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.
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.).