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Since Orson Welles first boomed about an alien invasion over the radio waves in 1938, War of the Worlds has become a mythical tale in the modern lexicon. Now Gabriel Byrne and Elizabeth McGovern are set to take it to the small screen in modern day Paris and London.
“Sometimes we can care more about fiction than we can about fact,” Byrne said of how the sci-fi series can be seen in this tumultuous political time.
The CanalPlus and Fox Networks Group’s eight episode retelling — not to be confused with the upcoming BBC version set in Edwardian England — boasts a pan-European ensemble cast, including Adel Bencherif, Lea Drucker, Daisy Edgar-Jones and Natasha Little, directed by Belgian Gilles Coulier and Brit Richard Clark.
Shot Game of Thrones-style on an intense schedule with two separate sets, directors and crews working simultaneously, the show also has an emotional claustrophobia as everything changes in a matter of minutes and people escape underground to try and survive the end of the world.
Byrne sees parallels between the original story and this modern day take. “In some ways the world is unrecognizable, but what the book does brilliantly and the series does it, too, is that it provokes bigger questions about what it means to be alive, what keeps humans going in the face of despair,” he said, adding that humanity is facing a slow burn environmental disaster but doing little about it. Byrne blames information overload.
“We’ve become so inured to news now that we pick up the paper and just flick the page, refugees, Donald Trump or whatever. It looks like climate change will annihilate the planet, yet nobody is calling their mother from the car,” he said, calling to mind some desperate scenes in the first episode.
The alien invasion plays a unifying force for humanity, bringing people together as well as flipping the social order — refugees already know how to scrape and survive, while scholars and scientists have to learn new skills. McGovern said that is part of what drew her to the story. “The differences between people have broken down because of this outer enemy that has unified them. The things that divide us are not as important as we think they are when faced with the prospect of the end of the world.”
Both stars agree that the show’s aliens are a stand-in for the current crisis of climate change but humanity is ignoring the impending environmental disaster. “The danger is coming from within,” said Byrne. “People have an incredible ability to deny the truth — that it won’t happen here, that it won’t happen within my lifetime.”
He partly chalks the tendency up to Hollywood’s often easy answers. “When you look at all these Superman and Spider-Man movies and all these guys that save the world, the message is that there is one person, [President Barack] Obama or [French President Emmanuel] Macron or [President Donald] Trump, one person will come in and save the world. Actually, the answer is not one person — it’s collective action,” he said.
“In the world of TV, entertainment, movies, books, we enforce the idea that there’s a left and there’s a right and there’s a good guy and a bad guy and we tend to live by that,” Byrne continued. “But it doesn’t matter how many green juices you drink. That’s not going to help you in the end.”
For McGovern, it was also a chance to be free from the strictures of Downton Abbey. Any nostalgia for a more supposedly genteel time is quickly cut by the reality of gender. “Just being a woman at the time, that had so little voice, that had no control of her own money, that had to work so subversively to get anything done — to be a modern woman who is not afraid to voice an opinion was really a nice change,” she said.
That modern comfort extended to her corset-less costume as well: “It was such a relief to be in a pair of jeans rolling around in the mud. I was just viscerally so happy not to be sitting stiffly at tea. After years of doing that show I’m just desperate to rip it off.”
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