The H.G. Wells Big Finish Classics releases have finally come to their belated end with The Martian Invasion of Earth, an adaption of The War of the Worlds. The War of the Worlds is surely Wells’s most adapted work, having been reworked almost from the moment of its 1897 serialisation. American newspapers published localised versions of the story right away that reduced the imperialist critique and upped the jingoism; two Punch contributors satirised the novel with The War of the Wenuses. Later, the Orson Welles version made an indelible mark on American culture, and in 2005, Steven Spielberg transformed the novel for the post-9/11 era.
With all those versions floating around, what’s a new adapter to do? The typical Big Finish Classics approach is to go back to the text as closely as the medium will allow, but even that’s been done a lot recently. The BBC broadcast a relatively faithful audio adaptation scripted by Melissa Murray last year, and former Big Finish contributor Martin Johnson’s crowdfunded faithful adaption The Coming of the Martians is supposedly coming out imminently.
In the original novel, the anonymous narrator’s wife is packed off to her sister’s early on, leaving the narrator on his own for most of the book. Even by 1897 standards, it was recognised that Wells’s story was low on female characters; the narrator of The War of the Wenuses parodies this by saying of his wife, “I did not care to have her with me. In all such adventures I find her more useful as a sentimental figure in the background — I, of course, allow no sentiment in the foreground — than an active participant”. Nicholas Briggs’s script takes a reversal of this set-up as its main point of departure from the original novel. Here, Richard Armitage plays Herbert Wells and Lucy Briggs-Owen his wife Amy, and Amy never leaves Herbert’s side. The two are co-equal adventurers throughout most of the story.
The opening parts of the story are the strongest, even if I question the wisdom of any adapter who removes the novel’s still-chilling opening lines. These parts of the story proceed pretty faithfully to the novel, as they do in most of its adaptations: the observations of Mars, “The chances against anything manlike on Mars are a million to one”, the crash of the first cylinder, the crowds observing it, the flag of peace rejected, the heat-ray. Wells’s writing is surprisingly a good fit for Nicholas Briggs’s proclivities as a writer; both men love their comic members of the lower classes and people who have to repeat themselves ten times to be understood. Briggs’s Herbert is a bit more proactive than Wells’s narrator, but overall this is a straightforward if sometimes by-the-numbers take on Wells’s strong original material. The inclusion of Amy doesn’t really change the story much, except for the occasional scene — obligatory in all adaptations of Victorian material — where Herbert tries to keep her out of the action and she asserts herself over his protests.
It’s the second half of the story where including Amy backfires. The power of Book II of the original War of the Worlds comes from the sense of isolation, the feeling that everything that once made up civilisation has fallen away. The narrator can’t trust the representatives of the church or military that he meets, and at times he can barely trust himself. With Amy there, though, this is all gone, and what remains is a pretty generic survival narrative. The second half is also undermined by how quickly it moves, which prevents it from really drawing out the tension of the very desperate scenarios Herbert and Amy find themselves in.
H.G. Wells’s real-life second wife was Amy Catherine Robbins, but other than that, I could detect no resemblance between the story’s Herbert and Amy and the real H.G. Wells and his wife. Amy Catherine was known as “Jane” during her marriage to H.G., and published under the name “Catherine Wells”, but the couple actually referred to each other as “Bits” and “Bins” in private! Richard Armitage is an excellent “get” for Big Finish, but he’s not quite the over-ruminative intellectual, and Lucy Briggs-Owen displays considerably more backbone than the real Jane ever did. If you’re able to put your real-life knowledge of the Wellses aside, though, you should find them strong performers. I do hope Armitage does more Big Finish!
Even when I have reservations, though, this run of H.G. Wells adaptations from Big Finish has been an excellent undertaking. I can’t think of anything else like it, for taking a range of great stories by a great writer, and adapting all of them, allowing for a wide variety of approaches — from the very faithful The Time Machine to the experimental The Shape of Things to Come. I’m glad that Martian Invasion of Earth has finally come along to cap this set off, and I look forward to listening to these stories again and again.
The Martian Invasion of Earth (by H.G. Wells, Nicholas Briggs; starring Richard Armitage, Lucy Briggs-Owen) was released by Big Finish Productions in February 2018.