A man wakes up in a hospital room to find the whole world has gone to hell while he was asleep. This premise is a familiar one, setting the scene in Danny Boyle’s 2002 post-apocalyptic horror 28 Days Later and more recently when Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) awoke in the pilot episode of The Walking Dead back in 2010. It is also how John Wyndham's science fiction classic The Day of the Triffids begins.
Published in 1951, The Day of the Triffids explores the ramifications of a world gone blind overnight, after witnessing a cosmic event and how those who did not lose their sight deal with this unprecedented situation. Mass blindness is not the only obstacle, as a new predator also lurks — a species of plant known as a triffid. Carnivorous plants do exist; the opening of the 1962 movie adaptation references the Venus flytrap, but the triffid has the ability to walk as well as kill. Prior to this event, the triffids have been contained, studied, and neutralized to produce a vegetable oil substitute. The benefits have far outweighed the negatives, as food supply is a big issue. However, after this cosmic event causes this mass loss of sight, the power balance shifts.
Made just nine years after the novel came out, the film deviates from Wyndham's story in a number of ways that reduce it to a wide-scale monster movie. The nuanced exploration of Cold War fears, gender dynamics, and philosophical debates about civilization is removed, while the bare bones of the story remain.
This moment does take place in the movie, but only after a scene intending to shock and scare, in which we see a plant attacking a human. The latter is never going to be scary to an audience in 2018, as the effects are rather rudimentary, and I half-expected the triffid to break out into song, thanks to Little Shop of Horrors. But it could have been incredibly unnerving if they had stuck with the disarming introduction of the novel, something Alex Garland did when he wrote 28 Days Later, using The Day of the Triffids as inspiration.
In Sekely’s movie, the triffids are caused by the colorful meteor shower; they are plants mutated by whatever was in the sky that night. Whereas triffids have been on Earth for several years in Wyndham’s novel prior to this cosmic event. Bill is a biologist — or triffidologist — an expert of sorts, having worked on a number of triffid projects, but in the movie Bill (Howard Keel) is a merchant navy officer, his skill set shifts to a more masculine profession. Bill doesn’t watch the blindness-causing meteor shower because his eyes are bandaged. In the book, it is because he was hit by a triffid; in the film he had an operation.
In both the book and the movie, Bill has a hero moment early on, saving a sighted person from being used as a guide by a particularly aggressive blind man. Unlike 28 Days Later, there is crowd panic and chaos on the streets of London, as all appear to have lost the ability to reason along with their sight. The "Keep Calm and Carry On" spirit is severely lacking. Bill points out in the book that it is a blessing the blindness happened overnight, as it reduced the number of car accidents.
The movie doesn't care for this approach, as crumpled cars and buses litter the streets, and Bill witnesses a train and a plane crash. A schoolchild by the name of Susan (Janina Faye) survives the train incident only for a man to grab her. Susan appears later in the book, but I can’t fathom why the movie decided to cut out Josella, the woman Bill saves from a beating in the middle of the street.
At this point Josella is not particularly bothered by his reaction; the only thing she regrets is not using a pen name, as the notoriety has become a bore. Starting over is not even possible in a post-apocalyptic situation, something she notes with increasing frustration: “Why should the one static thing in a collapsing world be my reputation? Can’t we forget it?” Apparently not, as even toward the end of the book, when years have passed since the incident, someone else leads with her scandalous writing career, but she cuts him off before he can finish his comment.
After becoming separated from Bill, Josella makes her way to a farmhouse she believes will be safe out in the countryside, a wise choice, it turns out. Having told Bill the location in an earlier discussion, he finds her after much searching across the south of England. They’ve already had the “repopulate the earth” conversation, and a rather conventional existence begins, well aside from dealing with the growing amount of triffids on their doorstep.
This is the kind of life Josella shunned when she was younger. She has doubts and feelings of self-pity about becoming a farmer's wife, but Wyndham skips ahead a few years so a rhythm has been found by the time we rejoin them, even if there remains a restlessness to this relationship and the traditional role she now inhabits.
New character additions come courtesy of uncredited director Freddie Francis, who came on board after Steve Sekely's first cut was not well received. This subplot, which introduces scientists Tom (Kieron Moore) and Karen Goodwin (Janette Scott), is one of the biggest misfires of the movie, which leaves me wondering, how bad was the first cut? Prior to the cosmic event, Tom has had it with their research. He is fed up with being out on a rock in the middle of the sea with little booze to drown his sorrows.
This novel was written in the shadow of a global war just finished, with a different form of warfare taking its place. Cold War paranoia and fear of the atomic bomb seeps onto every page, as Bill believes the triffids originated in the Soviet Union, theorizing that the seeds caused this global spread. Wyndham even goes so far as name-checking Trofim Lysenko, a real-life Russian biologist who was favored by Stalin.
2018 hit A Quiet Place has a lot in common with John Wyndham’s novel, including how it focuses on one small group and the final farmhouse location. There is no way to know what is going on beyond their frame of reference, and this makes it far scarier. Another similarity is the fact that triffids cannot see and are drawn to noise, which is why people can’t seem to shake them no matter what they do. It is amazing how contemporary horror films and TV shows understand the source material in a way the 1962 movie did not.
There isn’t a specific year given for when The Day of the Triffids is set, but August 6, 1945, is cited as the day the world changed — when the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima — suggesting it takes place in the decade the novel was published in, or a little bit in the future. When one woman notes she doesn’t know how to operate a generator as a reason why there has been no power, one outspoken character in the book takes this moment to explain why these specific gender dynamics are a thing of the past.
Coker is the antagonist at first, kidnapping Bill and Josella to help with his plan to feed the blind. But his plan is flawed and falls apart when a sickness starts killing those in London. As with a lot of the characters in the movie, there is someone sharing this name, but he is no Coker; instead, he is a British tourist in France. Yet another complex character dismissed from the on-screen version.
If you're looking for a silly monster movie with some solid '60s special effects, then The Day of the Triffids is serviceable. But considering everything that takes place in the book, it is an incredibly disappointing adaptation that strips the story of its political and philosophical heart. The director lost sight of what the story was really about; he can't see the forest for all the triffids.