H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds has always been a better premise than it has been a story. The premise is just so interesting and malleable that it can be adapted and readapted into any number of different permutations. It’s this ability, more than the content of the actual story, that has allowed the novel to stand the test of time. Most of the well-known adaptations of the novel bear strikingly little in common with it – Orson Welles’ radio drama moves the action to America in the 1930s, and the two major film versions do the same thing, just in different time periods. One of the most well-known adaptations – that also skews pretty closely to the content of the original novel – was Jeff Wayne’s musical adaptation of the story. First released as a concept album in the 1970s, his adaptation has seen massive popularity in multiple worldwide tours. On the fortieth anniversary of the original release of that adaptation, Audible has released a new adaptation of Jeff Wayne’s musical – an audio drama featuring music from the musical and a new script. Is it as good as the musical? Well, I’m not sure I’d quite go that far, but it is pretty darn enjoyable.
When H. G. Wells first published The War of The Worlds in 1898, the novel quickly became a sci-fi classic. The story of extraterrestrials from Mars invading Earth captured the public’s imagination, inspiring a famed 1938 radio broadcast with Orson Welles, several feature films, countless video games, and a best-selling musical concept album by Jeff Wayne in 1978, among others.
Immersing listeners in a world that is as thrilling as it is desolate, Jeff Wayne’s eerie and pulsating score brings the suspense, drama, and urgency of Wells’s original novel to a fever pitch in this Audible Original Drama. Michael Sheen headlines an ensemble cast of talented performers that also includes Taron Egerton, Adrian Edmondson, Theo James, and Anna-Marie Wayne.’
One of the first things to note about this new adaptation of War of the Worlds is that it’s billed as a “Musical Drama”. This is a bit misleading; when you hear that phrase, you probably are imagining an audio drama featuring dialogue and people singing – a hybrid of Jeff Wayne’s original music adaptation and a more in-depth script. This isn’t really what you’re gonna get. The “Musical” elements of this “Musical Drama” come in the form of instrumental tracks from Jeff Wayne’s original score (and some new tracks composed by Wayne, himself). Most of the iconic songs are represented, including “The Eve of War”, “Forever Autumn”, “Horsell Common and the Heat Ray”, and “Dead London”. But this adaptation is not a musical. None of the lyrics featured in any of the songs from the musical are present in this version. None of these actors sing. It’s all spoken dialogue mixed with instrumental music. This isn’t a complaint, necessarily, just an observation. I went into this unsure if it would have singing, and I’m not disappointed that it didn’t, as what we got works just as well as, if not better than, it would have worked as a more conventional musical.
So, with that out of the way, what does this adaptation have? Well, it’s a pretty faithful adaptation of the book (and Jeff Wayne’s original musical). It has all the plot beats you’d expect and all of the character beats and, like I said earlier, all of the major songs you’d want to hear. Additionally, it seems to flesh out certain things a lot more than the musical did, and even adds a bit of stuff to the novel. This is particularly evident in the fact that two of the ten episodes (episodes 4 and 5, if I remember correctly, though it’s possible it’s 5 and 6) are told completely from the Journalist’s wife’s point of view (instead of from the Journalist’s point of view, as the other eight episodes are told from). Those two episodes let us see a bit of what the Journalist’s wife got up to while she was separated from the Journalist (though, mostly she’s just given stuff that the Journalist’s brother had in the novel). There are other little changes here and there, but primarily, it’s just a really good dramatization of the novel mixed with some of the songs from the musical. The script is nothing to write home over; there’s nothing particularly groundbreaking or anything, but it’s still well-written, well-paced, and very enjoyable.
The highlight of this adaptation is Jeff Wayne’s score mixed with Michael Sheen’s performance as the Journalist. Michael Sheen does a stunning job in this adaptation. He’s able to start off the drama feeling as detached as you’d expect a journalist to be when covering a story like this, but as the story goes on and he gets more and more involved in certain things, Sheen is able to bring this stunning amount of humanity to the character. His scenes with the Artilleryman (Taron Egerton) and Parson Nathaniel (Theo James) are particular highlights as we really get to hear Sheen shift between different extreme emotions. The rest of the cast are equally great, but, naturally, it’s Sheen who has to do the heavy lifting here. The way that Wayne (who also directed and produced this adaptation) is able to weave the dialogue and his music together is pretty impressive, too. There is, perhaps, just a bit too much of the music – primarily because every episode features at least one scene where the dialogue stops so a minute or two of the music can just play – but, more often than not, the mixture of the music and the dialogue works well. There are plenty of instances where the music amps up the tension in a scene just by being there. Most audio dramas have a soundtrack, so why not have that soundtrack be one as good as Jeff Wayne’s original musical adaptation of the same story?
All in all, Jeff Wayne’s The War of the Worlds – The Musical Drama is a really fun, really enjoyable adaptation of H.G. Well’s novel and Jeff Wayne’s original musical adaptation. It blends together the score of the musical with the new dialogue and excellent performances. The directing and sound design are the biggest standouts of this adaptation, alongside Michael Sheen’s excellent performance as the Journalist. I’m not sure if I’d say this adaptation is as good as Wayne’s original musical or the original novel, but it’s certainly still very, very good. It’s very well-paced, features some really good character moments, and ultimately tells the story in a very unique, entertaining way. I highly recommend it to anyone who loves the book or the musical.
4 out of 5 wands