were set in America, and took place in a time contemporaneous with the adaptation. A newly planned TV version of Wells’ novel (not the one MTV is reportedly developing) promises to take us back to the book’s original setting and time-period — Surrey, England at the turn of the 20th Century — making it potentially the most faithful-ever adaptation.
As reported by Variety, the new War of the Worlds has been ordered up by the BBC as part of an 11-series commission, and is set to go before cameras early in 2018. The three-episode series will be written by Peter Harness who has previously worked on Doctor Who, Wallander, and Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. Harness confirmed (via North-West Evening Mail) that his version will take audiences back to Wells’ original Victorian setting:
“I’m feeling phenomenally lucky to be writing The War Of The Worlds, and blowing up gigantic swathes of the home counties at the dawn of the 20th Century. Wells’ book is ground zero for all modern science fiction, and like all the best sci-fi, manages to sneak in some pretty astonishing comments on what it is to be a human being too.”
Harness talked about his ambitions for the series, which will include more than just Martian Fighting Machines blasting helpless humans with their heat rays:
“I’m hoping to follow in the great man’s footsteps by making a terrifying, Martian-packed series which manages to be emotional, characterful, and – deep breath, dare I say it – even political at the same time.”
Wells’ novel is a first-person narrative about an unnamed man experiencing the arrival of the Martians, witnessing the futility of humanity’s efforts to battle the invaders and scrambling to survive as the aliens lay waste to the English countryside. Famously, the story ends when the aliens are killed by viruses which human beings have long-since become resistant to, but to which the invaders have no immunity. War of the Worlds could be seen as a seminal work in multiple genres that have become important in modern-day film: alien invasion, survival-horror and Twilight Zone/M. Night Shyamalan twist-at-the-end.
Prior adaptations of Wells’ book have tended to see the narrative in terms of the politics of their own day (Wells’ book was itself seen by many as a commentary on late-Victorian British imperialism). George Pal’s 1953 version became a somewhat-typical vehicle for Eisenhower-era nuclear paranoia, while Spielberg’s 2005 film rather blatantly called up post-9/11 anxiety via images directly inspired by the terrorist attacks on New York City. Peter Harness evidently will not shy away from tackling Brexit-era political issues in his own adaptation of Wells’ durable classic.