The Day of the Triffids was a science fiction classic by John Wyndam, first published in 1951. Like many of the books and movies of the 1950s and 1960s, it reflects cold war paranoia, and to no small extent, suspicion about new technology.
I’m a big fan of old movies, especially old horror and science fiction. They often tell us a lot about both our dreams and our fears. There was a move adaptation in the early ’60s which I haven’t seen. According to reviews, it was mediocre at best. But I recently had a chance to see the 2009 BBC version, and I was impressed. A movie about tall, walking, carnivorous plants doesn’t sound that appealing, but I had read the book as a child, and the BBC adaptation had good reviews, so why not take a chance? Glad I did, there turned out to be a lot more going on here that you would guess from the description.
Let’s summarize the setup to get started. Our protagonist is Bill Masen, a biologist from the UK who works with Triffids. The Triffids are large, slow moving plants which are believed to be the result of Russian genetic experiments that have escaped and spread throughout the world. The purpose of the genetic manipulation was to produce a high quality vegetable oil. Perhaps the plants desire to eat anything warm blooded was just an unexpected side effect.
As the story opens, the Triffids have been tamed and largely disarmed. Dangerous, but domesticated. They are grown on huge mono-culture farms which are highly regulated, but completely in private hands. In the original story, Triffid Oil is used for food, in the 2009 BBC movie, the oil is used as a replacement for gasoline.
When I watched the BBC version of The Day of the Triffids, I was struck by the similarity to today’s world. A large part of the world’s food is grown on gigantic industrial farms where the only things living are genetically identical plants which are carefully engineered to be resistant to crop diseases that we know about, but might have zero resistance to an emerging disease, or a mutation of an existing disease. In Wyndam’s fictional world, the oil gets produced, and it’s cheap, and nothing has gone wrong so far. We know that giant companies always take maximum care to avoid harming the environment, right? Exactly the situation we have today.
In the book, the event that starts the apocalypse is a meteor shower, which reacts with the upper atmosphere in a way the results in blindness to anyone who went outside to watch the light show. The movie uses a solar flare to create the critical apocalyptic event.
This is a particularly imaginative way to create an apocalypse. Rather than the traditional mutant disease which kills most of the world population, or turns them into zombies, an event which disables 90% of the population is far more sinister.
Everyone knows that a double tap to the head of a zombie solves your problem. At least your immediate problem. But what happens if everyone you know is blind? Production of food and everything else stops immediately. No military, no police, no firemen, no doctors or nurses. Your loved ones are helpless, and you are helpless to help them. All options are horrible to contemplate.
The entire civilized world devolves into anarchy within 24 hours. A Triffid jailbreak is inevitable. With millions of blind people wandering through the landscape, slowly moving seven foot tall carnivorous plants start to look like a viable option for the top predator spot.
Both the BBC Mini Series and the novel are more about what happens post-apocalypse. The sighted survivors must find a way to fight off flesh eating plants and rebuild civilization. The have to deal with millions of blind people, or not. The situation brings out both the best and worst aspects of human nature. There are plenty of humans who do horrific things, some with the best of intentions, some from a lust for power, and some are pure evil. Carnivorous plants wandering about being mere pests by comparison.
It’s amazing to me that authors like H.G. Wells, Jules Verne, and Arthur Clarke, along with many others, were so prescient about where technology and society could go. They asked “What if?” is ways that are both entertaining and revealing. John Wyndam is doing the same. It’s also a little about the Jurassic Park meme, we can build things that nature would never create. But what happens if we lose control?
It’s definitely worth watching the BBC adaptation to see how it plays out. It comes on two DVDs, for about 3 hours of running time. A far better way to handle the story than compressing it into a 90 minute action movie. Well worth the investment in time.