For over a year now, UK based audio drama company Big Finish has been producing a series of audio dramas based on the works of H.G. Wells. Along the way, they've given us a Stirling final performance from the late Sir John Hurt as The Invisible Man and even managed to turn Wells' vague future history The Shape Of Things To Come into a gripping tale. All that, however, has merely been a prologue to their adaptation of arguably Wells' best-known work: The War Of The Worlds.
Going into it, writer and director Nicholas Briggs certainly had his work cut out for him (not least because, due to Jeff Wayne's trademark from his concept album, he couldn't actually use the novel's title). Given the Doctor Who-esque title The Martian Invasion of Earth, this is also one of three different audio drama adaptations of the novel to occur over a little more than a year (The first aired in spring 2017 on BBC Radio 4 and the other, entitled The Coming Of The Martians, is due out soon from Sherwood Sound). Not to mention having been turned into the infamous Orson Welles' 1938 radio play and two well-known Hollywood films. How does one breathe new life than into an oft-told tale?
The answer Briggs has is simple: go back to basics. In the extras accompanying the download version, Briggs talks of his passion for the original novel. That passion is something that shines throughout the nearly two and a half hour running time as he produces an immensely faithful adaptation that covers many of the novel's high points from observing the Martian cylinder on Horsell Common, the first appearance of the Heat Ray and Fighting Machine, to the battle between the Royal Navy's valiant vessel Thunderchild and the Martian invaders. They're all present and correct in just such a way as to please fans of Wells' original novel.
Not that Briggs isn't afraid to make changes along the way. Perhaps the biggest change is the greatly expanded role of the main character's wife (named Amy here), effectively making her a co-lead. Her inclusion though takes nothing away from the action and indeed adds to it nicely in that it gives Herbert (the name Briggs gives to the novel's unnamed narrator) someone to talk for those portions where he was alone in the novel. Briggs also adapts the novel's storyline regarding Herbert's brother a bit, changing the timing and circumstances slightly, which leads to the Thunderchild battle coming later than one might otherwise expect. None of which is at all a bad thing, as it helps to tighten the narrative and get across events better in a visual-less medium.
It also helps that the script is brought superbly to life as well. The cast is solid from its leads down, with noted actor Richard Armitage and Big Finish regular Lucy Briggs-Owen as Herbert and his wife Amy. The pair has a nice chemistry between them that makes them believable both as a married couple and as Victorians trying to survive the Martian onslaught. Though many cast members play multiple roles in the production, highlights include Hywel Morgan as the Curate and Ewan Bailey as the Artilleryman. Put together, the cast nicely populates this tale of alien invasion.
Perhaps more than the cast though, credit for bringing this Martian invasion to life goes to those underappreciated heroes of audio drama: the sound designer and the composer. Iain Meadows' sound design brings the story to life in all of its glory though sometimes with horrific results. Meadows' takes his cue from Briggs' aim to do "in close-up what adaptations often do in long shot" (as he puts in the extras) and this approach is abundantly clear in those early scenes on Horsell Common and in the scenes where the couple and the Curate watch the Martians at work in their pit. Combined with Robertson's powerful score (itself available with the download via the Big Finish website), the result is nothing short of cinematic as it conjures up the events before one's mind's eye.
The result is a visceral, engaging, even at times horrific take on the H.G. Wells' classic. From Briggs' adaptation that is at once faithful but also refreshingly new to a solid cast and a cinematic soundscape, it is everything one could ask from an adaptation of The War Of The Worlds. It's also the triumphant conclusion to one of the best series that Big Finish has done to date.