The Day of the Triffids
First edition hardback cover
|Media type||Print (hardback & paperback)|
|Pages||304 pp (first edition, hardback)|
|ISBN||ISBN 0-7181-0093-X (first edition, hardback)|
|Preceded by||Planet Plane|
|Followed by||The Kraken Wakes|
The Day of the Triffids is a 1951 post-apocalyptic novel about a plague of blindness which befalls the entire world, allowing the rise of an aggressive species of plant. It was written by the English science fiction author John Wyndham Parkes Lucas Beynon Harris, under the pen name John Wyndham. Although Wyndham had already published other novels using other pen-name combinations drawn from his real name, this was the first novel that was published as John Wyndham. It established him as an important writer, and remains his best known novel.
The story has been made into the 1962 feature film of the same name, three radio drama series in 1957, 1968 and 2008, and two TV series in 1981 and 2009. In 2003 the novel was listed on the BBC's survey The Big Read.
The protagonist is Bill Masen, a biologist who has made his living working with triffids – tall, venomous carnivorous plants capable of locomotion and communication, whose extracts are superior to fish or vegetable oils. Due to his background, Masen suspects that they were bioengineered in the USSR and accidentally released into the wild. The result is worldwide cultivation of triffids. The narrative begins with Bill Masen in hospital, his eyes bandaged after having been splashed with triffid poison. During his convalescence he is told of an unexpected green meteor shower. The next morning, he learns that the light from the unusual display has rendered any who watched it completely blind (later in the book, Masen speculates that the "meteor shower" may have been orbiting weapons, triggered accidentally.) After unbandaging his eyes, he wanders through an anarchic London full of blind inhabitants; and later becomes enamored of wealthy novelist Josella Playton, forcibly used as a guide by a blind man. Lured by a single light in an otherwise darkened city, Bill and Josella discover a group of sighted survivors led by a man named Beadley, who plans to establish a colony in the countryside, and decide to join the group.
The polygamy implicit in Beadley's scheme appall some of the group, especially the religious Miss Durrant; but before this schism can be dealt with, a man called Wilfred Coker stages a fire at the university and kidnaps a number of sighted individuals, including Bill and Josella, whereof each is chained to a blind person and assigned to lead a squadron of the blind, collecting food and other supplies, while beset by escaped triffids and rival scavengers. When Masen's followers are dying of an unknown disease, he attempts to find Josella, but his only lead is an address left behind by Beadley's group. Joined by a repentant Coker, he drives to the place, a country estate named Tynsham in Wiltshire, but find neither Beadley nor Josella. After some days, Masen finds Josella at her country home in Sussex, while Coker returns to Tynsham and later rejoins Beadley. En route, Masen is joined by a young sighted girl named Susan. Among other refugees, including some blind, they attempt to establish a self-sufficient colony at Sussex; menaced chiefly by triffids. Years pass, until a helicopter pilot representative of Beadley's faction reports that his group has established a colony on the Isle of Wight. Masen and his followers are reluctant to leave their own colony, but are provoked to do so by soldiers of a despotic new government. After feigning agreement with the latter's plans, the Masens disable the soldiers' vehicle and flee to the Isle of Wight, determined to destroy the triffids and reclaim Earth.
In the United States, Doubleday & Company holds the 1951 copyright. A 1951 condensed version of the book also appeared in Colliers Magazine. An unabridged paperback edition was published in the late 1960s in arrangement with Doubleday by Fawcett Publications World Library, under its Crest Book imprint.
In regard to the triffids' creation, some editions of the novel make brief mention of the theories of the Soviet agronomist and would-be biologist Trofim Lysenko, eventually thoroughly debunked. "In the days when information was still exchanged Russia had reported some successes. Later, however, a cleavage of methods and views had caused biology there, under a man called Lysenko, to take a different course" (Chapter 2). Lysenkoism at the time of the novel's creation was still being defended by some prominent international Stalinists.
The novel contains many themes which are common in Wyndham's work: a depiction of the Soviet Union as an opaque, inscrutable menace is presented in Chapter 2, a central problem made worse by human greed and bickering, and a firm determination on the part of the author to not explicitly detail the origin of the threat faced by the protagonists. Other themes include the dissection of human nature from a range of standpoints, and male and female gender roles.
Wyndham's narrative also focuses on the pragmatic issues of self-sufficiency facing survivors of such a catastrophe. Simply living off of scavenged canned food from London shops is not a viable survival strategy on a scale of years. The enclaves that survivors set up in the countryside to attempt to rebuild civilisation cannot simply use scavenged ploughs forever, but eventually need to develop the capacity to build their own.
In his book Billion Year Spree: The History of Science Fiction, Brian Aldiss coined the term cosy catastrophe to describe the subgenre of post-war apocalyptic fiction in which society is destroyed save for a handful of survivors, who are able to enjoy a relatively comfortable existence. He specifically singled out The Day of the Triffids as an example of this genre.
Anthony Boucher and J. Francis McComas praised it, saying "rarely have the details of [the] collapse been treated with such detailed plausibility and human immediacy, and never has the collapse been attributed to such an unusual and terrifying source.". Forrest J Ackerman wrote in Astounding Science Fiction that Triffids "is extraordinarily well carried out, with the exception of a somewhat anticlimactic if perhaps inevitable conclusion."
However, Groff Conklin, reviewing the novel's initial book publication, characterised it as "a good run-of-the-mill affair" and "pleasant reading... provided you aren't out hunting science fiction masterpieces."
Allusions in other works
Triffids are referenced in the opening number of the stage/film musical The Rocky Horror Show: "I really got hot when I saw Janette Scott fight a triffid that spits poison and kills." Janette Scott played the role of Karen Goodwin in the 1962 film adaptation.
The short story "How to Make a Triffid" includes discussions of the possible genetic pathways that could be manipulated to engineer the triffids from Wyndham's story.
The web series Welcome to Sanditon references triffids numerous times, in particular the novel and 1981 BBC adaptation.
The novel was adapted by Giles Cooper in six 30-minute episodes for the BBC Light Programme, first broadcast between 2 October and 6 November 1957. It was produced by Peter Watt, and the cast includes:
- Patrick Barr – Bill Mason
- Monica Grey – Josella Playton
- Malcolm Hayes – Coker
- Arthur Young – The Colonel
- John Sharplin – Michael Beadley
- Molly Lumley – Miss Durrant
- Duncan McIntyre – Dr Vorless
- Gabrielle Blunt – Susan
- Richard Martin – Denis Brent
- Sheila Manahan – Mary Brent
- Margot Macalister – Joyce Tailor
- Trevor Martin – Torrence
A second version of Cooper's adaptation, for BBC Radio 2, was first broadcast between 20 June and 25 July 1968. It was produced by John Powell, with music by David Cain of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, and the cast includes:
- Gary Watson – Bill Mason
- Barbara Shelley – Josella
- Peter Sallis – Coker
- Anthony Vicars – Colonel Jacques
- Michael McClain – Michael Beadley
- Hilda Kriseman – Miss Durrant
- Victor Lucas – Vorless
- Jill Carey – Susan
- David Brierly – Denis
- Freda Dowie – Mary
- Margaret Robertson – Joyce
- Hayden Jones – Torrence
This version was released on CD by BBC Audiobooks in 2007.
An adaptation by Lance Dann in two 45-minute episodes for the BBC World Service was first broadcast on 8 and 22 September 2001. It was directed by Rosalind Ward, with music by Simon Russell, and the cast includes:
- Jamie Glover – Bill Mason
- Tracy Ann Oberman – Josella Playton
- Lee Ingleby – Coker
- Geoffrey Whitehead – The Colonel
- Richenda Carey – Miss Durrant
- Lucy Tricket – Susan
Episode 2 was original scheduled for 15 September 2001, but was rescheduled due to the September 11 attacks. Each episode was followed by a 15-minute documentary on the book.
A 20-minute extract for schools was first broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on 21 September 1973, adapted and produced by Peter Fozzard. There were readings of the novel in 1953 (BBC Home Service – 15 x 15 minutes, read by Frank Duncan), 1971 (BBC Radio 4 – 10 x 15 minutes, read by Gabriel Woolf), 1980 (BBC Radio 4/Woman's Hour – 14 x 15 minutes, read by David Ashford), and 2004 (BBC7 – 17 x 30 minutes, read by Roger May).
It was adapted in Germany in 1968 by Westdeutscher Rundfunk (WDR) Köln (Cologne), translated by Hein Bruehl, and most recently re-broadcast as a four episode series on WDR5 in January 2008.
It was adapted in Norway in 1969 by Norsk Rikskringkasting (NRK), translated by Knut Johansen, and most recently re-broadcast as a six episode series on NRK in September and October 2012. The Norwegian version is also available on CD and iTunes.
London-based film producers Albert R. Broccoli and Irving Allen purchased the film rights and in 1956 hired Jimmy Sangster to write the script. Sangster believed that Wyndham was one of the best science fiction novelists writing at the time and felt both honoured and "a little bit intimidated" that he was about to "start messing" with Wyndham's novel. Sangster claims he was paid for his work but never heard from the producers, and the film was not made. He has since admitted that he doesn't think his script was any good.
In December 2009, the BBC broadcast a new version of the story, written by ER and Law & Order writer Patrick Harbinson. It stars Dougray Scott as Bill Masen, Joely Richardson as Jo Playton, Brian Cox as Dennis Masen, Vanessa Redgrave as Durrant, Eddie Izzard as Torrence, and Jason Priestley as Coker. An estimated 6.1 million people viewed the first episode. The elements of repopulating the Earth and the plague were overlooked in this adaptation; another difference in the plot was that the Earth was blinded by a solar flare.
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