The Day of the Triffids
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Book vs. Flick: The Day of the Triffids

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Jan 22, 2019

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.

The Day of the Triffids

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Several adaptations of Wyndham’s novel have been made, including a TV mini-series in 1981 and 2009 — both on the BBC. In 2014 it was announced that Harry Potter director Mike Newell would be updating the story once again, though four years later, and this movie remains in development limbo. But it is Steve Sekely’s 1962 version that is the focus of this Book vs. Flick.

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.

The Day of the Triffids
The slow dread of the opening chapter as Bill tries to figure out why the outside world sounds like a Sunday — because it is so quiet — rather than a Wednesday instantly puts us in the same position as the protagonist. We are just as unaware of the world descending into chaos, but know something isn't quite right. Before he slowly removes the bandages covering his eyes (and the reason why he still has his sight), sound is all Bill has to go on. The clock striking nine when his bandages were meant to be removed at eight is another major indication that something has gripped the hospital overnight.

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.

The Day of the Triffids
Of course, film adaptations are going to make changes both small and significant, but it is incredibly disappointing that the 1962 movie essentially removed the debate at the heart of The Day of the Triffids, simply focusing on the horror but without the subtext. Not only that, but the central love story is removed, which denies film viewers one of the most interesting characters from the book — instead switching out a complex woman for one who spends the majority of her screen time screaming at the top of her lungs.

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 Day of the Triffids

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.

The Day of the Triffids
After Bill wards off the attacker they seek temporary refuge in a pub — see Shaun of the Dead — so Josella can gather her nerves with a stiff drink. Bill was alerted to Josella because of her piercing scream, something she explains is very out of character, as she is “reasonably self-reliant.” This book was published in 1951, but Josella is very much a modern woman for the period. She is unmarried through choice, having broken off an engagement, and she is the author of a book with a shocking title that has ensured she has quite the reputation. Bill couldn’t quite place Josella upon meeting her, but as soon as she mentions the title of her book, Sex Is My Adventure, he realizes who she is. He gives her the kind of look she has endured from all corners, and like many he has indeed judged the book by its cover (or rather title): “People are funny. All you know about it is the title and the publicity, and you’re shocked. And it's such a little harmless book, really. Mixture of green-sophisticated and pink-romantic, with patches of school-girly purple. But the title was a good idea.”

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.

The Day of the Triffids
Even when all hell breaks loose and civilization as we know it crumbles, something that happened pre-event can stick — particularly if you are a woman and happened to write a book called Sex Is My Adventure. Josella is a fascinating character, especially when reading this novel more than 60 years after it was written, because she is so complex; she knows her mind and simultaneously loves the book she wrote while feeling exhausted about the misinterpretation of her work. She doesn’t claim it as a great literary work, saying she is no Aldous [Huxley] or Charles [Dickens], though this comes across as criticism that would be leveled at a female author. It is the kind of self-deprecating comment that feels very relatable, a defense mechanism to protect against critical comments, "I must look awfully dumb — that's just the way they all used to look at me when I told them I was writing a book."

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.

The Day of the Triffids
By removing Josella from the movie, one of the more interesting aspects of the novel is also erased. There is a certain fantasy element to Josella, who dresses up in a gown when they break into a fancy London apartment to take refuge but also has the sense to find an outfit that will serve well for scavenging in — a ski suit that Bill marvels over in comparison to his “Gents' lounge-suiting.” She's a woman of contradictions who keeps Bill guessing. Instead, movie Bill meets a French woman, Christine Durant (Nicole Maurey), who has opened her house up to anyone she can find. Miss Durrant is a character from the book, but this version doesn't even share the same spelling of her last name.

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.

The Day of the Triffids
The triffids attack, with Karen going full scream whenever they appear. As they’re biologists, it makes sense for them to solve the triffid issue. Of course, troubled but brilliant Tom is the one who realizes salt water is the weapon they need — how very Signs — all while Karen screams some more. Karen, please shut up. If you’re going to get rid of a nuanced, practical woman, don’t replace her with someone who is smart but spends the majority of her screen time destroying her vocal cords.

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.

The Day of the Triffids
The cosmic event is blamed on satellites in the sky, and because we only get to experience what Bill is, we don’t know what is going on with the rest of the world. The scope is very small, and it makes these characters seem even more isolated. Radios don’t work, and there is no way to communicate with others far away. The movie chooses a different tactic: Bill travels to France and then Spain, and radios still function.

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.

The Day of the Triffids
Coker’s tone is condescending, and he is demonstrative to the point of being too much at times, but the point is a valid one as he references the work women did during the war and how this is a necessary adjustment now. Ignorance is not a cute quality, and both men and women have to stop acting out these coded norms: “Men have played up to it by stoutly repairing the poor darling’s vacuum cleaner, and capably replacing the blown fuse. The whole charade has been acceptable to both parties.” He doesn't have to be such an asshole in this particular moment, though, even if this sentiment is sound.

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.

The Day of the Triffids
Sex is a commodity wielded or at least attempted to be used in the book. Before Bill leaves London a girl who turned 18 on the night of the cosmic show offers herself to Bill as an incentive for him to stay — she has been asked to do this by the others in this location. He turns her down and by morning she is dead. He notes that he didn’t even know her name; at this early point in the narrative it all feels very futile. This notion of what a society will do when they lose something as big as collective sight is one that is threaded throughout the novel but is only touched on in the movie. Again, the threat of the triffids is presented as a much larger problem.

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.

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