Until I rewatched it for Alien Visitors, I had no idea the 1963’s DAY OF THE TRIFFIDS was in color. But before I talk about that, I want to talk about the book it’s based on, which I read for the first time this week.
John Wyndham’s DAY OF THE TRIFFIDS (yes, the Midwich Cuckoos guy) is set in the near future (of 1951) marked by orbiting satellite weapons (a popular worry of that era, figuring in both The Space Children and Invaders from Mars) and by triffids. ambulatory carnivorous plants. Their origin is unknown — the thinking is some kind of Soviet experiment — but while vicious, they’re easy enough to manage and the oil they produce is incredibly useful in industry (I’m not sure if it’s purely industrial or also used to replace cooking oil). Our protagonist, Bill, is a biologist who works with triffids. Having recently been splashed with triffid venom he went into the hospital temporarily blind. In a very effective opening, Bill notices the hospital is silent. Nobody moving, no nurses rushing up and down the corridors. Something’s wrong. There’s no traffic noise outside.
It turns out Bill got a lucky break: the light from the meteors burning up has stricken everyone who watched the meteors blind (Bill later speculates this is actually the result of an orbiting satellite weapon). With the vast majority of Brits (and the world) now blind, society collapses. Bill meets up with Josella, a young novelist notorious for her racy first book and together they navigate the increasingly nasty environment. People are looting, killing, raping or trying to launch a new society as a dictatorship. Bill feels torn between the impulse to help the blind and the realization he can’t keep them alive long; all he’ll be doing is making it harder for himself and Josella to survive. The triffids further complicate things. They were easy enough for sighted individuals to manage — fire is obviously effective — but now? They’re cutting loose from the triffid farms, reproducing rapidly and killing.
The triffids are the coolest thing in the book. They come across as (possibly) intelligent but extremely alien, both physically and in whatever passes for their mind. There are lots of them, their poison sting can kill a human easily but shooting and stabbing don’t do much good against them. And unlike the film, they’re not hamstrung by special effects. The human threat is much more conventional, familiar from lots and lots of post-apocalypse stories, before and after this book. It’s serviceable though.
The worst part of the book, like Cuckoos, is the sexism. Josella and Bill fall in with one group of survivors that declares that every woman who joins their group will have to bear children (men can earn their keep by labor, but not women), Josella assures Bill it’s no problem. All women want to be mothers, just like the women of Midwich didn’t mind being impregnated by aliens without their consent. That’s just what they’re like.
While it’s a much less irritating point, even though one group includes a busload of pre-meteor blind people, it never occurs to Wyndham they’d have good advice for the formerly sighted on how to deal with the crisis.
THE DAY OF THE TRIFFIDS (1963) simplifies things by having triffids dropped on the Earth by the same meteor shower that blinds everyone. Howard Keel as the hero recovers his sight in time to find, as in the book, chaos, panicked blind mobs and suicides; accompanied by a young girl he rescues, he sets off to find some sort of safe haven. People are a threat, but the triffids here are worse. Meanwhile a married pair of scientists in an old lighthouse besieged by triffids work desperately to find a solution.
This is a fun film, but suffers from me seeing it right after the book; for all its faults, the book is better. The movie is much more conventional, a straight 1950s monster film, right down to the heroic triffid-fighting scientists and a solution out of H.G. Wells — seawater kills triffids! Earth is saved! The book ends with confidence we’ll reach that point eventually, but it’ll be a long time. Here we end with the menace effectively finished, and a lot more sighted survivors than in Wyndham. I actually find that more plausible, but it also lacks some of the drama.
#SFWApro. Cover art uncredited, all rights to image remain with current holder.