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Why the love affair with man-eating plants?

Triffids from the BBC's 1981 adaption

By Finlo Rohrer
BBC News Magazine

A new BBC adaptation is being made of The Day of the Triffids, but why are we still prepared to believe in a post-apocalyptic world roamed by flesh-eating semi-sentient plants? And do we have a love affair with fictionalised destruction?

Picture the scene. Something bad has happened. Very bad. The streets are deserted. The people are either dead or fled.

The cause could be a natural disaster - a volcano, a tsunami or an earthquake. It could even be something truly far-fetched - an alien invasion, giant lizards or a wave of famished zombies.

KEY APOCALYPTIC NOVELS
Mary Shelley: The Last Man (1826)
MP Shiel: The Purple Cloud (1901)
HG Wells: The Shape of Things to Come (1933)
George R Stewart: Earth Abides (1949)
Richard Matheson: I Am Legend (1954)

But the explanation seems often to be man-made, misguided aggression or science gone wrong - accidentally released plague, nuclear war, or genetic modification gone awry.

This is one of Hollywood's favourite genres - the disaster movie. Look over the biggest grossing movies of recent years, and disaster movies are over-represented. Between them, Independence Day, I Am Legend and War of the Worlds took well over $2bn at the box office.

Within this category of disaster movies there is a a powerful sub-genre, the "post-apocalyptic fiction". Stories of a world having suffered, or in the last throes of, total collapse seem to have a perverse hold on the cinemagoer.

Deserted London

The modern incarnation of this genre has its roots in the febrile atmosphere of the 1950s, and perhaps its greatest pioneer was John Wyndham.

His 1951 novel The Day of the Triffids tells the story of a man, Bill Masen, who awakes in a hospital after treatment for temporary blindness caused by a sting from a genetically modified plant, a triffid.

The first 45 minutes of 28 Days Later are the first three chapters of The Day of the Triffids, marginally modified with the addition of zombies
Dr Barry Langford

Sensing he has been left unattended, he takes off his bandages to find the hospital is deserted. Upon leaving, Masen soon realises everybody has gone blind after witnessing spectacular lights in the sky the night before.

He, of course, was unable to watch the shower and has therefore retained his sight. The result of the epidemic of sightlessness is chaos and starvation, underpinned by a growing threat from the mysterious stinging triffids.

The tiny minority who have avoided blindness face difficult choices about how to continue their lives in a ravaged country, and how to deal with helpless blind survivors.

Its influence on some modern disaster films is apparent to any reader, says Dr Barry Langford, senior lecturer in film and television at Royal Holloway, University of London, and the author of the introduction to the Penguin Modern Classics version of Wyndham's novel.

"The first 45 minutes of 28 Days Later are the first three chapters of The Day of the Triffids, marginally modified with the addition of zombies."

Zombie lineage

Seeing a modern cinematic zombie lumbering unthinkably towards the hero or heroine as they try and make good their escape, it's not a massive leap to the triffids lumbering unthinkingly towards Bill Masen and Josella Playton, the resourceful heroine.

Armoured car in scene from 1981 adaption of The Day of The Triffids
Competing political views arise in the aftermath

Horrorphiles may trace the zombie lineage back to Richard Matheson's 1954 novel I Am Legend, but the triffids made their literary debut three years earlier.

Wyndham's work played with the paranoia of the Cold War then seeping into ordinary people's subconscious. In his novel, both the rise of the triffids (farmed for their oil) and the putative explanation for the blindness (an accidental release of chemical or biological weapons orbiting in satellites) are byproducts of the Cold War.

And the idea of malevolent plant life has a certain appeal now, in a time where some people are increasingly concerned about the idea of genetically modified organisms.

"The triffids are perhaps to us a more potent threat than even in Wyndham's time," Dr Langford suggests.

Rising seas

Andy Sawyer, librarian at the Science Fiction Foundation Collection at the University of Liverpool, concurs. "It has become relevant. There is a lot more anxiety about bio engineering now."

POLITICAL VISIONS IN THE NOVEL
Militaristic semi-feudalism
Polygamous pragmatism
Socialist idealism
Traditional morality

Apart from the triffids, Wyndham's other novels also cover topical issues. The Chrysalids tackles the idea of genetic mutation, possibly caused by nuclear war, and The Kraken Wakes tells of a world drowned by rising sea levels.

As well as meddling in nature, the relationship between cities and civilisation is a central theme in Wyndham's work.

At the heart of The Day of the Triffids is the idea that without cities there can be no civilisation. After everybody goes blind, the survivors cannot hope to sustain life in the cities. Pavements are soon cracked by weeds and streets overgrown.

"The empty city is a really powerful visual motif for the end of the world as we know it," says Dr Langford.

And in Wyndham's novel, the division of labour - and pampered lives - in modern society leaves people singularly ill-equipped where there is suddenly a battle for survival itself. One character rages that a group of women are unable to restart a generator.

Strange fantasy

"There is always a very strong sense of do we actually have the reserves to sustain ourselves? Have we become insufficiently robust?" says Dr Langford.

Wyndham's work provides a bridge from the work of HG Wells, Jules Verne and others, to the disaster and apocalypse fiction of today. It is as popular as it is today because it taps into a strange fantasy - a world in which we have avoided an all-embracing death and can do what we want.

APOCALYPSE THEMES
Science gone wrong
Ordinary man as hero
End of urban living
Need for old-fashioned skills
Competing political visions

"It's living on past the death of everything, living into a future that isn't mapped out and doesn't resemble anything we know," he says.

"When we die, everything ends, but in these stories that's inverted - everything ends but we get to live on. It is the world evacuated of everyone else. You can go into shops and have everything you want, live in any house you want."

And Wyndham's writing expounds an idea that is the template for many a modern film - the ordinary man, and ordinary woman, who have to take on a heroic mantle.

"He does follow that Wellsian tactic of making extraordinary things happen in ordinary circumstances. He saw himself as very much in the tradition of HG Wells rather than the American space opera," says Sawyer.

Wyndham also follows Wells in embedding an overtly political aspect in his science fiction. In the world that Bill Masen confronts, there are a number of different models for how to build society in the aftermath of the disaster.

Wyndham certainly did not invent disaster or post-apocalyptic fiction, and many of his ideas had precursors in earlier authors. But the way he expanded and expounded his ideas, and his popularisation of the nascent genre to a mainstream audience, make him an immense figure in science fiction.


Send us your comments using the form below.

My very freaky Triffids story... I first saw this when I was eight and it has haunted me ever since. Finally I found it in 2005 on DVD in a local store. I rushed home and started to watch what I'd waited so long to see. But it wasn't as scary or haunting as I remember. Then, out of nowhere, came the most frightening thing. In the scene where Bill is taken to a hotel with a group of blind people to look after, the scenery starts to look very familiar. It's my street. The minibus then pulls up to the hotel. And guess what? The hotel is my house! The shot freezes on my bedroom window - the very room where I'm watching the DVD, 24 years after it was filmed. My apartment is in an old building that used to be a hotel. So I must have seen my future home when I first saw the series back in 1982. What does it all mean? Any ideas? Is it the end of the world?
G Ben, London, UK

I hope this adaptation gets the height of the triffids right. They're not that tall in the book, only about seven to eight feet. Which means they can hide behind hedges and walls, unseen. Now that's scary.
Rachel, London

Is it fiction? Have you seen the weeds in my garden? It has been all out war for decades and I don't think I have any hope of winning!
Robert Togneri, Lockerbie

What about The Midwich Cuckoos? Mass infertility followed by mysterious spooky blond children nurtured and protected by the blinded-by-love host race... scary stuff. I still think about it when I see several blond, blue-eyed kids in the same place.
Lesley, Hope Valley

Wyndham's genius lies in the very feebleness of his monsters. They are bogeys of the night, absurd when viewed in daylight. Triffids, vile as they're cracked up to be, aren't very formidable monsters: you'd be in more danger from a bull in a field. And far less horrible as a source of vegetable oil than razing a rainforest. Before these Frankenfoods can pose a public threat, Wyndham has to make the world go blind. Likewise the Midwich Cuckoos are only children, albeit with excellent rapport. Imagine being buried up to your neck, Wyndham says to us: slugs could come and eat your eyeballs. But does that mean slugs pose a threat we've badly underestimated? Wyndham invites you to say yes. And that goes for anyone rooting up these Cold War period pieces. They are trading in unreasonable fears. Two sorts of people do that. The Orson Wellses, out to make a buck or gain cheap notoriety. Or - more insidiously - the Slobodan Milosevitches, out for political power at any price. Many of the worst tragedies of recent times stem from the cynical demonisation of perfectly harmless people or things. To take a topical example: cholera (for all its nasty symptoms) is easy to treat and prevent. It isn't a challenge to a present-day society. The horror of Zimbabwe is that when modern institutions break down (such as piped water), mediaeval plagues are free to come back. But it's easy to get the wrong message: the real villain of the Zimbabwean tragedy isn't cholera but the man in charge.
Ian Clark, Whitby, England

It has to do with the old tribal myths of the man/god (in some stories he was a tribal leader in others he was a god) who told the tribe to kill him and bury him in the Earth, from which grew whatever was the staple plant for the tribe, whether corn for native Americans or yams for the islands of South East Asia. This ancient lore seems to be imbedded in the subconscious of the West. In summary perhaps this man-eating plant theme seems to represent sustenance for the rest of us, as coincides with the old myth of the dying god/man whose sacrifice gave us the food that we live on. Joseph Campbell goes into further detail in his books on occidental myths.
Rel Smith, Asheville, NC, US

Day of the Triffids was one of the first stories I tried to write a sequel for as a child. A feudalistic society with stilt-wearing flame-thrower-toting anti-triffids knights, protecting their tiny embattled parcels of land. Where cities were overgrown and feared, and superstition was eroding away at the few remaining keepers of knowledge of the old ways. Lots of fun, but gone now I'm afraid.
John Gallivan, Southend, Essex

I've always thought one of Wyndham's more interesting novels was The Trouble with Lichen, where a compound in lichen was discovered to have great preservative qualities and if applied correctly could greatly extend human life. It was interesting for its gender commentary and satire, but also its bioengineering context. He was very good at using counterfactuals to ask, "If this happens, what will society's reaction be?" It's unfortunate he's not a more widely read.
Marcia Brown, Washington, DC

Another political theme stated in the book (which I did enjoy) is its, to modern eyes at least, outrageous sexism. I guess that was symptomatic of the age when Wyndham was writing.
Geoff, Bristol UK

Geoff is doubtless correct, but I do feel a bit sad that everything I seem to have enjoyed as a child (including Day of the Triffids) now turns out to be politically incorrect. Can we not forgive the past for not being the present?
Jude Kirkham, Vancouver, Canada

I too was an avid fan of John Wyndham's books but always felt the film versions were rather poor interpretations of his brilliantly atmospheric writing, especially in The Midwich Cuckoos as well as The Day of the Triffids. The line drawings in my version of the triffids were nothing like those shown in the film and nowhere near as believable or scary. Those books, coupled with 1984 and Brave New World, certainly fired my imagination and encouraged me to read more. Why is it not the same for youngsters today?
Sarah Lane, London, UK

The SF author Brian Aldiss wrote rather dismissively of John Wyndham that he was "master of the cosy catastrophe". But that's exactly why his books are so good: they present an ordinary world, with ordinary people, threatened by extraordinary things. Let's hope this latest adaptation does the book justice.
Peter, Newbury, UK

Jurassic Park was maybe worth mentioning as being slightly more scientifically plausible. The problem I find as a scientist is that people believe science fiction really could happen. The truth is that it took 400 attempts to clone a sheep yet the media claim Cern can create black holes that will swallow Switzerland.
Peter, Notts

Anyone remember the old mother-in law joke? "Say it with flowers. Buy her a triffid."
Andy Crofts, Oulu, Finland

I love this genre, like zombie films as I can imagine what it would be like to exist and survive in these nightmare scenarios. It also gives the reader the opportunity to consider their own actions if placed in the shoes of the protagonists. Would you kill to survive yourself? Would you abide by the laws of the pre-apocalyptic world? They are very moral questions and its great to fantasise about how people would probably abandon their old lives and technology and return to a more simpler way of life, coupled with the danger of something akin to the Wild West.
Alastair Hardwick, Newcastle, UK

To this day the concept still fascinates me along with post-apoc films. Why? It is an romanticised escape to something beyond mortgages and our desk jobs. Whilst the reality would be horribly different, returning to a tribal lifestyle where survival is through hunting and gathering is in our nature. How many men out there have something in their home for the function of if society broke down?
Dave, Southampton

I first read Day of the Triffids in my early teens and the story completely gripped me. Wyndham really nailed the nuts and bolts of a world where civilisation has crumpled. What's more I always loved the fact that two completely unrelated events conspired to create his post-apocalyptic world rather than one all consuming disaster - the triffids are already "loose" and used in cultivation for years before the blindness completes the double-whammy needed to end his world. The idea that the triffids are already a potent threat in third world countries - where they have bred uncontrolled for years - also impressed me, implying as it does that the first world is far too happy to remain blind to the plight of those less fortunate until the problem hits closer to home. All in all, it's arguably one of the greatest apocalyptic tales ever written and one which, somewhat magnificently, is not only a story very much of its time, but also one that continues to prove uncannily accurate at predicting the pitfalls of our 21st Century society as well.
Phil, Angus, Scotland

I put my fascination with genre down to the study of Empty World by John Christopher at school. This underrated and hard to get book is a brilliant vision of a world destroyed by plague. With a bit of luck the revival of the triffids, and the remaking of Survivors. may lead to a bit of a revival in this genre. Who knows - someone may see fit to republish Empty World so I can finally buy a new copy of this book, mine looks a bit shabby.
Niall, Norwich, UK

Can we please, please have some ORIGINAL science fiction on our screens? British literary SF is burgeoning with fantastic new ideas, why can't TV writers and commissioners follow suit? SF is about imagination and looking forward, isn't it?
MattB, Oxford

Doctor Who?
Torchwood?
Primeval?
Hyperdrive?
Red Dwarf returning?
Dead Set?
Erik

Venus fly traps were always a favourite at school and heading into the woods to find pitcher plants or jacks-in-the-pulpit was a wonderful pursuit on the school field trips. There was just something about a plant that hunted its prey that fired up our imaginations.
Candace, New Jersey, US

The Kraken Wakes was always my favourite, but here's a conundrum. Would it be better to have slowly rising sea levels where the whole population compete's for ever more limited space and resources, or a sudden cataclysm where those on lower ground get inundated. I suppose fiction would prefer the latter, a good exciting start and then some key characters to develop. In reality we would most likely have the former where we all suffer miserably. But where's the plot line in that?
Simon Mallett, Lenham, Kent

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