28 August 2015

The War of the Worlds and Faithfulness

Martin Johnson, who's done a lot of sound design for Big Finish and Bafflegab, is producing an adaptation of H. G. Wells's The War of the Worlds that he's funding through Kickstarter. I've pledged my support, as it looks like an interesting project (and you should too).

Inside: sex tips and future-war fiction
I was happy to see Johnson correctly refer to the novel as being written in 1897; it was first published as a book in 1898, which means a lot of people refer to it as an 1898 novel, but in reality, it was serialized in 1897, in Pearson's Magazine in the UK, and in Cosmopolitan in the US (yes, Cosmo).

But as someone who occasionally dabbles in adaptation theory, there is some fascinating rhetoric used in the project description:
This groundbreaking novel became an instant success placing fear into the hearts of children and adults the world over. In the 118 years since the novel was first serialized in Pearson's Magazine there have been numerous adaptations of Wells' original story in all kinds of media. Seven films, various radio dramas, graphic novels, television series and sequels or parallel stories all derived from the original text in some form.

The only issue with all of these adaptations is one of faithfulness to Wells' original story. Changes have included the tone and feel of the story, the geographical location, the Victorian time period in which the action is set, the fighting machine design, etc.

None of these adaptations have been truly faithful to H. G. Wells' original story; This is where we come in...
Faithfulness is kind of a weird thing. What is a faithful adaptation of The War of the Worlds? Wells's original intention was to tell a story about aliens tearing up the countryside of his readers. The book was not about an alternate history, or an assault on a distant, historical landscape. The book was about what would happen if aliens attacked you the reader, about how the imperial relationships of the reader's world would be rendered if transplanted to the context of aliens from Mars. For me, that's the essence of The War of the Worlds, that's what makes the story what it is: when the narrator's hiding in a ruined house, it could be your house.

So it's natural, then, that adaptations of The War of the Worlds are set in the present day; I would argue that Steven Spielberg was being incredibly faithful in his 2005 adaptation when he transplanted the story to contemporary New Jersey. That's what The War of the Worlds is all about. There are things about that movie that do not work, but the period transformation is not one of them. And why do we want our adaptations to meticulously maintain the original, where there still is an original? If I want to experience Martians invading Victorian Britain,* I can just read the book!

Dear Warwick,
Thanks for your illustrations.
They sucked.
Love, H. G.
I do wonder about the point of emphasizing the design of the Martian fighting-machines for two reason. The first is that if they're referring to Warwick Goble's illustrations from the serial in Pearson's, Wells actually didn't like them! There's actually an explicit dissing of them in the (illustration-free) 1898 novel version:
I recall particularly the illustration of one of the first pamphlets to give a consecutive account of the war. The artist had evidently made a hasty study of one of the fighting-machines, and there his knowledge ended. He presented them as tilted, stiff tripods, without either flexibility or subtlety, and with an altogether misleading monotony of effect. The pamphlet containing these renderings had a considerable vogue, and I mention them here simply to warn the reader against the impression they may have created. They were no more like the Martians I saw in action than a Dutch doll is like a human being. To my mind, the pamphlet would have been much better without them.
The second reason is that this is an audio drama. No one will see any tripods!

But Johnson is right that original-period adaptations of The War of the Worlds are rarely undertaken (the biggest exceptions I know of are a comic by Ian Edginton and D'Israeli and a terrible movie by Pendragon), and I look forward to hearing how they handle the transformation to audio, as The War of the Worlds is a book without much dialogue and with a lot of narration. There is this real creepy feel of loneliness and desperation in the second half of the novel that I have rarely seen adapted successfully. And I have full trust in Lisa Bowerman's directing prowess, after hearing her tackle the fantastic in the Victorian era time and again in Jago & Litefoot. So I've backed it, and I look forward to hearing it.

The Coming of the Disco Beats
Also: this Kickstarter taught me that thanks to his goofy musical version of The War of the Worlds, Jeff Wayne has a trademark on the title "The War of the Worlds" in the UK, so this adaptation has to be called The Coming of the Martians. How bizarre.

* One should note, however, that the book actually takes place in the future, so if it's after January 1901, which it probably is, the book isn't Victorian, either.

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