Days of future past: how the new BBC TV series The War of the Worlds reinvented the sci-fi classic

HG Wells's The War of the Worlds is a key text in literary science fiction – and it's about to be reimagined in a new three-part TV series from the BBC. We find out what to expect from the new adaptation from writer Peter Harness, including why he decided to take a revolutionary new approach to the tale

The War of the Worlds. (Photo by BBC/© Mammoth Screen)

First serialised in 1897, The War of the Worlds by HG Wells is a key text in literary science fiction. Charting what happens after alien “intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic” land on Earth, it offers a terrifying vision of suburban England as it is besieged and society begins to break down.

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The War of the Worlds has been endlessly updated and adapted over the years, notably by Orson Welles for his infamous, panic-inducing 1938 radio broadcast. Now, a new three-part TV version (9pm, Sunday 17 November, BBC One) does something almost as revolutionary, reimagining the book as a kind of period drama/science fiction hybrid.

Here, writer Peter Harness tells us about first encountering the book and how he brought it to life:

Where did you first come across the book?

I came to the story of The War of the Worlds through the album, [composer] Jeff Wayne’s musical version, which was a bit of a staple for everybody’s mum and dad if you grew up in the late seventies and eighties. That, and particularly the fantastic illustrations in the leaflet that accompanied the album, woke up my interest.

A poster for Byron Haskin's 1953 science fiction film 'The War of the Worlds'. (Photo by Movie Poster Image Art/Getty Images)
A poster for Byron Haskin’s 1953 science fiction film ‘The War of the Worlds’. (Photo by Movie Poster Image Art/Getty Images)

It’s a look ahead, but also very much a book of its time. Have you any thoughts on how we should read War of the Worlds, other than as a yarn?

It is a book of its time. Firstly, and I think I slightly reflect this in the adaptation, Wells himself was going through a pretty difficult patch [when he wrote the novel]. He’d broken up with his [first] wife and gone to live with another woman, and he’d suffered quite a lot of disapproval from friends, family and society for that. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that some of that disappointment and aggression that he must have felt about his friends and neighbours came out in this story of essentially blowing up his neighbourhood [Woking].

There are a couple of very clear paragraphs in the book; one especially [springs to mind] in which Wells asks was this how it was for people in Tasmania to be visited by strangers for the first time, massacred by guns and bombs that they can’t understand? In the same way, Wells visits death and disaster on the people of Woking; he kind of visits the same kind of experience that Britain and the Europeans had been meting out to their colonies around the world in the 19th century. That’s still a theme that’s resonant today.

Also, of course, the way that the Martians [the race of aliens] change the geography and landscape of the world is something that’s even more important and apparent now. It’s not a steampunk-ish, nostalgic read; it’s an angry, brutal book – a piece of journalistic reportage about a war. The only real difference between it being about the Boer War or the First World War is that’s it’s got aliens and tripods in it.”

Is it a book about a lack of connections?

“It’s a book about society feeling fractured. Wells seems to take archetypes, like a soldier and a clergyman, and they seem very quickly to go completely insane, almost as though religion and the army can’t cope. The narrator does seem to be walking through a collective nervous breakdown, and more or less has a breakdown himself. It’s a subtle allegory of how thin our veneer of civilisation is; how quickly all of our institutions can fracture; and how quickly we can become savage creatures grubbing for food and water. It’s quite a Darwinist text really. The aliens are not malicious (they’ve come to Earth in order to survive and for their species to perpetuate itself). 

Actress Eleanor Tomlinson starts in the new BBC adaptation of HG Wells's 'The War of the Worlds'. (Photo by BBC/© Mammoth Screen 2018)
Actress Eleanor Tomlinson starts in the new BBC adaptation of HG Wells’s ‘The War of the Worlds’. (Photo by BBC/© Mammoth Screen 2018)

Why, if it’s not a paradox, a period science fiction tale? Why set the story in the past?

I thought that the time was right to do it because in the late Victorian and Edwardian era, Britain was at the height of its imperial powers, and at the height of its self-confidence and even arrogance. But the cracks are starting to come; the First World War wasn’t very far away, and there was great change in the air. There were a lot of things socially that were not being done in the right way. I think it’s very interesting because it feels now that we’re at a period of reevaluation of what it means to be British and the two periods seem to mirror each other quite well. Just in terms of pure entertainment, I love period drama and horror and sci-fi mashups. To me, that’s even more exciting than seeing the aliens tramp down Whitehall in 2019.

(Photo by BBC/© Mammoth Screen 2018)
I love period drama and horror and sci-fi mashups. To me, that’s even more exciting than seeing the aliens tramp down Whitehall in 2019,” says Peter Harness. (Photo by BBC/© Mammoth Screen 2018)

Did you do much research on the era?

I think the book is quite clearly set about five or six years after Wells was writing it, so that’s the beginning of the 20th century. So I researched that period and tried to make the texture as real as possible. It was very important to create a world that felt real and not sanitised, because it was important to feel the reality of the world before destroying it and visiting upon it heat rays and black smoke!

Peter Harness was talking to Jonathan Wright

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The War of the Worlds starts on BBC One at 9pm on Sunday 17 November. Find out more here