Saturday, November 5, 2011

Getting it (Mostly) Right: The Day of the Triffids (2009)

Third time is the charm, I guess. It took three goes at The Maltese Falcon before John Huston's 1941 version finally did it justice (the other versions were 1931's The Maltese Falcon and 1936's Satan Met a Lady). The earlier versions went off on wild tangents away from Dashiell Hammett's 1930 noir classic narrative. What Huston decided to do was to take Hammett's novel as is, sometimes dialogue and all, and really use it as the source.What a concept! As a result, he had a film that is still watched today (while the other two are only viewed as almost unwatchable curios) and he came out of it with a career for both himself and star Humphrey Bogart. John Wyndham's 1951 influential science fiction novel The Day of the Triffids (it's inspired several films, including 28 Days Later) was first made into a movie in 1962 which took the novel’s most basic premise and veered it completely off track.

The premise of Wyndham's novel is quite simple. As the story starts, a plant called the triffid is irritatingly menacing the Western world. Triffids are large, carnivorous (they use a poisonous stinger to immobilize and kill their victims), are ambulatory and may be able to communicate with each other. It is suggested that the plant was created in a laboratory in the Soviet Union and that spores for the plant landed in England when a plane carrying them accidentally crash landed. Scientists and others are working diligently to control them. One scientist, Bill Masen, is stung by a 'young' triffid. He is temporarily blinded and sent to hospital. While he is in hospital, a 'beautiful' meteor shower (which he cannot watch) is seen all over the world. The shower causes everybody who looks at it to go blind. The rest of the book details Masen awakening alone in a hospital, determining what has happened, searching the streets of London for sighted people (the unsighted are desperately trying to survive and one technique they use is to capture sighted people and use them as slaves). Masen hooks up with a group of sighted people, but chaos and unrest quickly erupts. A sighted despot named Torrence decides he can set up his own dictatorship in London. Masen, with the help of writer Jo Playton, flees and tries to make their way out of London to somewhere safe, all the while dodging attacks by both triffids and other cruel sighted (and blind) humans. The ending is left open ended whether Masen and humanity will survive.

The 1962 adaptation retained the basic premise and the triffids are the same, but Masen is now a sailor, and the only scientist is a man trapped with his wife in a lighthouse on an island. The chaos still erupts, but the baddies are confined to a group of escaped prisoners who attack Masen and the people he hooks up with in a chateau in France. The triffids, it is determined, can be killed by throwing salt water on them (!). This same ridiculous premise is (almost) identical to how M. Night Shyamalan dealt with the evil aliens in his terrible film Signs (2002). Though I have a soft spot for The Day of the Triffids (I loved it as a kid, but have not seen it for 40+ years, so if I were to see it again my soft spot might have harden), the changes made were clearly done to avoid Wyndham's downer attitude and his ambiguous ending.

In 1981, the BBC made what for years I heard was a highly regarded and faithful adaptation. It took me until 2009 to finally see it, and when I did I was underwhelmed. It is faithful to the book, yes, but it lacks an emotional drive and spark. I lay the problem with this version at the feet of the filmmakers. One of the BBC’s head-shakingly stupid ideas back in the day was due to union agreements. If a movie was shot in studio, it had to be shot on videotape. If it was shot on location, they had to use film. As a result, the picture jumps back and forth between muddy film and over-lit video for no conceivable purpose other than to irritate the viewer. Forgetting the terrible visuals, the acting is ordinary and the premise is made dour and dull. What worked on paper in 1951 does not work to the same degree in 1981.

Imagine my surprise when I recently went into my city's only remaining DVD rental store and stumbled upon a DVD for a three-hour miniseries broadcast by the BBC in 2009. I figured, well, let's see if they managed to pull it off this time. Starring Dougray Scott (Mission: Impossible II), Joely Richardson (The Tudors, Anonymous and the upcoming US version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo), Eddie Izzard (Ocean's Twelve), Brian Cox (The Bourne Supremacy), Jason Priestley (Call Me Fitz, Beverly Hills 90210) and Vanessa Redgrave (Anonymous), this adaptation has been brought up to date, but it is generally faithful to the spirit of Wyndham's book, if not the whole plot.

Instead of the nasty Russkies being responsible, this time it's Masen's father (a character who doesn't exist in the novel), Dennis (Cox), who's to blame. In the back story, we learn that Dennis and his wife discovered the triffids in Africa. The wife is killed by the plants, but Dennis determines that if the creatures can be controlled and bred, they secrete oil in vast abundance that produces a clean, energy-efficient fuel which could replace fossil fuels to power our cars and heat our homes. He's hailed as a hero for this discovery because it eliminates greenhouse gas. The creatures are kept under control for many years after. His son, Bill (Scott), is a scientist working for the Triffoil company trying to find a way to neutralize the beasties' bad side (the stinger, walking about, and the fact they like to eat people). The story, at that point, becomes similar to Wyndham's novel, but instead of a meteor shower, the writer (Patrick Harbinson) changed it to a monstrous (but still beautiful) solar flare. Other changes he made work equally well. Having Masen haunted by visions of the death of his mother in Africa, and his ongoing hatred of his father, work to add layers of character to Masen. Having Torrence (Izzard) be a central antagonist whose despotic tendencies emerge pretty early on also works to give this miniseries far more human to human conflict than existed in the novel. What I liked about Izzard's performance for most of the show (he becomes a bit of a raving looney near the end) is that you can buy his silky-smooth technique that he uses to worm his way into genuine people's lives without them seeing him for what he really is.

Scott is terrific as the spiritually wounded Masen, and Richardson is equally strong as the television reporter who first believes Torrence and then slowly uncovers the truth. The fact the triffids became a secondary story was also wise (and it's also true of the novel). Book and film are called The Day of the Triffids, but what this is really about is the collapse of civility and civilization when the structures that hold it up all come unglued. If the adaptation had just become a 'man united against the invader / interloper' tale (such as the now-cancelled TV series, V) it would not have had the resonance that it does.

It doesn't all work (thus the “mostly” in my title). The triffids seem to wiggle and waddle more than they actually move. The subplot about the true nature of the 'Christian' enclave run by Redgrave is raced through. The death of a central character is so telegraphed that they should have painted a big target on this character's back. The final conflict with Torrance and his cronies (how he tracked down Masen and company is never properly or believably explained) is a mixed bag – some of it works well while other parts are just absurd. And the ending is way too rushed – it actually needed another 30 minutes to bring it to a satisfying close. However, having not read the novel in about seven or eight years, I had to give myself a quick refresher after I watched this latest version (thank you, Wikipedia) to actually remind me what has changed. They got the grim tone right and they made the character arcs of most of the people in the miniseries at least recognizably human (for good or ill). They also were smart enough to keep the triffids as a constant background threat, not the prime focus of the piece. All in all, it was very satisfying and creepy (my wife asked me to turn the lights on when we watched part two as she was too disturbed by part one).

Adaptation is never easy. What do you take out? What stays? What subplots do you eliminate (and several were removed here too)? What do you add that wasn't in the original? It can't be easy especially when you have a story that covers such a broad canvas (The Maltese Falcon, on the other hand, had only one simple story to work through). However, I think Harbinson (and director Nick Copus) wrangled a credible, entertaining and yet still thought-provoking adaptation from a book that definitely deserved such treatment.

David Churchill is a critic and author of the novel The Empire of Death. You can read an excerpt here. Or go to for more information.

No comments:

Post a Comment