The Day of the Triffids (1951) is probably John Wyndham's best, certainly best known, novel. I never saw a school library that didn't have at least one dog-eared copy. It's a masterpiece of that distinctly English subgenre, the "quiet catastrophe" where a small change in the world that takes place in chapter one soon has the entire world unravelling like a badly knitted jumper. In Triffids, this change is a spectacular display of mysterious fireworks that come out of nowhere one night and leaves the entire world entranced–and incurably blind the next morning.
We follow events through the eyes, pardon the pun, of Bill Masen, a botanist whose sight was saved, ironically, by being in a London hospital with his eyes bandaged after a near blinding by a genetically-engineered plant called a "triffid". Created behind the Iron Curtain, the triffids' seeds have been blown on the wind throughout the world where they are cultivated for their valuable oil, which is on a par with the best from any other plant or animal source. The downside is that triffids are carnivores that can move about and have a whip-like stinger that they use to kill. The upside is that they are very slow, so there no danger to anyone who can see them coming.
You can guess where this is going.
The novel is a a taut story with a restrained writing style that only heightens the tension as a sightless world goes rapidly from a stunned awaking in blackness to the utter collapse of civilisation. As if this isn't enough, Wyndham ups the stakes by adding menace upon menace right up to the final chapters by which time the triffids have gone from annoying yet valuable weeds to the seeming masters of the planet. Against this background, Masen and society girl Josella Playton struggle to survive and build some sort of a life for themselves in an increasingly hostile world.
The Day of the Triffids has been adapted for the screen three times: a 1962 feature film, a BBC television series in 1981, and now a BBC Christmas remake of the series in 2009. The BBC has had a rash of sci-fi remakes lately. If that sounds pathological that's because it is. Most of the recent crop have ranged from disappointing (Doctor Who) to laughable (Survivors). The 2009 Triffids falls somewhere in between these poles.
With a running time of only 180 minutes and the current tendency to ignore plot and dialogue in favour of self-indulgent director tricks and long sequences of people running about for no good reason, the latest Triffids fairly gallops through a heavily edited and truncated version of the story. Quiet catastrophe has given way to slam-bang action.
Triffids has been updated to the 21st century, so all of the Cold War references are gone and the twist at the end of the novel has vanished with them. Masen (Dougray Scott) is still a botanist, though now lumbered with a pointless Oedipus complex, and Josella Playton (Joely Richardson) is now a BBC television reporter. Incredibly, the BBC seems to be the only functioning entity after the holocaust. How's that for wishful thinking? Instead of a slow, building dread as people start to realise that everyone around them is blind, everyone now goes blind in literally a flash and the immediate reaction is to rush about screaming as the director puzzles about whether he's making Torchwood, 28 days later, or a John Woo film. If you're looking for Wyndham's characters trying to sort out the morality of trying to survive while a blind humanity dies around them or how to personally cope with man's supremacy on Earth being challenged, you'll find it traded in for machine pistols and tentacles.
As for the triffids, they've morphed from the slow, inexorable and underestimated menace of the 1981 series into a leafy CGI version of the eponymous monsters from Aliens. They are technologically superior to previous versions, yet unimaginative, completely unbelievable (triffids can now climb trees?), and make no impression on the memory. Maybe that's why screenwriters Patrick Harbinson and Richard Mewis felt compelled to egg the pudding with the introduction of Eddie Izzard as an ironically evil villain named Torrence who develops a vendetta against our heroes for no other reason than that it's in the script.
The cast is actually very good, though badly misused, and they even give decent performances on the rare moments that they're fed a decent line. Scott endows Masen with suitably heroic air as he takes the ludicrous plot dead serious and Richardson descends into flat-out scenery chewing only a couple of times. Unfortunately, Vanessa Redgrave as a nun who turns out to be a homicidal religious fanatic right out the BBC Acceptable PC Villain Handbook is wasted. However, Izzard shines as he makes a meal out his character that really deserves as written to just lie there and rot.
By the time we get to the second half of the two-part production, the novel has been chucked into the compost heap (along with all the blind people who are now supposedly triffid chow) as we intrigue and gun-battle our way over the gaping plot holes to an ending that is pure deus ex machina and teaches the valuable lesson that when science fails you should, like any good multiculti, rely on suppressed memories of advice given thirty years ago by suitably ethnic Congolese witch doctors that works for no reason. At least we were spared a climactic confrontation with the "Queen Triffid", so we can thank heaven for small mercies.
If you want a top-notch adaptation of Wyndham's novel, get yourself a DVD of the 1981 series. If you enjoy pounding a ingrown toenail repeatedly with a rubber hammer, come back tomorrow for the 2009 version.
At least you'll save the price of the hammer.
How could I fail to include the definitive Alexi Sayles adaptation? Feel the horror.