Tony Earnshaw: Why film remakes of classic stories should stick to the script

Richard Burton brought life to Jeff Wayne's musical version of The War of the Worlds. (PA).
Richard Burton brought life to Jeff Wayne's musical version of The War of the Worlds. (PA).
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Stop me if you’ve heard this before, but I’m something of a devotee of Richard Burton. It was via the voice of the melancholy Welsh lion that I was introduced to Shakespeare, John Donne, Wilfred Owen and Dylan Thomas. Much more importantly and significantly, to me at least, he brought life to HG Wells’ The War of the Worlds as musicalised by Jeff Wayne.

I remember it well. In fact, having bought the double album back in the late ‘70s, it rarely left the record player. And this is the key point: it led directly to me reading and adoring Wells’s novel.

Thus it is that I find myself irrationally excited by the notion of a new TV version of the book which, glory of glories, retains the late Victorian/early Edwardian backdrop of Wells’s original. It hasn’t been done before, and therein lies the rub.

Spielberg’s contemporary setting with Tom Cruise battling the Martians set my teeth on edge. An earlier Hollywoodised version in the ‘50s also dumped any sense of a period, English milieu. And Orson Welles’s notorious radio adaptation 80 years ago similarly transposed the setting to ‘30s America.

I’m a firm believer that the truth of a book can rarely be delivered to the screen, no matter how honourable the intent. Even the most ardent admirer cannot help but proffer some sense of interpretation; it’s an inevitability of the process. Think Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein or Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

How many times have they been transferred to the big or small screen, and how severely have they have veered from the source? The answer, most often, is too much.

The forthcoming attempt at The War of the Worlds comes from the pen of Yorkshire-born screenwriter Peter Harness, a fine scribe and something of a specialist in the realms of the fantastique. Of course there are the inevitable changes – hero Rafe Spall is partnered with his lover, Eleanor Tomlinson. In the book the unnamed hero is teamed with his brother.

But the sheer fact that a 131-year-old tale is being given the big-budget TV treatment augurs well for more from the late, great Mr Wells. How about The Invisible Man, The Time Machine or the creeping terror of The Island of Dr Moreau?

Authenticity requires sympathy, style and confidence.

Modern audiences only become inured to lowest common denominator entertainment when that’s all they are offered.

People don’t need or want a lazy modernisation or a wholesale re-imagining.

I’m a fully paid-up member of that club. Alas, I shall miss the sonorous tones of the majestic Mr Burton when watching the Harness version of extra-terrestrial invasion this autumn. But I’ll also revel in accuracy, and that’s more important.