John WyndhamEddie IzzardJoely RichardsonEwen Bremner
The Day of the Triffids (2009)
Medium: TV, series
Year: 2009
Director: Nick Copus
Writer: Patrick Harbinson, John Wyndham
Keywords: The Day of the Triffids, SF
Country: UK, Canada
Actor: Ewen Bremner, William Ilkley, Genevieve O'Reilly, Jason Priestley, Joely Richardson, Dougray Scott, Shane Taylor, Julia Joyce, Steven Elder, Brian Cox, Lizzie Hopley, Lee Edgar, Tim Francis, Eddie Izzard, Forbes KB, Reena Lalbihari, Simon Lowe, Tony Maudsley, Jenn Murray, Simon Naylor, Nora-Jane Noone, Karl Rhodes, Adam Sinclair, Chris Wilson
Format: two 90-minute episodes
Website category: SF
Review date: 30 December 2009
"It's 2011 and man has created a substitute for fossil fuel by breeding a highly dangerous crop of plants. When the human race is blinded by a meteor shower, the event also has a devastating effect on the Triffids - the creatures mutate and turn against mankind. Written by Patrick Harbinson (ER, Law & Order), The Day of the Triffids is a fast paced and highly topical take on John Wyndham's most famous novel."
I didn't write that. It's taken from the official website and I think the key words are "fast paced" and "topical". Or to put it another way, "stupid" and "will soon look as dated as bell-bottoms".
This book has had an astonishing number of radio adaptations, probably all better than the three live-action versions (1962, 1981, 2009). I like the one in 1981, but the other two are fighting hard for the title of Worst Triffids Adaptation. They're both dumbing down John Wyndham's novel into action-adventure and adding extra stupidity for luck. Both have strong points, but they're both also patchy and vapid. The difference is that the 1962 film isn't pretending to be anything else, whereas the 2009 series thinks it's being clever and yet is managing to be eight times as stupid.
Idiocy #1 is that they've updated it. This didn't have to be a mistake, but it is. Wyndham was using the Cold War and cynical industrialists to illustrate how the same behaviour patterns keep recurring even after the end of the world, with gun-toting villagers shooting at anyone they don't know and Torrence setting up fascist regimes. By losing these geopolitical parallels, the 2009 adaptation's undermining its own themes. Similarly they've missed the point of Durrant's colony. In fairness I enjoyed what they did with it instead, which is deliciously nasty and one of the adaptation's best bits, but all it's saying is that nuns are evil. Wyndham on the other hand was being subversive, with his Coker-Durrant debate deconstructing the civilised assumptions we all take for granted. Wyndham's Durrant isn't dangerous because she's evil, but because she's Mary Whitehouse.
However in place of all this, unlike the 1962 film, at least this adaptation is trying to have themes. They're muddled nonsense, but it has them. I quite like the notion of having triffid oil being a solution to the energy crisis and global warming, rather than Wyndham's original idea of just making it nutritious. Unfortunately the script's attitude to science is a dog's breakfast. The triffids are genetically engineered, so they're evil! Furthermore the scientists knew they were dangerous but didn't tell anyone, so arguably it's their fault that an idiot activist breaks into the script from 28 Days Later, lets the triffids out and gets eaten. Oh, and more useful than any scientific research are childhood memories of an African with a spear and a wooden mask. I wouldn't mind so much if this were just the usual Frankenstein gibberish, but instead it's somehow bled into a story with scientific environmental issues and a hero who's a research scientist.
Idiocy #2 is that the triffids, the meteors and the plague aren't man-made weapons that backfired (which was part of Wyndham's themes), but instead here the meteors are some kind of natural solar phenomenon that shines on all parts of the globe simultaneously and burns out everyone's optic nerves in one dramatic flash. I could believe in Wyndham's version of events, with people only realising what was wrong the following day. This one, not so much. Are we supposed to believe that 99% of the world's population happened to be either: (a) outside and looking up at precisely the moment of this magical flash, instead of watching it on TV, or (b) thought it would be a good idea to go and join the crowds of screaming people clutching their eyes? The script doesn't even give us a bit of ozone layer technobabble to explain how it happened and lend thematic resonance. As for the plague... whoops, no plague. Diseases don't make for exciting action scenes, you see.
Idiocy #3 is the confusion over timescales. The 1962 film had a smattering of this problem too, but nothing on this extent. The 2009 adaptation wants to be fast-moving and action-packed, yet it's adapting a story that unfolds over years and depicts the decay of the remnants of civilisation. Quite a bit of time must theoretically elapse during it, but the story never relaxes enough to let us get a sense of that time passing. On the contrary, Bill Mason keeps saying things like "we're running out of time" and threatening the extinction of mankind if the triffids get to release their spores. Naturally the triffids release their spores and the ending seems to imply that mankind retreats into little enclaves after all. Oh, never mind. Strictly speaking the timescales aren't a plot hole since I think I see where this missing time is meant to have gone, but it still feels wrong. Almost every time the triffids did something, I was asking myself if they could really progress that fast. Alternatively, consider another example. "Well, they're Mum and Dad to me." That should have been a nice little character moment, but here it lurches out of nowhere and makes us wonder if we've missed a scene or something.
No, on second thoughts it is a plot hole. "Outside these walls is chaos." How does she know? How long has she had to set up her evil status quo?
Idiocy #4 is Torrence. They've built him up into the villain, which frankly the book didn't need. He's okay, I suppose, but casting Eddie Izzard is... uh, not the obvious decision.
Idiocy #5 is the retarded ending. Psycho Eddie Izzard turns up, points guns at people and issues brain-dead ultimatums. The audience fails to be frightened. An incidental character gets a volte-face so predictable that even unborn foetuses knew it was coming, then Psycho Eddie walks in on half a dozen of his enemies and shoots the man with a gun IN THE LEG. Finally our hero remembers the night his mum died, which you'd wouldn't expect to have been forgettable, and realises that the triffids will ignore you if you've deliberately dripped poison into your eyes. Eh? How can they tell? How is this any different from a victim they're about to eat who's got poison in their eyes because they've stung him? What's most amazing is that the adaptation doesn't try to explain this how or why this works, but simply shows our heroes walking safely among triffids. Visually it's a brilliant sequence, but it manages to be dumber than the 1962 film's finale and that was a gold standard of dumbness.
I'd better stop enumerating the idiocies because it's getting silly, but I'm not even close to the end. You can kill a triffid by attacking the flower on the top. Susan turns into a retard for the triffid-catching sequence. The bastards keep making more sense than the heroes.
None of these are my main problem with this adaptation.
No, what I really object to is the fact that it's trying to be fast-paced. They're just turning it back into War of the Worlds, which was admittedly an influence on Wyndham's original book, but it's still a gazillion times less interesting and original than Day of the Triffids. Wyndham showed us beautifully and elegaically what would happen to our precious civilisation if the world went blind, leaving us with haunting images that I can still remember today. This adaptation shows us what would happen if you shoved together a bunch of movie cliches. The blind people in London turn into zombie hordes, while the triffids exude slime (why?) from Aliens and have magic grabbing tree roots from The Evil Dead. Joely Richardson's broadcasts even made me think of V for Vendetta. We hardly get a chance to watch the collapse of civilisation, what with plane wings smashing into hospitals and the production team spending lots of money making the visuals as counter-productively big as possible. The editing is too busy and the music is downright annoying. I particularly disliked the first hour, which didn't seem to think I had an attention span, although even that had good bits.
Okay, that's enough kicking. This is a wildly flawed adaptation, but there are things it does excellently. Occasionally the action-oriented stuff is an improvement, as for instance with the initial accident that gets Bill blinded and in hospital. The triffids are seriously badass, of course. Their chatter sounds oddly boring, but they're every bit as nasty and unstoppable as the production needs them to be. I also liked the way the production took a few tiny steps towards humanising them, in particular with its triffid version of Bub from Day of the Dead. The scene where it eventually nailed Brian Cox was breathtakingly nasty, while I liked the way the adaptation made me think about the fact that the humans' objective was basically genocide.
Then there's the fact that this is a lavish adaptation, full of strong actors and expensive visuals. I liked the way they went to such pains to make London look like London, while the village pub in its own way was just as richly characterised a setting. There are some fine sequences here and even the odd bit of emotional weight that manages to survive the action interpretation. "She was blind, but she fought." I liked the suicide too. Finally there's the fact that we have a strong cast with lots of big names, e.g. Eddie Izzard, Brian Cox, Vanessa Redgrave. This is the only Day of the Triffids adaptation to date that you'd watch for its acting, with neither the 1962 nor the 1981 versions standing out in this regard. I'm still baffled by the casting of Izzard, who could hardly be less well-suited to a role, but everyone else is solid and they've found an excellent Bill Mason. The little girls work really well too. Joely Richardson isn't anything like Wyndham's Josella Playton, but that was probably inevitable.
This is a great-looking piece of television, with an admirable devotion to being nasty and horrible. It's also full of actors I can enjoy watching. A good 60% of it could fairly be described as excellent. These are all good things. However I found the emphasis on action tiresome, with the production at times seeming terrified of just shutting up and a scene breathe. The music is a particular offender here. At three hours it felt a bit too long and as for the script... well, let's just say that there's a scene where Bill Mason tells his estranged father that "you didn't have time for me". Ugh. Does it even need saying that Coker is a nonentity?