A Dry Run for the End of the World: The Day of the Triffids

25Oct11

It’s an odd thing for a post-apocalyptic novel to be reassuring, if only because it goes far enough to illustrate that the end of the world also means the beginning of a new one. I’ve written about my admiration for John Wyndham before, and how a series of B-movie titles gets in the way of readers appreciating a novelist who combines interesting ideas with the kind of sensitivity and far-sightedness we expect in a good poet.

I recently watched a 2009, 3-hour BBC mini-series of The Day of the Triffids, and wanted to revisit the book after. I’d forgotten how many ideas are in the book. Wyndham has written a terrifying novel, for demonstrating how disturbingly easy it is for humanity to be bumped out of the driver’s seat, so to speak. Here, it’s the result of two events only a few decades apart: carnivorous, stinging triffid plants are created, and then a freak cosmic event watched by millions leaves most people blind, with rare exceptions.

He starts with this idea: if you could see, would you work to help the many hundreds of blind people all around you, or join whatever sighted people you could find? One is morally correct, the other far more likely to prove successful and save your skin. From there, he explores how habit can interfere with our ability to adapt to a world-changing crisis, what kind of system we should live in post-disaster, and even how to motivate children when a glorious former golden age is gone, possibly forever.

The mini-series touches on the first of these ideas, a simplified version of the second, and none of the rest. At the same time, a character who appeared in about fifteen pages of the novel is elevated to the status of major villain — just for the sake of having one, it seems — and goes around shooting his own henchmen, which leaves the audience wondering why anyone would follow him at all. There’s a new, more dramatic ending, and even the triffids get slightly different treatment. They’re crafty in the novel, able to sense movement and wait for people outside doors, but in the mini-series they’re given stingers that can smash a car window, so that unsettling suspense is replaced with frenetic action.

In short, the mini-series manages to be impressive entertainment, but only a diluted version of the book, despite a long running time. It leaves me hoping the series resulted in a few more people reading the novel — given the number of complex problems plaguing the world today, a British, slightly dated dry run for the end of the world is not only fascinating, it might actually be vaguely helpful to people, even if only in terms of their expectations, and having some slight level of familiarity with immense changes.

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