BBC vs. Fox/StudioCanal: Who wins The War of the Worlds adaptations?

I recently wrote about my favourite TV shows of 2019, yet another year in this continuing Golden Age of TV. One of the mini-series I hadn’t yet seen but was looking forward to, was BBC’s The War of the Worlds adaptation, starring Eleanor Tomlinson, who I’ve been a fan of after seeing her in the mini-series Ordeal by Innocence and 5 seasons of Poldark. While searching for articles about the show, I was surprised to find a Wikipedia link for another adaptation of H.G. Wells’ classic space invasion novel that had come out a few months earlier. Titled La Guerre des Mondes, it is a co-production from Fox TV and France’s StudioCanal. It ran for 8 episodes, was bi-lingual (French and English) and had an ensemble cast including Gabriel Byrne, Elizabeth McGovern (Lady Crowley from Downton Abbey), Lea Drucker and Stephane Caillard, among others.

At the time, my main focus was on the BBC adaptation and I thought that perhaps I would sample the first episode of the Fox/Canal version if I had the time. Well, two of the three episodes of the BBC version have aired already and I caught up with both over the weekend. Each episode clocks in at about an hour and a half, so watching this mini-series is effectively like watching three movies. The first episode fulfilled all my expectations, with the producers able to bring something fresh to a story that pretty much every viewer would already be familiar with. Although set at the start of the 20th century, there is an element of ‘wokeness’ in the show, with the main protagonists Amy and George depicted as a young couple ‘living in sin’ (George is already married) in a small town in Surrey. They have befriended a local astronomer Ogilvy who in his own words “is also a pariah, like them” (it is implied that he is gay). The early stages of the invasion are by turns engrossing, tense and eventually terrifying as the meteor that lands in the forest nearby draws large crowds who eventually pay a terrible price for their curiosity. In an interesting departure from the source material, the narrative occasionally flashes forward a few years into the future to show the bleak scenario of an England that has apparently been terraformed and is starting to resemble Mars. The second episode continues the action as the infamous tripods make their appearance and the attack spreads to London. And then half way through the second episode, the pacing grinds to a virtual standstill. The narrative bogs down in lengthy conversations among the characters, in a way that neither moves the plot forward, nor reveals anything interesting about their personalities or backstory. It’s really not easy watching a feature-length episode when nothing much happens for several minutes other than characters engaging in pointless discussions. I am now waiting to see how they tie up everything in the third and final episode airing on 1st December.

Eleanor Tomlinson on the run from a Martian tripod in BBC’s The War of the Worlds three-part mini-series

Naturally, with this experience, I was truly intrigued to see what Fox/StudioCanal had done with their version. I have watched 4 episodes so far. What a difference in the way scriptwriter Howard Overman has tackled the concept here! Altogether, La Guerre des Mondes with 8 episodes running for a relatively crisp 48 minutes each totals up to about 380 minutes as compared to the BBC production’s 315 minutes. But each episode crackles with a sense of urgency. Set in the present day in both London and France, the production makes some smart plot decisions in order to create narrative tension (cellphones and cars stop working after the invasion). It delves much deeper into human behaviour and several times I found myself wondering how I would behave in situations that those characters were facing…would I do whatever I could to save my own skin, or would I help a fellow human? How do you live with yourself when you accidentally kill someone in a moment of panic and confusion? How does one find the courage to live on when everyone you love has died? Instead of the giant tripods towering over buildings, the creative team have come up with alien machines that present a much more immediate and proximate threat. Some of the scenes are truly chilling. The way the aliens use their tech and the way it affects human beings is really interesting. I was watching a version without subtitles, so I had to guess what was going on in the few scenes where characters speak to each other in French…not a big issue (hopefully I haven’t missed any major plot points!). The show has been released in most parts of the world already and will come to Epix in the US in Feb 2020. Not to be missed!

Gabriel Byrne and Elizabeth McGovern walk among the dead in Fox/Studio Canal’s 8 episode La Guerre des Mondes

I’ll still tune in for the final episode of the BBC production and hopefully they can redeem themselves after the snooze-inducing 2nd episode. After all, they have a whole movie-length to play with! But the undisputed winner in this war is Fox/StudioCanal.

Post script: I finished the remaining 4 episodes of the Fox/Canal+ series. The show maintained the level of intensity and continued to explore the human condition in uncomfortable ways. But I was mistaken in thinking this was a self-contained mini-series, as there is no resolution at the end and it’s clear the producers are expecting to continue the story into another season (which I see myself investing in). I also watched the third and final episode of the BBC production; the pacing was no better in the finale and although the ending attempted to align with the original story’s plot hook of germs being mankind’s saviour, it was too little too late.

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