The original publication of The War of the Worlds was like a bombshell to an angst-ridden Britain suspicious of its neighbours. Now, why might the BBC consider a new adaption so timely? CHARLIE CONNELLY reports
There’s never really a wrong time to revive H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds. Whenever a new adaptation comes around its particular topicality is easy to pinpoint: First there was the rise of German militarism before the First World War, then Nazism and the Cold War took over and dominated the book’s first 100 years. Now, as we make our embattled way through the 21st century, it’s back again, with a major new BBC adaptation, starting this weekend, starring Eleanor Tomlinson, Rafe Spall, Robert Carlyle and Rupert Graves.
It’s testament to Wells’ prescience and rare gift as a storyteller – not to mention his eye for the commercial main chance – that his story, first published in 1897 as a series in the monthly Pearson’s Magazine, remains popular and relevant today.
Its relevance is even more remarkable when you consider the chief feature of The War of the Worlds is a bunch of tripods from Mars clumping around the Home Counties, vaporising people at will with a heat ray and a poisonous gas.
The latest revival of this classic sci-fi narrative is no surprise given the jumpiness among significant sections of the British public and its governments in recent years. When we’ve reached a point where the word ‘invasion’ in the national discourse refers almost exclusively to migration rather than a territorial threat from a foreign military power and where half a dozen frightened, freezing Iranians drifting in the Channel as their dinghy slowly deflates are deemed such a major threat to national security the navy gets involved while the home secretary goes off like a factory siren, it’s as good a time as any to revisit The War of the Worlds.
In Wells’ narrative the invasion is signalled not by battleship, dinghy nor even the opening of a Polski Sklep on the high street but by falling star, a line of flame seen heading east over Winchester and landing in the earth of Horsell Common near Woking. The spectators who gather there the next morning soon realise that this is no ordinary piece of space rock.
“It’s something more than a meteorite,” says one witness. “It’s a cylinder – an artificial cylinder, man! And there’s something inside.”
Before long there are more cylinders with more things inside and soon they’re setting about the population via giant, three-legged pieces of Martian machinery.
Wells laces a number of themes into his thrilling narrative. There’s a wry critique of British and European imperialism via a reference to the extermination of animal species and the indigenous people of Tasmania, for example.
“We must remember what ruthless and utter destruction our own species has wrought, not only upon animals, such as the vanished bison and the dodo, but upon its inferior races,” his narrator writes. “The Tasmanians, in spite of their human likeness, were entirely swept out of existence in a war of extermination waged by European immigrants in the space of 50 years. Are we such apostles of mercy as to complain if the Martians warred in the same spirit?”
There are nods to Darwinism when it looks as if it’s the Martians who are going to triumph in a struggle to establish the survival of the fittest (Wells had been a student of Thomas Huxley, an avid proponent of natural selection), not to mention social Darwinism, whereby hierarchical structures like class are established through a less violent form of natural selection, this time placing the extraterrestrials at the top.
Religion gets short shrift in the person of a clergyman struggling unsuccessfully to retain his sanity in the face of the invasion and how the novel’s denouement is largely dictated by science.
The overriding theme, however, is the alien invasion as allegory for current events.
The War of the Worlds is the most enduring example of a literary genre that was hugely popular from the 1870s until the outbreak of the First World War.
A craze for ‘invasion literature’ saw a succession of novels and short stories published during that period concerning the threat of military incursion from across the Channel. Britain had begun worrying about this in earnest in 1785 when Jean-Pierre Blanchard made the first crossing of the English Channel by hot-air balloon, reducing at a stroke the sea’s effectiveness as a defensive barrier. When Napoleon later openly discussed the possibility of tunnelling beneath the Channel those fears became even more unsettling. But it took the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 to really bring home the possibility of a European power making a land grab for Britain.
So successful had the Prussian campaign been in smashing through the French army, by means of more sophisticated equipment and unprecedented levels of organisation and discipline, that the reverberations were felt way beyond the battlefields. Britain had had its ding-dongs with the French over the years and they’d always been relatively close affairs, so if the Prussians could overwhelm the French so easily what was to stop them taking to a fleet of ironclads and sailing up the Thames to do the same to Britain?
The Battle of Dorking is a faintly ridiculous-sounding title for a story that so comprehensively stoked British fears, shook British complacency to its foundations and sparked a literary genre that would last for decades. A tale from which there is a direct line to the new television adaptation of The War of the Worlds, The Battle of Dorking ran in 1871 as a serialisation in Blackwood’s Magazine relating a crushing British military defeat at the hands of a foreign foe (never named outright but references to their pointed helmets infer it’s the newly-unified Germans) from the perspective of a British veteran reminiscing half a century later.
Published anonymously, The Battle of Dorking painted a picture of an utterly shambolic British response to the invading army, from the utter disorganisation of the top brass to troops and equipment shown up as woefully inadequate when the ramshackle force finally makes it to the theatre of war in deepest Surrey, overwhelmed by a combination of their own incompetence and the invaders’ mysterious advanced weaponry referred to only as ‘fatal engines’.
The serialisation caused a sensation, and when it was subsequently published as a novella it immediately sold 100,000 copies. There were claims the tale was in fact the translation of a piece of French propaganda, while some British newspapers carried a story from the North German Gazette that found it “incredible that an Englishman would voluntarily undertake to render his country ridiculous abroad… it is very evident the writer of this foolish lubrication has the interests of France much more at heart than those of England”.
Even the prime minister William Gladstone weighed in to the controversy, warning against the kind of “alarmism” promoted by The Battle of Dorking during a speech given in Whitby, appropriately a key location in a very different but no less significant kind of invasion novel, Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Lamenting how The Battle of Dorking “makes us look ridiculous in the eyes of the world”, Gladstone attempted to limit the damage.
“The power of this country is not decaying, it is increasing in itself and increasing as compared with the power of other nations in Europe,” he insisted. “It is only our pride, it is only our passions, it is only our follies that were ever a danger to us. If we can master these then no foe can hurt us.”
Eventually the author of The Battle of Dorking broke cover. He was not a Frenchman, nor could he really be accused of seeking Britain’s downfall. He was Devon-born George Tomkyns Chesney, a man who had spent his entire career in the military, including 20 years’ service in India that left him shocked at the ragged state of the British army, and inspired him to write The Battle of Dorking. Chesney would eventually become the Conservative Member of Parliament for Oxford, was knighted in 1890 and reached the rank of general two years later, suggesting that the consequences were minimal for the man who riled a prime minister and
inspired some 400 further invasion
novels and short stories that exploited a self-doubt at the heart of Englishness, a vulnerability beneath the patriotic bluster.
While Britain’s empire covered large parts of the globe, at the heart of the nation itself lurked apprehension, a nervous eyeing of the Channel horizon and a sense the country was falling behind its European counterparts in influence and military power, a feeling entirely at odds with the prevailing noisy patriotism.
Chesney’s novella inspired sequels and counters that only exacerbated the issue. Within weeks of the original there followed the anonymously authored What Happened After The Battle of Dorking: Reminiscences of a Volunteer Being An Account Of The Victory at Tunbridge Wells, and in 1887 came The Battle off Worthing: Why The Invaders Never Got To Dorking, by ‘A Captain in the Navy’. This featured an extraordinary passage describing conditions at the time of the invasion that could easily have been written about the Brexit climate of today.
“We fell into a state of self-complacency and apathy towards all but our commercial interest,” it read. “A dearth of great men was apparent. England, seeking to isolate herself from the world, no longer produced sons fit to cope with it. Our rulers were men of comparatively small calibre, which would have been evident enough but for the fatal indifference which was upon the nation; lulled by a false security, every step of our policy only added to our degradation and, at the same time, to our self-complacency.
“We have always been a bragging power but, in olden days, we had something to brag about while, at the time of which I speak, we had nothing, yet, at no period of our history were we more self-laudatory and more egotistically inclined to gloat over our neighbours’ misfortunes and shortcomings. We soon became, in consequence, well hated on all sides, nor was this hatred towards us mingled with respect, for while wilfully blind towards our weakness we had made it apparent enough to Europe and the world at large.”
The Anglo-French journalist William Le Queux was another who successfully channelled this quixotic mixture of fear and complacency into a number of espionage and invasion thrillers around the turn of the 20th century. There was The Great War in England in 1897 about an invasion by France and then, following the Entente Cordiale signed between the two countries in 1904, The Invasion of 1910, serialised first in the Daily Mail before going on to sell more than a million copies in book form. This tale documented as if it were historical fact a German fleet assembling at the Frisian Islands before launching an invasion – on a Sunday to catch Britain off guard.
Chapters with titles like “British Abandon Colchester”, “Germans Sacking The Banks” and “Revolts In Shoreditch and Islington” suggest the flavour of a book that ends with the almost visible finger wag that, “the British nation had been warned against the danger; it ignored that warning”.
For all their popularity at the time, these books and their authors are all but forgotten, yet The War of the Worlds remains a staple of English literature that’s never far from the national consciousness, whether via a television adaptation or a concept album by a member of ELO. This particular brand of science fiction keeps itself contemporary – the story still feels futuristic, even allowing for its Victorian setting – and of all the invasion stories Wells’ is arguably the most successful in tapping into latent, insular British fears.
Like Chesney in The Battle of Dorking Wells chooses as his setting leafy Surrey, a location that mixes the rural and urban by being near enough to a city for its inhabitants to identify with it, while also being rural enough for countryside dwellers to picture their own locality being overrun by three-legged monsters from Mars.
Wells had moved to a semi-detached house in Woking at 141 Maybury Road in 1895 and was living there when he married his second wife Amy Robbins. It was at Maybury Road that he would truly establish himself as a fiction writer not least through The War of the Worlds, inspired as it was by his morning walks and cycles around the locality with his brother Frank.
A discussion with Frank on one of these excursions led to the brothers imagining an alien invasion among the quiet streets of Woking and its surrounding villages, with Wells in particular enjoying conjuring vivid scenes of carnage and destruction.
“I’m doing the dearest little serial for Pearson’s new magazine in which I completely wreck and sack Woking,” he wrote to a friend, “killing my neighbours in painful and eccentric ways.”
He chose well: the Martian cylinders land in locations like Horsell Common and on a golf course in Addlestone, places that felt as safe as they were dull, dozing localities as far from the machinations of world events as it was possible to be, let alone interplanetary ones.
The first arrivals at the first smoking cylinder are “a couple of cyclists, a jobbing gardener”, not to mention “two or three loafers and golf caddies who were accustomed to hang about the railway stations”.
These were people Wells saw every day, people for whom life bore no consequences in a place where time was in no particular rush beyond the vagaries of the suburban railway timetable. Where better to hurl a Martian cat among the complacent pigeons of England?
Today, not far from Woking railway station, there is a 23-foot high sculpture of a Wellsian tripod in tribute to the town’s interplanetary notoriety that commuters and shoppers pass with barely a glance.
Meanwhile, some 140 million miles away, somewhere on the dusty surface of Mars sits the defunct Phoenix lander. Attached to the exterior of the probe, made from a hardwearing silica that should protect it from the Martian elements for hundreds of years, is a DVD containing, among other things, the full text of The War of the Worlds.
As the same fears that Wells first stoked in 1898 dictate British politics in the 21st century, there’s something faintly reassuring about there being a far corner of a foreign planet that is forever Woking.
The War Of The Worlds starts on BBC One at 9pm on November 17