I watch a lot of contemporary science fiction movies. Everything from Interstellar to Oblivion is grist to my mill (not to mention monster movies). The other day, happening to see a list of ‘best alien invasion movies’ on IMDB, I glanced through it quickly to see which ones I’d seen. Most of the newish (post 1980s, and Alien) ones, I realized, but none of the old ones. And there were so many of them, all those old films I’d heard about but never got around to watching.
Shameful, I decided, considering I am such a devotee of old cinema. So, a sci fi flick. And one which I decided to watch after first having read the book on which it’s based.
Very loosely adapted from John Wyndham’s novel of the same name, The Day of the Triffids begins with a rather boringly delivered (but thankfully brief) voiceover about carnivorous plants. The Venus flytrap is mentioned, and we’re told about another carnivorous species of plant known as the triffid (which looks rather like a mutated tulip, as far as flowers are concerned, and has a stem reminiscent of a palm tree). After that, we move further into the Royal Botanic Gardens in London, where this particular specimen of triffid is housed in a glasshouse.
The triffid, we are told, was brought to Earth on the Day of the Triffids. [Which, once we launch into the story, begs the question: then what is it doing in the Royal Botanic Gardens, before the ‘day of the triffids’?]
Across a set of scenes, we are given the basic gist of what’s going on: an interesting—and quite spectacular—display of meteors, over which all of England is going gaga. The radio is sending out excited broadcasts about how these colourful celestial lights have got all the astronomers studying them. The newspapers have tipped off readers: this is the biggest show around. Don’t miss it.
As a result, therefore, everyone in England is out that night to watch the meteors. About the only person missing it is American sailor Bill Masen (Howard Keel), in an eye hospital recovering from surgery. With his eyes bandaged, he can only listen on impatiently as Dr Soames (Ewan Roberts) and the nurse gush over the meteors. As they’re leaving for the night, Dr Soames reassures Masen that his bandages will be opened the next morning and he’ll be able to see.
In the meantime, back at the Royal Botanic Gardens, while the meteors outside are doing their bit, the keeper at the glasshouse with the triffid locks up and sits down inside [Why? Do gardeners normally sleep inside glasshouses? Doesn’t that old thing about plants exuding carbon dioxide at night cause sleepless nights among the tribe?] He listens to the radio—still blaring on about those fabulous meteors—and is busy getting out his sandwiches, coffee and boiled eggs when he hears an odd sound behind him. Something’s rustling and squelching and moving.
Horrors. It is the triffid! And before the unfortunate man can even loose off a scream, the vile plant has got him in its grip and is giving him the kiss of death. Yuck.
And, somewhere far away, in a lighthouse on a tiny island, the sole occupants of the island—a married couple—are having a quarrel. Karen (Janette Scott) and her husband Tom (Kieron Moore) are marine biologists who came here for research. As the months have passed, however, Tom has lost interest and is now a bitter and depressed drunk. So bitter that he nearly throws a fit when he discovers that his last bottle of liquor is over. So bitter, too, that when Karen—busy peering into a test tube—suggests he go have a look at the meteor shower the radio’s blaring on about, he refuses.
Back in London, and to Masen.
Morning dawns, and Masen, his eyes still bandaged, wakes up to hear the clock strike 9. 9? There should be someone around by now, giving him breakfast, attending to him. Masen gropes for the bell, presses. Calls for the nurse when there is no response. And, when he hears a loud and sudden scream, decides to take matters into his own hands—literally. He reaches up and pulls off his own bandages [I can understand the urgency and all, but isn’t that drastic? What if this summary undoing of the dressing causes further problems?] But all is well.
Or, at least, with Masen’s eyesight. He can see. And what he sees as he makes his out into the corridor and past the surrounding wards is mayhem. There’s furniture and linen lying tossed about haphazardly, things littering the hospital. And no sign of anybody.
Until a hand falls on Masen’s shoulder—and it turns out to be Dr Soames. A blind Dr Soames.
The doctor makes Masen lead him to the doctor’s office, where—under instructions from Dr Soames—Masen examines the doctor’s eyes. It appears that the optic nerve’s gone, completely destroyed. Dr Soames asks Masen to fetch him the medical kit from the next room, and while Masen’s back is turned, jumps out of the window. He, obviously, has decided that life without sight isn’t worth it.
Masen is shocked, of course, but curious too. What has happened? Soon after, having dressed and collected his things, he sets out—only to find the streets full of blind people, all stumbling about. He manages to get to the train station, and to an open ticket counter manned by a blind employee. [Who, when asked any question, is flustered and without an answer. Why he’s turned up is anybody’s guess].
When other people around discover—by Masen’s instinctive helping of a blind man who stumbles over a suitcase—that Masen can see, there’s a flurry. Everybody wants him to help. Find someone for me, get me a taxi, etc, etc. Masen is saved by the sudden (and very precipitate) arrival of a train—it comes careening into the station, crashes to a stop, and regurgitates crowds of blind passengers. [Two questions here. Even considering the train driver went blind in the wake of the meteor shower, how come the train’s managed to stay on the tracks all these hours? And, how come that massive train crash doesn’t result in any obvious injuries, let alone deaths, among the passengers?]
One of the passengers who alights, crumpled and travel-stained, is Susan (Janina Faye), an orphan who was studying in an awful boarding school from which she’s escaped by stowing away on the train. Since she was hiding in the luggage van, Susan never saw the meteors and so can see. When the people around her discover this, there’s a mini stampede—everybody’s trying to catch her to get her to be their eyes for them. One man manages to grab her and is dragging her off when Masen, seeing the girl’s predicament, rescues Susan.
There’s only one thing to be done, decides Masen: the two of them should get to his ship, where there will certainly be help. They get into an abandoned car they find on the road, and set off. Along the way, passing through a wooded misty stretch where heavy traffic has churned up the mud road and left a stream of abandoned cars, their car gets stuck in the mud. There’s panic when a triffid emerges from the gloom and gives chase, but Masen and Susan escape.
On the ship, there aren’t any triffids, but there aren’t any other people around, either. Masen manages to tune into the radio and they hear an announcement in French [conveniently, Susan’s schoolgirl French is good enough for her to interpret]. This calamity is obviously pretty widespread; France has been struck too, but naval forces are in action, ready to evacuate people from Toulon.
Masen takes a decision: they will go to Toulon. So he gets out one of the lifeboats, and they set off.
Meanwhile, in that lighthouse on the island, Karen and Tom have woken up to a new day. Tom has made up his mind that today, when the once-a-week boat that brings them supplies arrives, he and Karen will leave on it. Damn their work, damn this island. He’s had enough.
They wait for the boat. And wait. And wait. When it doesn’t come, Karen tries tuning into the radio and finally manages a frequency on which they learn of the disaster that’s struck. Thousands of triffids, too, they hear, are now on the rampage…
…and, later that evening, Karen sees one of them on the island. Karen and Tom set off to settle its hash, armed with a harpoon, but end up besieged in their lighthouse. The triffids break down their door, which the two people then have to shore up temporarily by nailing spare boards across it. While the triffids keep waving their tentacle-like things about, trying to find a way in, Karen and Tom [who suddenly seems to have found some purpose in life other than helping out the liquor industry] try frantically to do some research on a specimen sample they’ve obtained from a triffid they’ve managed to (or so it seems) decapitate.
Away on the Continent, Masen and Susan find a trio of other people who can still see: Mr and Miss Coker, and Miss Durrant (Nicole Maurey). Miss Durrant has a chateau, and she’s using it to shelter a group of newly-blind, helpless people who have nowhere else to go. Masen, who is attracted to Miss Durrant, tries to persuade her to come to Toulon, but she refuses. Who will look after these blind people if they leave?
But the triffids, lurking round the corner, might be about to throw the best-laid plans of mice and men all out of gear.
What I liked about this film:
Sadly, not much. In fact, come to think of it, just about nothing. I’ll explain further in the ‘comparisons’ section, below.
What I didn’t like, and comparisons:
I suppose, when one’s liked a book enough to want to watch a cinematic adaptation of it, one comes to the film with certain expectations. I seriously hadn’t expected The Day of the Triffids, since it was made in the early 1960s, to have brilliant special effects. I was ready to forgive flaws there. I was even ready to forgive the usual changes that are made when translating from page to screen: the editing that must be done, the episodes and background and details that must be changed or deleted or even added to make a coherent film.
What I hadn’t expected was this utter distortion of a perfectly good novel. Wyndham’s novel is, all said and done, less about an attack by monster plants coinciding with the world gone blind than it is about human society and civilization. (I’ve reviewed it here, on Goodreads). The book is a post-apocalyptic one, dire and thought-provoking, even though there is that element of monster plants.
What the film (directed by Steve Sekely, with screenplay by Bernard Gordon) does is to turn the novel completely on its head. This is a monster film, make no mistake. It makes no bones about it. It is not about what may happen if civilization had to start from scratch again; it isn’t about the terrors of having to build communities all over again (in fact, pretty early on in the film, it’s obvious that the armed forces are still going strong, rescuing people, and that it’s really only a matter of getting to them and being taken to safety). The ethics, the societal concerns, the tussles and power struggles brought on by a disaster of this magnitude, are completely ignored in the film.
The characters, besides having some names drawn from the book, are not from the book at all—Susan, the young girl whom Masen takes under his wing, is the only one who’s anywhere close to the novel equivalent. All the zooming about on the Continent, the adventures, the surprise discoveries, even the very existence of the two marine biologists in their lighthouse—are all film, not book.
Interestingly, and unsurprisingly, the film’s many deviations from the book include those which obviously have also been dictated by the existence of the Hays Code. In Wyndham’s novel, the ‘good guys’, the down-to-earth people who, instead of letting their emotions run away with them, are actually planning logically to rebuild civilization, advocate polygamy, whereby their communities will have every visually able man marry not just a visually able woman (if he wishes to do so and there is one around) but also at least two blind women. And all women are to be admitted into the commune only if they agree that they will give birth.
Plus, in the book, the female protagonist, Josella Playton, not only advocates this idea, but later even ‘marries’ Masen, though of course—since there is no longer court or clergy—without the benefit of those.
The film, keeping in mind the Code’s strict morality, does not even mention such scandalous behaviour, and in the brief period of disaster (before the Marines swing into action) the only people whom one can see as being flung into a confined space are a married couple: Tom and Karen. No free love here, no matter for whatever greater reasons.
And the triffids look terrible. In a patently artificial, paper-and-cardboard-and-rubber sort of way that did nothing to scare me.
Would I recommend this? No. Especially not if you like Wyndham’s book. If you haven’t read the book, it’s still a fairly average monster film. And the most glaring plot hole: that someone mentions, late in the film, that the triffids came to Earth during the meteor shower, raining down from the meteors (when one was already there at the Royal Botanic Gardens?)… that doesn’t quite fit.