‘The Coming of the Martians’ reviewed

❉ Colin Morgan stars in a full-cast audio dramatisation of H. G. Wells’ seminal sci-fi epic The War of the Worlds.

H.G. Wells is no stranger to getting the adaptation-to-other-media treatment. Writing his stories alongside, or just in advance of, the development of cinema, radio and television – his body of work has been a popular source of inspiration. Adaptations of his stories started as far back as 1902 and continue to this day.

Of all of Wells’ stories, The War of the Worlds is perhaps the best known and most often adapted. From Orson Welles’ infamous 1938 radio play to the classic 1953 film with its Oscar winning special-effects and on to later versions such as Spielberg’s big-budget adaptation in 2005, the story is rarely left to gather dust.  Perhaps most famous of all, to fans of prog-rock double-albums, is Jeff Wayne’s musical adaptation which produced a hit single in Forever Autumn and has given generations of children immense pleasure in recreating the ominous ULLA sound of the Martian war machines.

“Colin Morgan gives us a performance that draws on the horror of the sights the narrator witnesses. He’s not a hero at all and the shock of the Martian attack is played as a descent into a kind of shell-shocked cowardice.”

What there hasn’t been, until now, is an attempt to create a version of the story set in the same time and place as the novel, and while the BBC TV version continues to be filmed – much of it around North Liverpool, with Formby woods doubling for the Horsham Common landing ground – producer Martin Johnson, director Lisa Bowerman and writer Nick Scovell have turned their attention to the spoken-word medium and given us The Coming Of The Martians, Sherwood Studio’s “faithful audio adaptation” of the book. What “faithful” means in this context is a matter for debate. There’s always the need to take this term with a pinch of salt – the production can’t be truly faithful when you have the requirements of compressing a 287-page novel into an hour and a half long play. That’s not to say that this isn’t, as far as I’m aware, the current winner of the most-faithful adaptation prize and the sacrifices that the adaptation has to make in order to work are done pretty effectively here. It’s worth noting that whilst the book is now out of copyright, there are legal issues about who owns and can use the name, hence the official title of the version reviewed here.

Colin Morgan (Merlin, The Living And The Dead) takes on the role of the unnamed narrator whose curiosity and relationship with the astronomer Ogilvy (Dan Starkey – Doctor Who, Class Dismissed) leads him to be caught up in the beginnings of the Martian invasion of earth. He witnesses first-hand the carnage caused by the heat-ray, the tripods and the black smoke, and loses contact with his wife (Olivia Poulet – The Thick Of It). His attempts to get away are hampered by not only the Martian threat, but the collapse of the society around him and the presence of his travelling companion, the Curate, played to hand wringing and self-pitying perfection by Ronald Pickup in a very different voice performance to the one he gave to Aslan the lion in the BBC Narnia adaptations. Nigel Lindsay (Four Lions, Victoria) voices the artilleryman, a recurring character who brings another point of view on the Martian threat. The cast is rounded out with Luke Kempner as the narrator’s brother, Molly Hanson as his fiancé and Stephen Critchlow as the captain of the Thunder Child. Nick Scovell and Lisa Bowerman add additional parts.

“This adaptation is also being presented in a surround sound mix for the DVD version of the release and there’s a joy to be had hearing the scything arc of the heat beam sweep around your head as you listen to the crowds of Edwardian gawkers get fried.”

The book itself is told in flashback, a framing device that this adaptation mostly does away with. Sensibly, of course, as it allows the world to be built through sound-design, which has to take in not only the noises of human chaos, but also the sounds of the attacking machines (ULLA!) and their weapons. This adaptation is also being presented in a surround sound mix for the DVD version of the release and there’s a joy to be had hearing the scything arc of the heat beam sweep around your head as you listen to the crowds of Edwardian gawkers get fried. Where Wells’ main concern sometimes seems to be that his character is hat-less (he mentions this in the book several times. It’s clearly a terrifying thing for a gentleman), Morgan gives us a performance that draws on the horror of the sights the narrator witnesses. He’s not a hero at all and the shock of the Martian attack is played as a descent into a kind of shell-shocked cowardice. The confrontation scenes as the relationship between Morgan and Pickup’s characters breaks down is a great sequence – there’s a particularly satisfying set off sound effects to accompany the peak of their confrontation. Another benefit to this adaptation is that you can hear the voices rather than having to read Wells’ clumsy renderings of them in the written speech (“I’m a-goin’ ‘ome, I am”).

Particularly effective is the Thunder Child sequence. This expands on the version in the book by cutting between the view of the passenger-ship travellers and the deck of the Thunder Child itself. The tumult of the battle plays out in excellent fashion through the sound design and the approach in the adaptation keeps us focused on the human cost by letting us hear the crew of the Thunder Child as they protect the shipping lanes.

Musically, the score works well although the main theme could perhaps have been made shorter – a more dramatic sting, rather than an overture in itself – to allow a couple of extra minutes storytelling time. This adaptation, like the book it must be said, does hurry towards the ending and wraps up almost too neatly, but at least introduces a nice sequence of dialogue on a train to replace the short epilogue chapter of the book. An extra twenty minutes of material and the adaptation to be presented episodically may have given opportunity for more of Wells’ descriptions of the Martians, their machines and their impact to play out (and for us to enjoy even more of the excellent sound design), but as it is, the way the story has been fitted into the running time is definitely an achievement and helps to remind the listener why this is a story that is constantly revisited.


❉ ‘The Coming of the Martians’ is released on 30th July 2018 and will be available as a digital download and physically as a 2-CD set, a limited edition DVD edition and a Special Edition USB box-set – designed as a replica of the first edition of Wells’ book. Pre-orders are open at www.sherwoodsoundstudios.com/shop/

 

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