Interview with Peter Harness, writer and executive producer of BBC One drama The War Of The Worlds

The War Of The Worlds: A major adaptation by Peter Harness of H.G. Wells’ classic sci-fi title

Do you remember the first time you were aware of The War Of The Worlds?
Like a lot of people my age, I think my first experience would have been Jeff Wayne's musical version, which everybody had in 1978. I still think it is a very cool album and recall the pictures that accompanied the album being particularly striking. I remember the people fleeing from the tripods, specifically a terrified woman in an Edwardian dress screaming. I found it very exciting.

I then read the book in my teens, and have done a few times since. Re-reading the book I discovered it still held its impact. One of the things I find most interesting is that people tend to interpret the H.G. Wells classic as being all steam punk and Jules Verne in its visual nature, but actually it’s quite stark. It’s an unflinching portrayal of terror, war, danger and panic. I wanted to reflect that in this series and not make it distant or cosy or charming. I wanted it to feel very real and modern in that way.

What challenges came from introducing the main characters of George and Amy into this adaptation?
I think what I have managed to do is characterise the people that are mentioned in the book a bit more. There are not many characters in the book. The narrator isn’t named and neither is his wife or brother, but they all have a crucial part to play in the narrative. One of the hardest things to flush out in the adaptation process is to populate the story with characters and make it about their personal journey. The book is more like a piece of reportage similar to a piece of journalism. The original text touches on the mental state of the characters but it doesn’t really go very deep into them. So the challenge was to build the architecture of a character drama underneath the larger set pieces and big moments within the story, but to make it about the characters.

How does that play out on screen?
I think the clearest choice that I made from the start of this project was to give the male character a wife who had strength of character in her own right. I called the male character George, (played by Rafe Spall), which was the name H. G. Wells was best known as. In this adaptation George’s wife is the person who carries the narrative from beginning to end. I didn’t want to write another sci-fi series where a man is getting into scrapes and (like in the book), packs his wife away out of harm’s way and doesn’t see her until the very end. I wanted her to have a name of her own so I gave the character the name of Amy, which was the name of H.G. Wells’ wife.

How important was it for you to create the character of Amy and to give her a name, voice and strong character arc?
It was very important to me to make the female character three-dimensional. Whatever I write I try and focus on having a strong female lead in it because I think it should be the natural way of doing things. I have written the character of Amy as a lot stronger and more practical than George. I like Amy because I feel that she is a character I have invented from scratch and she and Ogilvy (played by Robert Carlyle) become a kind of double act. They are both very likable, which we see as their relationship unfolds. They are much more characterised than they are in the book.

What elements of the original story were not to be compromised?
What I wanted to do by setting the story close to the period it was originally intended to be set, was to use the end of the Victorian and start of the Edwardian empire as a way of making parallels with how the world looks now. By doing this we can explore what crossovers there are regarding politics, invasion, colonialism and empire building.

As a screenwriter and adaptor you are tweaking the narrative in different ways, perhaps moving certain characters higher in the mix or telling a slightly different character story or as I have done, added a different dystopian strand to the script in order to make that work. You then also have to provide the audience with something that they expect to balance it all out. So the audience will want to see the larger set piece sequences, such as the cylinder buried in Horsell Common, and the heat ray and the Thunder Child battleship scene, and London being destroyed for example. We’ve made some quite interesting choices on how we depict those events which I hope will deliver it to an audience that will still be a surprise.

How is this adaptation faithful to H.G. Wells’ vision?
This adaptation is faithful to the book in terms of the radicalism of H.G. Wells’ storytelling. It was a surprising book back then and we hope to have made this a surprising adaptation now. It was a politically charged book about things outside of itself, referencing politics and the state of the world. It was part of the birth of science fiction and part of the birth of the idea that you could use science fiction as a way to tell stories about the world and politics. It shines a light on the way the world is governed and the way people behave and I think it will resonate even today.

How have you designed the narrative so that it works as three separate episodes?
The way I have broken it up is that each of the three episodes still feels like it is collectively the same story, but that they each have a different feel to them. The first episode is about building tension, uncertainty and the fear, as well as creating the world we are about to destroy. The second episode is more to do with action and where the war really happens.

Finally, the third episode is more of a contained horror, a thriller narrative. It's an interesting way to create a series, by looking at what the individual tone and feeling is for each episode and what kind of different experience you are giving the audience each time they sit down to watch.

As a writer what are you most excited about seeing come to life with this series?
It's often those big moments, with tripods towering over London, that are the most surprising things for me to see. Often you are spending your time as a writer trying to get the dialogue and characterisation right, so you forget about the amazing layer of exciting added extras that will be created on top of it, which become this wonderful gift.

Pictured: George (Rafe Spall), Amy (Eleanor Tomlinson), Mary (Freya Allen)

November 12, 2019 7:05am ET by BBC One  


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