Tag Archives: War of the Worlds

Dangerous new world

An eclectic group of characters must face their own fears and flaws – as well as aliens – in The War of the Worlds, a modern update of HG Wells’ iconic story for France’s Canal+ and Fox Networks Group Europe and Africa.

For five seasons until 2013, British drama Misfits told the story of a group of young offenders brought together after they each gain superpowers following a strange electrical storm – ordinary people facing extraordinary circumstances.

Now, Misfits creator Howard Overman has applied the same concept to HG Wells’ classic 1897 story The War of the Worlds, in which aliens invade the Earth, leading to widespread devastation and destruction.

Howard Overman

Like the 2005 Tom Cruise movie of the same name, but in contrast to an upcoming BBC adaptation set at the time Wells first published the story, Overman has placed The War of the Worlds in the present day to ask his characters what they would be willing to do to survive.

The eight-part series begins when astronomers detect a transmission from another galaxy, confirming the existence of intelligent extraterrestrial life. Within days, however, mankind is all but wiped out, with only pockets of humanity left in an eerily deserted world.

The drama follows the destinies of a handful of survivors, all dealing with the sudden exodus, the loss of their loved ones and all that once gave meaning to their lives as they try to understand the reasons behind this unfathomable invasion.

Described as a unique marriage of human drama and science fiction, the show uses Wells’ story as a starting point before Overman takes it in an entirely new direction to explore human emotion during an unprecedented event, asking how people’s relationships and circumstances change when they are faced with the end of the world.

“I wanted to explore the idea that, just like HG Wells’ aliens, humanity has an almost limitless capacity to destroy those it sees as inferior or different,” Overman says. “This new interpretation of Wells’ cult novel focuses on the subtleties of human relationships, between, say, parents and children, couples, or complete strangers. The alien attack and its repercussions bring out the characters’ deepest vulnerabilities as they try to navigate this dangerous new world.”

Intriguingly, for large parts of the series, the alien is out there but can only be seen through snatched glimpses, allowing viewers’ own minds to perceive the horror confronting the characters.

But there are also lighter moments, with the extreme events facing the planet also lending themselves to stories of love, courage and hope, as well as themes of prejudice, responsibility and guilt.

Elizabeth McGovern and Gabriel Byrne in Canal+ and Fox Networks Group’s War of the Worlds

“Throughout the episodes, the series juxtaposes these contrasting ideas as the characters become increasingly complex,” continues Overman, who produces with Julian Murphy and Johnny Capps (both Merlin, Atlantis). “Cinematic and full of the mystery and intrigue that are found in the best works of science fiction, this series is both character- and action-driven.

“Our War of the Worlds is essentially a story about humanity. If aliens were to attack tomorrow, and life as we know it were destroyed, what would we do to survive? What would it teach us about other people – and, above all, about ourselves?”

The bilingual series, with characters speaking English and French, was suitably shot on both sides of the English Channel, with two units simultaneously filming four episodes at once over a period of 16 weeks. Actors jumped between scenes from different episodes, while directors Gilles Coulier (De Dag) and Richard Clark (Versailles) guided and supported them to ensure continuity across all eight episodes.

Filming took place in the Welsh cities of Cardiff and Newport as well as in London, France’s Charleville-Mézières and the Alps. Real settings such as the International Research Institute for Radio Astronomy were also used for the drama, which is produced by Urban Myth Films in partnership with AGC Television and distributed by StudioCanal.

Among those battling the aliens are Gabriel Byrne, Elizabeth McGovern, Léa Drucker, Adel Bencherif, Stephen Campbell Moore, Natasha Little, Stéphane Caillard, Guillaume Gouix and Daisy Edgar Jones.

Overman’s version of the classic story unfolds in France and the UK

Byrne (The Usual Suspects) plays Bill Ward, a committed eminent neuroscientist who will do anything to win back the woman he loves, McGovern’s Helen Brown, Bill’s ex-wife whose long-held convictions are rocked by the out-of-this-world events.

Byrne agrees with Overman when he says aliens are not the main focus of the series, which instead tells the story of humans in extreme conditions and deprived of the comfort and safety they used to take for granted. “As a scientist, Bill tries to gather together all the indecipherable clues from another world, to try to come up with a solution,” he says of his character. “As a man, he does everything he can to get back together with his ex-wife, despite the chaos they are living in.”

Describing his role as “very physical and emotionally intense,” Byrne says the project was more challenging than he anticipated. “I had to adapt to the specifics of this series – the way it was filmed, mainly, with two teams working simultaneously. We were constantly switching from one to the other, going back and forth between film sets. Under those conditions, it’s a challenge to maintain continuity, both in action and emotion.”

As McGovern explains, the series opens when Bill is trying to repair his and Helen’s marriage, with the alien invasion then throwing them back together.

“What I really loved about this project was Howard’s desire to talk about the destinies of ordinary people faced with a catastrophe that threatens life on Earth as we know it.” the Downton Abbey star explains. “He skilfully depicts our priorities, who we are, and the meaning of our relationships in a world that may be ending. That’s what I liked. He’s really interested in the characters. For me, that is far more fascinating than watching aliens from outer space attack us.”

Léa Drucker is among the French-speaking actors in the show, which brings the story into the present

Similarly, Drucker (Le Bureau des Légendes) was enticed by the opportunity to play an ordinary person in extraordinary circumstances. “I have never worked in sci-fi. I like the realistic approach – that’s how the directors wanted it. We’re not superheroes fighting aliens,” she says. “Of course, there’s a lot of action, but the whole story is very thoughtful.”

Her character, Catherine Durand, is a scientist working at an observatory in the Alps, a loner driven by a desire to discover something extraordinary. But when she’s plunged into a state of war, she’s completely overwhelmed.

To prepare for the series, Drucker studied archival footage and images of war, and also visited the Tate Britain gallery in London to look at photographs by renowned war photojournalist Don McCullin. “To me, The War of the Worlds is first and foremost about war,” she adds. “It’s a humanistic series, but also a very harsh series. The world it depicts is rough and brutal, and the aliens aren’t the only reason for it. These extraterrestrials force us to question who we are as humans.”

But while the spectacle of the alien invasion will undoubtedly take centre stage, it’s the challenges the characters face in a modern setting that the creators hope will focus the minds of viewers.

“I think this story is particularly relevant today,” says McGovern. “Because of climate change and all that’s happening in the world now, we’ve lost confidence in our dominant position. We live with this constant anxiety: Is life on Earth about to end? What does that mean for us? What does that mean for us as a species? What’s really important? What isn’t?

“By placing this contemporary reality in the imaginary context of science fiction, The War of the Worlds invites us to think about our lives and what they mean today.”

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The shape of things to come: what next for sci-fi and fantasy?

Stephen Arnell casts his eye over the television landscape and finds there are plenty of science-fiction and fantasy series in the works to keep genre fans happy.

At the same time as a tide of comic book and graphic novel TV adaptations have hit the screen, there has been a less trumpeted but increasingly visible trend in series based on ‘hard’ science fiction and ‘serious’ fantasy.

With the recent announcement of Bryan Cranston’s new Philip K Dick anthology series Electric Dreams (produced by Sony Pictures Television for Channel 4), there seems to be an unmistakable head of steam behind adaptations of ‘hard’ sci-fi – coming hot on the heels of Amazon’s critically lauded The Man in the High Castle (also based on a Philip K Dick novel) and Syfy’s miniseries version of Arthur C Clarke’s downbeat Childhood’s End.

This resurgence of more serious-minded sci-fi is demonstrated in the UK, with Channel 4 leading the way with the AMC coproduction Humans and the less viewed, but well-regarded, Utopia.

The alternate-history Axis victory premise of Amazon’s High Castle will be mirrored by BBC1’s upcoming SS-GB, which itself harks back to 1978’s BBC2 production An Englishman’s Castle, which starred Kenneth More as a TV soap writer in Nazi-occupied Britain.

Broadcasters and OTT providers have discovered a new vein to mine, as evidenced by a slew of shows being developed or in production, including HBO’s series version of Michael Crichton’s Westworld (pictured top), best known to older readers from the 1973 movie starring Yul Brynner, James Brolin and Richard Benjamin.

The alternate-history premise of The Man in the High Castle (pictured) is mirrored in SS-GB
The alternate-history premise of The Man in the High Castle (pictured) is mirrored in upcoming BBC series SS-GB

The successful movie was followed by the sequel Futureworld (1976) and short-lived 1980 series Beyond Westworld (CBS), both unfortunately following the law of diminishing returns.

Despite reported production problems, 2016’s Westworld’s stellar cast (including Anthony Hopkins, Ed Harris and Thandie Newton) and strong proposition should guarantee high initial sampling when it debuts this autumn.

Westworld creator Jonathan Nolan (co-writer with his brother Christopher of The Prestige, Interstellar, The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises) is also apparently developing a series version of Isaac Asimov’s classic Foundation trilogy (also for HBO), which is surely a prospect that will have sci-fi fans salivating.

Back in 2009, Sony reportedly tried to crack the novels with director Roland Emmerich (Independence Day, White House Down) attached, but when the project stalled, HBO stepped in to acquire the rights.

Along with JRR Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings and Frank Herbert’s Dune, Foundation was regarded as ‘unfilmable’ due to its epic scope but, following Game of Thrones’ success, epic is something HBO can confidently handle.

Other sci-fi classics reportedly in development include Stephen Spielberg’s Amblin’s take on dystopian Aldous Huxley novel Brave New World and Dan Simmons’ Hyperion, produced by aficionado Bradley Cooper.

Both have been ordered by Syfy, which is also teaming with Battlestar Galactica writer/exec producer David Eick for the series version of Frederik Pohl’s 1977 Hugo and Nebula award-winning Gateway.

On the SVoD front, Hulu has given a straight-to-series order for a 10-part adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, a feminist story set in a grim US of the future, ruled by a Ted Cruz-style totalitarian Christian theocracy, starring Elizabeth Moss (Mad Men, Top of the Lake).

Syfy miniseries Childhood's End
Syfy miniseries Childhood’s End

A movie of the novel was released in 1990, boasting an all-star cast that included Robert Duvall, Faye Dunaway and Downton Abbey’s Elizabeth McGovern, but the film suffered from script problems and was generally felt to be an interesting failure.

Darren Aronofsky (Black Swan, Noah) is said to be developing a TV series with HBO based on Atwood’s post-apocalyptic novel trilogy Oryx and Crake, The Year of the Flood and MaddAddam, set in a world where most of humanity has been wiped out by a pandemic and the survivors fight to find a reason to continue.

Back in 2011, there was talk of a remake of Ray Bradbury’s 1980 movie The Martian Chronicles (starring Rock Hudson), but this appears to have been abandoned. The revival of interest in the genre may see it resurrected, though.

US cable channel Spike has commissioned Kim Stanley Robinson’s hard sci-fi classic Red Mars for a 10-episode series debuting in January 2017. Dealing with the human colonisation of the Red Planet, the series features Vince Geradis (Game of Thrones) as exec producer.

And speaking of Mars, the daddy of all sci-fi stories – HG Wells’ War of the Worlds – is currently being developed by ITV-owned Mammoth Screen for an ostensibly authentic period version of the classic novel, scripted by Peter Harness (Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, City of Vice, Doctor Who).

Neil Marshall (Game of Thrones, Dog Soldiers, The Descent) is on board to direct, while reports earlier this year of Poldark star Aidan Turner taking the lead role of the narrator have since been denied.

HG Wells features as the protagonist of ABC’s Time After Time (based on Nicholas Meyers’ 1979 movie), which involves the author travelling from Victorian England to the present day. Kevin Williamson (The Vampire Diaries, The Following, Dawson’s Creek) is showrunner for the series.

Sky's adaptation of Neil Gaiman's Likely Stories
Sky’s adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s Likely Stories

Although Robert A Heinlein’s Starship Troopers was successfully transferred to the cinema screen by Paul Verhoeven in 1997, it remains doubtful whether a TV version of his most famous work, the controversial 1961 novel Stranger in a Strange Land (once promoted as “the most famous sci-fi novel ever written”) will ever see the light of day.

In terms of the serious fantasy genre, the BBC’s upcoming version of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy should benefit from having writer Jack Thorne (The Last Panthers, Skins, The Fades) guiding the show, which will hopefully avoid the pitfalls of 2007’s movie adaptation The Golden Compass and maintain more of an adult tone.

Scheduling and advertising will be important for the series, as the excellent Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell suffered from misleading promotion, which gave the impression of a Harry Potter-style fantasy – and aired on the wrong channel, BBC1, when BBC2 would have been far more appropriate.

Fantasy legend Neil Gaiman has certainly been a busy lad, with no less than four TV adaptations of his writings in the works, as well as his mooted big-screen version of Gormenghast, which was last seen as a BBC2 series in 2000.

Actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Looper) was due to direct a movie version of Gaiman’s Sandman, but that recently hit the buffers.

First up is American Gods for Starz in the US, which has an impressive cast including Ian McShane, Peter Stormare, Jonathan Tucker and Crispin Glover.

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell
Would BBC1’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell have fared better on BBC2?

Sean Harris (Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation, Jamaica Inn, The Borgias) has since left the production to be replaced by Pablo Schreiber (Orange is the New Black, The Wire) in the role of troubled Leprechaun Mad Sweeney, with Bryan Fuller (Hannibal, Pushing Daisies) as showrunner.

Gaiman’s Anansi Boys, which occupies the same fictional universe as American Gods, was optioned by BBC1 in the UK back in 2014, while his anthology Likely Stories has been commissioned by Sky Arts in the UK, featuring a cast that numbers Johnny Vegas (Benidorm, Ideal) and industry veteran Kenneth Cranham (Rome, War & Peace, Layer Cake), with a score by Pulp frontman Jarvis Cocker.

Directors Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard helmed and co-wrote the critically acclaimed 2,000 Days On Earth, a portrait of Aussie Renaissance Man Nick Cave.

Good Omens, Gaiman’s end-of-the-world collaboration with the late Terry Pratchett, is also being considered by the BBC for a miniseries, while Lucifer, the Fox show based on Gaiman’s character from Sandman, has recently been renewed for a second season.

Other fantasy projects with adult themes on the horizon include NBC’s Midnight, Texas (due to be transmitted this autumn), based on the novels by Charlaine Harris (True Blood), and the BBC’s The City and The City – Tony Grisoni (Red Riding, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Southcliffe) developing China Mieville’s cult novel about the cities Beszel and Ul Quoma, which occupy the same point in space and time.

And last, but by no means least, Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series, said to be the highest-selling serious fantasy novels since The Lord of the Rings, are rumoured to be under consideration by Sony for either AMC, Netflix or Amazon.

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