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[July 16, 1962] Vegetating at the Movies (Day of the Triffids)


By Ashley R. Pollard

I’m just back from watching the film adaptation of the Day of the Triffids, which brings John Wyndham’s popular novel to the big screen.  You may remember I wrote about Wyndham’s work for the Galactic Journey last year, now I get the chance to discuss the film adaptation too.  As I said in my previous article, Wyndham is widely known over here because of the success of his novel The Day of the Triffids, which was first published in 1951.

But first let me mention that this is not the first time his story has been adapted for another medium.  While I missed the broadcast, it completely escaped me for reasons outside of my control, the British Broadcasting Corporation transmitted in 1957 a six-part radio dramatization of Wyndham’s story, presented by the BBC’s Light programme.  I was able to find out that it had Patrick Barr voicing the roll of Bill Masen, and I really wish I had been able to listen to the production.

Also, while I was compiling my notes for this article, I discovered that in 1953 the BBC Home Service transmitted Frank Duncan reading the novel that was serialized in fifteen parts, each episode being fifteen minutes long.  I mention this in part to emphasize both the importance of the story, and the impact it has had on the British public’s imagination.  It cannot be stressed too highly that Wyndham’s standing is on par with H. G. Wells.

A brief reminder that the story centres on how people survive in a world where most have been blinded and who now have to deal with triffids, which were originally bred to produce oil using genetically modified seeds that may have come from space.  These plants can move, and have stingers to attack prey.  Yes, they’re alien vegetables from space that eat meat.  From this premise Wyndham weaves a very British disaster story set in our green and pleasant land that grips one from beginning to end.

So how does this latest film adaptation fare?

The film is 93 minutes long, and as such the story is both compressed and changed, which is ironic because I was told that the film ran short and they had to add extra scenes to pad out the length of the film.  While the overall outline of people blinded and marauding carnivorous plants remains, liberties are taken.

First, the main protagonist Bill Masen is changed from being a biologist in the book into an American seaman for the film.  The journey from London to the Sussex Downs becomes instead a journey to Gibraltar, which if you read my previous article is a bit of a switch because at its core The Day of the Triffids is a very British catastrophe.  Arguably one could make the case that the film has to appeal to a wider audience, and setting it Europe opens the story, and of course provides nice shots of exotic scenery.

I can all well imagine a sequel being set in America to make it appeal more to an American audience, but I think would do a disservice to both the original novel and Americans.

Also, the backstory for the triffids changes their genesis to plants mutated by the light of the comet.  Colour me unimpressed.  There is also the deletion of the character Josella Playton, who Masen rescues in the book from a blind man who is using her to find food.

Nicole Maurey, a French actress, is cast in a role as Miss Durrant who becomes a Frenchwoman, which is understandable, but would it not have been easier to make Josella French rather than write a new character?  I’m also perplexed at the changes made to the character of Wilfred Coker, who in transposing the story as a journey from England to Gibraltar, has become a tourist caught up the catastrophe, which undermines his whole story arc.

What is even less understandable was the need to add a sub-plot set in a lighthouse.  These scenes were shot because after the film was finished being shot it was found to be too short.  This is really a poor show on the part of the person who wrote the screenplay, because there was clearly enough original source material to work from had they hewn closer to the story in the book.

The worst part is the denouement where the world is saved when it’s discovered that salt water dissolves triffids, and the religious overtones are in my mind a little at odds with Wyndham’s story. 

However, all that said, viewed on its own terms as an SF monster movie, this film is quite entertaining for what it is: 93 minutes of being chased by man-eating plants.