It is, of course, far easier to make a triffid walk on the page than on the screen. In John Wyndham's classic novel The Day of the Triffids (1951), little attention is given to the locomotion of the eponymous monster plants, but that doesn't matter because we just accept that they move around somehow.
For the makers of the 1981 BBC television adaptation, triffid motion relied on implication, accomplished through careful editing: the actual specifics of how they move are never shown. The 1962 film version, in which Howard Keel is menaced by the marauding plants—whilst heroically resisting the urge to break into song—is similarly coy about showing the details of how exactly the triffids manage their seemingly unstoppable march across the world.
The 2009 adaptation, broadcast in two episodes during the hiatus between Christmas and the New Year, to a British population itself incapable of movement thanks to an overdose of turkey and booze, comes up with a neat solution. As in the aforementioned interpretations, we see long shots of triffids waving about menacingly, although this time the plants themselves are wholly computer generated. Such CG techniques are able to give us flailing tendrils, a clever answer to the problem of making giant monster plants move menacingly without the results proving unintentionally hilarious; not a device that was ever open to previous versions, of course.
In fact, the pacing of the plants stands in stark contrast to the rest of the production, which sorely needs some proper impetus. It's ironic, given the new found urgency those flailing tendrils afford the triffids themselves, that there's such a lack of hurry to this production; ironic, too, given that the writer, Patrick Harbinson, is renowned for his work on ER, for many years the standard-bearer for speedy storytelling.
The opening credits immediately suggest where the problem might lie: we're told that this version isn't just adapted by Harbinson, but also written by him, a key point of departure from previous versions. This is a crucial point, as there's a lot of new material on offer here clearly intended to lift the story from its 1950s roots and enable it to flourish for contemporary audience sensibilities. Don't get me wrong: I've nothing against adapters reinventing aspects of the source material to render it more appropriate to a new medium, especially when the original book offers the sort of "cosy catastrophe" that so irked Brian Aldiss. But the original isn't just cosy, it's also tight and urgent in a sort of Blitz stiff-upper-lip way, and surely a catastrophe story needs just that sort of impetus: it's about survival, after all.
The BBC's 1981 version is regarded as a seminal television adaptation, and reworks the novel to startling effect given the technical exigencies the production crew would have been working to. Yet it feels much more faithful to the novel than the new version, perhaps because Britain in the 1980s wasn't so very different from Britain in the 1950s. For all its supposed radicalism, the increasingly dominant Thatcherite politics of the period was mainly concerned with resurrecting a culture of repression characteristic of pre-1960s Britain (at least until people like John Osbourne started mucking it up). Wyndham's Cold War fable fitted that particular zeitgeist like a gardening glove.
The fundamentals are all still there in the new version. The central character is Bill Masen, a triffid expert temporarily blinded by one of the creatures so that he ends up missing a solar light storm that blinds virtually everyone else on the planet. At least in the 2009 version some attempt is made to connect the triffids to the solar storm, with the suggestion that the creatures offered a way of halting global warming and that this fact and the storm are somehow connected: it always bothered me that in the book the two chief events—the spectacle that blinds everyone and the outbreak of the triffids—are coincidental in a fashion that would have made Charles Dickens, that master of serendipity, blush with embarrassment.
This time around Masen is played by Dougray Scott, mumbling through both dialogue and narration. This stands in contrast to the clipped dialogue of the 1981 version, where characters are forever articulating plot, and sometimes even emoting, but only ever in syntactically and grammatically correct terms—much like the original novel, in which the British middle classes attempt to brazen out the catastrophe with cut glass accents and cups of tea. Scott's incarnation of Masen carries his traumatic past in his frowns and morose demeanour, and in a backstory concerned with jungles and masks that frequently interrupts the present tense of the narrative, adding to the meandering feel of the whole enterprise.
In this new version Masen's aim is apparently to find his father, although quite why is not made apparent until the plot demands that it really must be made apparent: at which point the gruff father, played by the ever reliable Brian Cox, says the line "So, you're here because of the triffids . . . And no doubt you want my research so you can try and stop them." At which point the entire turkey-stuffed British viewing public must have jerked briefly into life, wincing as though stung by a triffid.
The chief female character is present and correct, and she gets a bit more to do here, but not much. In the original novel Josella Playton gets to hang around with Masen and wait to be rescued. Here she's personified by Joely Richardson, recast as a reporter, who, uh, gets to hang around with Masen. She does, at least, get to rescue herself (with only a modicum of help from one of the villain's henchman turned turncoat), resulting in a tense scene with the aforementioned sneaking tendrils.
The reason that she has to rescue herself is that she finally (again the lack of urgency) realises she's been hoodwinked into broadcasting propaganda on behalf of the evil Torrence. In the original novel Torrence, although important to the story's climax, is a marginal character. In this version he is played by Eddie Izzard, with some subtlety, and moved centre stage. We first see him dozing on an aircraft coming over the capital, just as the astronomical light show blinds the world's populace. Torrence, having dozed through the spectacle, realises that the flight is doomed and ensconces himself in a toilet cubicle surrounded by inflated life belts (we know he's a rotter because he pushes unfeelingly past a kid in the process). When the plane crashes, Torrence is shown as the only survivor.
Torrence possesses an unspoken and ironic fascination with the figure of Winston Churchill. We see him admiring both a statue and a portrait of Dear Old Winnie, yet he has more in common with Hitler—the opportunist who becomes a dictator by manipulating events to his own ends. In this allusion there is perhaps something of a critique of the War on Terror's misplaced deployment of the iconography of the fight against Fascism: if you try to be valiant you'll more than likely end up a despot. It's a shame the complexity of that subtext is lost amidst a climax that forces Izzard into full-on James Bond villain mode.
The original novel makes its position very clear: our sympathies are to be with Masen, who considers attempts at saving members of the blinded population as well-meaning but ultimately detrimental to the survival of the fittest. From early on this production feels like it is going to adopt a similarly hard-nosed tack. The triffids are released by a zealous environmental terrorist who gets his just desserts. Much later in the story, though, the emphasis shifts to articulating the necessity for a humanitarian response to the unfolding horror. It's there in Masen's attitude to the remaining vestiges of authority prior to Torrence's rise and their lack of consideration for their blinded fellow humans, and more explicitly in Masen's furious denigration of the nun Durrant, played with gusto by Joely Richardson's real life mum, Vanessa Redgrave, who sacrifices the weak to the triffids so that her community might be allowed to survive.
The environments in which the catastrophe occurs are realised with appropriate dexterity. Alex Garland's acknowledgement of the influence of The Day of the Triffids on his rationalised zombie movie 28 Days Later (2002) is repaid in early images of Bill and Jo walking past fallen double decker buses on Westminster Bridge. London is frequently portrayed in long shot, or in shadow; episode one ending in gothic fashion with Masen and Jason Priestley's Major Coker being menaced by triffids in a night-time countryside location, although the effect is a little too Hammer House of Horror to really scare.
None of the picture painting can make up for the narrative's lack of dynamism, though. For all that it's dated Wyndham's novel is also taut, spare, and focused: adapters need to be careful what they cultivate and what they prune.
CB Harvey is a London-based writer and academic. He was the winner, in 2006, of the first SFX Pulp Idol award and his published fiction includes material for Big Finish’s Doctor Who and Highlander spin-off ranges. He is a Principal Lecturer at London South Bank University.
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