Adapting literature for television: (or, why doesn’t The War of The Worlds work for me)

My house has been watching the recent BBC adaptation of The War of the Worlds, and we have been disappointed. It is not that the story itself is at fault, for it is not. There isn’t much of HG Wells’ work that is. The problem resides in that notion of adaptation, of taking something that works in one medium and making it fit for another, and how sometimes a text exerts considerable effort against allowing this to happen. I write of a text as though it is a thing, capable of feeling and thought and reason, and in one way it is. “Language is a skin”, says Barthes, “I rub my language against the other. It is as if I had words instead of fingers, or fingers at the tip of my words. My language trembles with desire.” Words seek for connection, for sustenance. Language does not exist in isolation. Neither do texts. They yearn for connection, for completion. For readers, yes, but also for each other.

I’m reaching slowly here towards the notion of intertextuality, that is, to turn to Barthes once more, the “quotation without quotation marks”, the point of connection within one text to another without perhaps either of them ever quite knowing it. Of course, sometimes they do and those connections are made with a sly look towards the camera and a knowing wink, but sometimes those connections are like smoke in the wind. Solid, for a brief moment, seen only by a privileged few, and then gone, changed into something else –

It’s that point where adaptation lies. Do you hold onto what was – the memory of that moment of solidity – or do you yearn back towards the text that was and not the text that shall be? Do you craft something that echoes the memory of itself, or do you try and remake that thing however imperfect or laboured that remaking might be?

I remember being terrified by the War of the Worlds album when I was younger; I remember the precise point

I’m listening to it now, remembering that moment. The way that it’s layered, so thickly with story and sound, the way that it gives space to the action and the way that it gives space to the utter madness of what’s happening. There’s a risk in adapting something in that we want to fill every inch of the silence with something. It’s a risk in anything, teaching for example. I have taught myself to not fill the silences when I teach, to let other people step into that gap and provide the answers that I’m asking for, rather than providing them myself. Rather than filling the silence.

The War of the Worlds is a quick book, pacy in that way that so much of Wells’ work is, but it is a book also full of silence. How can anything concerned with an invasion from another world not have silence? Horror – fear – terror. It’s noise, but it’s also silence. You don’t think when you’re scared but then, once you realise what you’re scared about, that’s the point where it becomes horrific. That’s the point of realisation. That’s Thunder Child disappearing and the knowledge that there’s nothing else out there that can save you. That’s knowing that the Earth belongs to the Martians.

That’s silence.

The War of the Worlds BBC

And I think that’s where the BBC series struggles. It is an adaptation concerned with filling the gaps, with giving you big set pieces that are undoubtedly well done, but there is nothing in between but circumstance. Characters are parted, characters reunite, and roofs fall in conveniently specific manners to kill off secondary characters. A scene is reminiscent of Dunkirk; a character says ‘we’re sailing to Dunkirk’; an echo becomes a bludgeon, the quotation becomes no longer silent but bold, underlined and framed on the wall for all to see. This is not a book that should be seeking for such moments, it is the book that made the echo happen.

We shall prevail with this adaptation and watch the rest of it, out of morbid curiosity I suspect rather than anything else, but I do not think that it will be good.

(His Dark Materials, however, is rather transcendent.).

4 thoughts on “Adapting literature for television: (or, why doesn’t The War of The Worlds work for me)

  1. I liked this. I think we have the same issues with it, aside from the strangely ‘fidgety’ timeline of events as they unfold in the series, it’s the commonality with other adaptations – that viewers want to see something that either echoes (often clumsily) events happening around them in their own time, their own world, in a piece of fiction that is largely set a century before. The biggest issue I’ve had with all the adaptations of “War of the Worlds” (including the excellent 2005 animated feature that was totally eclipsed by the awful Tom Cruise vehicle that came out at around the same time) is the notion that adaptations don’t need to be utterly faithful to the original to work for folk who’ve previously held the book in high esteem. It’s quite alright to change things, it’s OK to rip huge passages of the book out, it’s fine to tweak scenes or water them down to suit a budget, or to change the underlying message of a book to fit some other idyll.

    With this, as I said on Twitter, it’s like being gifted an expensive looking box of Guylian rip-off chocolates that look the part, but once you bite in, you find they’re really horrible, faux and greasy. We’ve still yet to see a “good” version of any of H.G. Wells’ books IMHO but aside from the musical adaptation of WotW, nothing’s put the fear of grud into me as effectively as that book did as a younger reader.

    1. Apologies for the delay in approving this! It went into the spam filter. I am shocked and appalled at the nerve of wordpress and have yelled at it appropriately…!

  2. I’m hoping episode three will redeem what came before but I don’t hold much hope: as with you, thinking and reflection have been superseded by crash-bang-wallop, meaning that it just becomes another meaningless superhero epic. I appreciate the production values but…

    His Dark Materials is, however, the opposite: I invest in the principals, engage with the emotions, relish the little details. I must now reread Wells’ novel to see what my callow teenage self patently missed!

    1. There’s just such an over reliance on big noisy set pieces! Now compare that with those little, still subtle moments of Lyra on the boat just taking in her new world and the difference is palpable.

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