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Saturday, January 23, 2021

Review: The Day of the Triffids

We’re going to close out WE’RE DOOMED! Week by putting in a plug for one of my all-time personal favorite end-of-the-world stories, John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids

No, not any of the movies ostensibly based on it. I’m talking about the original novel. 

The movies are the problem. Most of us know this story from either the 1962 British movie or one of the many remakes. When I first ran across the original 1951 novel—well, this 1962 Fawcett Crest reprint—at a garage sale, I had some vague recollection of an old movie of the same name, but couldn’t quite place it. Day of the Triffids, Night of the Comet, Day of the Anteaters, Night of the Big Heat, Afternoon of the Sexually Aroused Gas Mask, Night of the Day of the Dawn of the Son of the Bride of the Return of the Revenge of the Terror of the Attack of the Evil Mutant Hell-spawned Flesh-Eating Subhumanoid Zombified Living Dead…

After a while they all run together, and most of them seem to star Peter Cushing.

So let’s see: mysterious meteor shower strikes most of humanity blind? Check. Giant ambulatory carnivorous plants go on a feeding frenzy? Check. Lucky sighted survivor hooks up with a plucky beautiful girl, and together they have a series of hairsbreadth escapes, only to finally discover the murderous plants’ one weakness and destroy them?

Hmm…

At the risk of coining a cliché, this is a case where the book is far, far better than the movie. For one, there is nothing all that mysterious about the “meteor shower.” Rather, it is strongly implied, though never flat-out stated, that what actually happened was the accidental misfire of an orbital weapons system.

For another, there’s nothing at all mysterious about the origins of the triffids. They’re not Audrey’s malevolent cousins suddenly arrived from space: they’re a Russian hybridization of a rare tropical plant. The term “genetically modified” is never used, as the book was first published in 1951, years before Watson, Crick & Franklin figured out DNA, but that’s what they are: a GMO. 

The triffids’ proclivity to uproot themselves and move about in search of better soil is well-known to the characters in the book, as is their carnivorous nature and their highly toxic “sting,” but these are tolerated because triffids are an economically important crop, better than soybeans and grown by the millions to be processed for oil and cattle feed. Nor is our hero merely some lucky guy who just happens to be in the right place at the right time; he’s a plant biologist who works for a major agribusiness, and he knows triffids inside and out.

To be honest, the title is a bit misleading. In the real course of the story the triffids are mostly a damnable nuisance. After the initial catastrophe, it’s the other human survivors who are the true menaces, and our hero—and yes, his exceptionally plucky girlfriend—experience most of their terror and hairsbreadth escapes at the hands of their loving fellow Englishmen.

What finally elevates this book above the run-of-the-mill disaster story, though, is the way it neatly segues into a series of critiques of various utopias. Without seeming episodic, preachy, or obvious, our hero and his girlfriend manage to journey through all manner of visions for rebuilding the world, and their experiences make it clear why each is doomed to failure.

And no, there is no climactic boss fight in a lighthouse, in which our hero suddenly discovers the triffids’ one obvious and stupid weakness and destroys them. Rather the ending—well, I don’t want to spoil it for you, but it is a very different ending from what you’re expecting, and yet it’s one that make sense and is satisfying.

So there, that’s my suggestion: if you want to write a good end-of-the-world story, you can learn a lot by turning off the TV and reading John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids

Your thoughts and comments?

—Bruce Bethke 


2 comments:

Pete Wood said...

I love John Wyndham. This is one of my favorite novels, but not my favorite work of his. That goes to Consider Her Ways.
I like the premise of Triffids. The plants are secondary to the gimmick of most of the world being blind, coupled with the odd assortment of survivors who can see. The hero had been undergoing eye surgery if I recall. He makes friends with an IRA terrorist, I think, who had been hiding from the cops in a barn during the shower. I read the book forty years ago and I can still remember passages from it quite well.
I have only seen the first movie and I have no issue with it. I have never heard of the remakes.
Lets be honest. Anything by Wyndham is worth reading. The Chrystalids, his post apocalyptic novel is wroth a read too.

Gary said...

I am very glad to have read the book - more than once - long before seeing any cinematic adaptation, the first several of which disappointed me (after those a callus of cynicism developed). One thing I've learned is, when a bunch of films all claim to be "based on" or "inspired by" some story or book, skip the films and go read the original.