A RETRO review.
The Day of the Triffids is a fascinating little piece of SF literature. Oh, yes. You heard correctly. I said literature. This is a book-with-a-movie-attached review.
I came here for an engagingly silly bit of classic SF with giant plants, some anti-Communist sentiment
Find me some pulpy British/American 50s SF without it, I challenge you
and possibly some surprisingly prescient tech ideas. While I wasn’t disappointed on the Russian front
The Russians made the flowers and blinded the people – allegedly. Our narrator is only semi-reliable at times, I feel
I wasn’t expecting a weird reflection on neurotypical fears of disability, reasonably sophisticated Cold War references, what feels like the inspiration for every zombie movie ever made, and a strong strain of environmentalism with a dash of pastoral nostalgia as often found in early 20th century literature.
I was genuinely disturbed by the story, because it eloquently captures that pessimistic sense of the end of the civilisation. I hate apocalypse survival stories for a number of reasons, not least because I find it very odd how we seem to yearn for that thrill of the end of the world.
Hey, assholes. I have a bunch of people I love dearly who would be dead inside a week if society broke down. Just thinking about it gives me anxiety. This shit is just upsetting. I don’t have a joke for this. If you think Mad Max is an exciting world to live in, you are not paying your therapist enough
But I liked this one, for a weird reason – I liked the author’s reflections on what is right and wrong in this particular scenario. Our protagonist, Bill Masen, is your average faintly unlikeable 1950s hero, but he really only serves as the eyes for the audience and the mouth for the author. There are several scenes centred around philosophical pondering on the humane or kind way to deal with the masses of helpless who will slowly starve to death – if they don’t die of the plague first.
What would you do, Wyndham seems to ask. Would you try and save yourself and anyone else able-bodied? Or would you stay, and try to do what you can for the doomed leftovers of humanity?
I read that Wyndham used to work for the Ministry of Information in World War II. I wonder how that informed his writing. For that matter, I wonder how he felt reading 1984, as I strongly assume he did
Usually, I get really annoyed with this kind of pontificating, but I appreciated it here, because Wyndham doesn’t try and provide us with an answer. Bill himself doesn’t really do much, and flounders about until a woman gives him something to chase after. Love interest Josella Playton also lacks any great character, but she is the author of a book called Sex is My Adventure, where the running joke is that despite the apocalypse, she is still recognised everywhere as the smut author.
And possibly because her name is fucking Josella
Neither the intensely silly movie from 1962 nor the two (!!) mini-series (1981 and 2009 respectively) made use of her book, which is too bad (the 60s film drops the character entirely, though I doubt even she could have saved it)
At least the series renamed her as Jo, though
Triffids has a lot going on, but the main point I gathered was about morality and human feeling. Before we get into how the movie cocks it up, I would just like to point out the most problematic part of this story – its relationship with disability.
There are many references to the complete despair and hopelessness that overtakes people when they are struck blind, which is understandable. Sighted people like most of us, even the ones who wear glasses, cannot conceive of what it must be like to be blind in a world designed for people who can see. Now, I admit, this is an old book, and to its credit, it deals with a lot of interesting themes, but I cannot help but wonder how a blind person would feel reading this, and I suspect that it might be pretty insulting. Blindness is not a death sentence
and there is no reason for people to start throwing themselves out of windows. That is just melodramatic and unnecessary. For God’s sake, Jim, he’s a doctor
Things get worse as we start moving forward in time. Years pass, and the blind are still depicted as functionally mostly useless. There is even a scene where the beginnings of a two-class system is starting, with the blind as the disabled underclass. Would it not make sense to retrain blind people, build machines they can handle and make them equally useful members of society? They do make up the vast majority of the population, after all. Disabilities are socially constructed, and in a world where society crumbles, surely it would be possible to start rebuilding a new system, even in the interests of the sighted. I don’t know quite how to feel about this.
Where the books succeeds, the movie fails (I couldn’t get hold of the series by legal or other means, so sue me Shirley). It’s set up like a classical monster movie, which certainly isn’t the point, and the heavy focus on the triffids, which are almost certainly metaphorical in the book, just makes it unbearably goofy. They look so silly that their appearance has to be punctuated with zooms and orchestra stings to distract you
from the fact that people are being chased by big piles of papier-mâché which hasn’t set yet and someone has adorned with public hair
The characters are if possible even flatter – Susan is just Precocious Girlchild #5, the new couple are the Screamer and the Drunk respectively
although props to having a female scientist – we never see her doing any real sciencing, but we appreciate the effort
and Bill, now a Navy officer instead of a biochemist, is reduced to wearing a jaunty cap lest he and we forget who he is. It’s a very loose adaptation, and I read that the series were closer to the original, which is probably just as well.
It’s apparently no secret that Alex Garland was heavily influenced by The Day of the Triffids when he was writing 28 Day Later, even copying some scenes directly from the old movie to the new. This neat blog illustrates some of them. Some of the scenes are even referencing the movie specifically. The escape scene where Bill’s car is stuck in the mud, and he desperately revs the motor to escape the horde of triffids—which are moving at about a metre a minute—is mirrored in that FUCKING HORRIFYING SCENE in the tunnel in 28 Days Later, which is a trifle more effective as the motherfucking zombies are RUNNING. Oh, God, I hated that movie.
It turns out that John Wyndham was quite inspired by H.G. Wells, as there are strong undercurrents of The War of The Worlds and The Time Machine, especially in the third part of the book where the triffids are more prominent. In turn, The Day of the Triffids seems to have inspired any number of SF
Dr. Who, among others, so…thanks for that?
between the 1950s and today, including, as mentioned before, all the fucking zombies.
I fucking hate zombies so much, damn you Wyndham, what have you wrought
Also, if you think that walking, carnivorous, maybe-sentient plants can’t be as gross and creepy as zombies, you are wrong, my friend. Triffids is the kind of page-turner that keeps you up until you are finished with it, and then leaves you to lie staring at the ceiling and reminding yourself that the shrieking outside is just a side-effect of living next to a student hostel and definitely not people getting eaten by Audrey II’s inbred cousins.
What to say, then, in conclusion? I think the book is great, and that you should go read it. It’s lovely to see where it slots into the SF tradition, but it is also a page-turner in and of itself. In addition, it will make you think, if not about the Cold War, then maybe about the environment reclaiming the earth. But thankfully, that’s not something we need to worry about, this is just SF. The earth is just fine. Right? Right.
If anyone needs me, I’ll be watching The Little Shop of Horrors.