Features & News

Interview: Christopher Fowler (War of the Worlds)

October 11, 2011, Author: Ray Willmott

Games seem to be getting better at attracting the biggest names on the planet. Just this year alone, the likes of Christopher Plummer, Stephen Merchant, Mark Strong and Patrick Stewart have lent or will be lending their voices to various different projects. However, it’s not just actors that are interested; you’ll find directors and even writers attached to many projects. Two years ago, Orson Scott Card helped pen the enormously successful Shadow Complex, Tom Clancy has helped with many game scripts, Peter Jackson set up his own gaming studio, and now Christopher Fowler is getting involved.

Fowler is the author of the “Bryant and May Mystery” novels and the founder of The Creative Partnership. He currently has a weekly column in the Independent on Sunday and is the Crime Reviewer for the Financial Times. In the past year he has been nominated for nine national book awards and is the winner of the Edge Hill prize 2008 for “Old Devil Moon”, the Last Laugh prize 2009 for “The Victoria Vanishes” and the Green Carnation Award 2010 for “Paperboy”. He is also a judge for the CWA Gold Dagger award, and a voting member of the European Film Awards, the British Independent Film Awards and BAFTA. Not to mention that he’s on the board of the Edinburgh Film Festival.

He’s also written the critically acclaimed “Menz Insana” DC Graphic Novel, and this year, a re-imagining of War of the Worlds for Xbox 360 Arcade and Playstation Network.

As an aspiring writer myself, it was a great privilege to be able to speak to Christopher in-between his monstrous working schedule. I asked him about War of the Worlds, what it was like working on a classic, the importance of War of the Worlds to the Sci-Fi Genre, and the awesomeness of Patrick Stewart.

Q. So, this is not the War of the Worlds story we know, but a whole new spin on the tale. How much of a fear is it for you, as a writer, to take something so beloved and established as War of the Worlds, and add your own words to it? Adding to the canon that is already out there by creating a new character, setting the events in the same timeline, but making everything different?

“If you do it right, you don’t mess with the original at all at its primal level. I kept HG Wells’ themes and direct style, and augmented them by moving the setting to soon after the Second World War, which meant that the idea of an enemy invasion could have more resonance. What you lose is Wells’ home Counties cosiness, the sense that nothing could ever disturb England. What you gain is the knowledge of two world conflicts.

Plus, I’m a good mimic of style, so I can do this in Wells’ voice. If anything felt organically wrong, we were pretty ruthless about chucking it out. There are only new characters when I felt that an Edwardian one wouldn’t work.”

Q. Can you tell us a bit about the story in your version of War of the Worlds; Who is Arthur, and what’s happening to him?

“Arthur’s journey is largely unchanged from the original. We follow his arrival into London from Bristol, the opening of the cylinder, the coming of the aliens, but we get him further into London faster. His brother sets off to fight, but when we meet him, Arthur Clark (so named because Arthur C Clarke wrote a Foreword to WOTW) is now a hero but a passive, amiable man. The moral choices and actions of the game show that heroism comes in all forms.

Searching for his brother, he witnesses the sinking of the ‘Thunderchild’ and the devastation of London, pretty much as in the book, But unlike the Hollywood films, the tale is finally back in its original setting.”

Q. Can we assume there will be subtle nods to the original text in the game, and perhaps to other forms of War of the Worlds we’ve seen over the years?

“The opening dialogue is virtually lifted verbatim from Wells. Whenever I got stuck, I returned to the book and reminded myself that I had a blueprint for what to do in my hand. If you listen to the radio broadcasts in the game you’ll find all the information Wells’ hero gathered about what was happening in the rest of the country.”

The game has a very distinct visual style...

Q. How important was the War of the Worlds story to the Science-Fiction genre? Is this part of the reason for you bringing it back with a modern-day re-telling?

“It’s a key text. I went to look at the first edition in the British Library. Can you imagine how bizarre it must have been to read about alien invasion on an epic scale back then? The novel contains the first-ever detailed description of mechanized warfare and its impact on urban society. The bit where refugees stream out of London must have struck readers as an unbelievable fantasy. Only Wells and Verne were working in SF at the time.”

Q. Did it feel natural for you to write for a computer game as opposed to writing a book? Do you feel it is liberating writing for a game, or did you feel you were constricted in any way?

“That’s interesting. I thought it would be restricting, but once I realized that the design team were going to let me reproduce a first-person narrative, a proper story with the same kind of set piece and climax that Wells wrote, it was liberating. More so than writing a movie script. Games have grown sufficiently in confidence now not to feel that they’re second best to cinema. We’re not dropping in a few filmed inserts and calling it movie-like; it has the tension and atmosphere of a film throughout.

It has a playing time that approximates to the reading of the book; there’s none of this 90-minute whipping through the book’s highlights stuff, we take our time in each location.”

Q. I’m sure working on War of the Worlds was a dream come true, but are there any other classic stories you’d like to try your hand at? How about 1984?

“Now you’re talking. Man, that would make a genius game. You have a fascinating lead character, a moral dilemma, awesome atmosphere. People have to change the events in 1984 though, because not much really happens in the book. Winston Smith has an affair and breaks the law, gets caught and is tortured.

Gormenghast would be brilliant, partly because of its sumptuous setting, and the climactic chase through the flooded castle would be a real gut-shaker.”

Q. What does it feel like hearing Patrick Stewart speaking words you’ve written? Were you ever worried he’d improvise at any point and throw in a ‘Tea, Earl Grey, Hot’ or a ‘Make it So’?

“I’ve worked with a lot of big stars in the past (I ran a movie company for a long time) and in fact the studio where we recorded was my old studio, so I was totally at home and comfortable with him. . Patrick Stewart was great to work with, and turned out to have an encyclopaedic knowledge of London. He pulled me up on a couple of points, and was usually right!

I should have made him say ‘Make it so’, shouldn’t I, just once?”

Q. More than once! Thanks for taking the time to talk to This Is My Joystick! We wish you every success with War of the Worlds.

You can read more of Christopher’s musings over on his blog, while War of the Worlds is scheduled to release on XBLA and PSN later this month…