Day of the Triffids

Can somebody please explain to my why Day of the Triffids is John Wyndham’s most famous novel?

I just didn’t get it . . . it didn’t hang together for me. The book is hobbled by two improbable and, ultimately, unrelated elements: the triffids themselves (Where did they come from? Nobody knows!) and the blinding effect (Freaky comet? Orbital mind-control lasers? Who knows?). Neither threat was sufficiently well-justified individually. With some more work on either concept, they could have been good as two separate novels: A Plague of Blindness and Killer Plants from Siberia. But do two great disasters necessarily taste great together? I don’t think so; the result was just clunky.

Does anyone know if the 60’s film is any good?

I remain a big fan of Wyndham’s other work, particularly the genteel and creepy Midwich Cuckoos and the cerebral Trouble with Lichen.

If people weren’t blinded, slowly shuffling plants allergic to seawater wouldn’t have made a very good story.

I don’t recall him explaining it why these things happened, so maybe he couldn’t figure out why.

Folks, no offense, but have you read the book Day of the Triffids? You seem to be basing your impressions of it based solely upon the poor early 1960s film starring Howard Keel (not the famous Kiel, the other one). Never, never, never base your impressions of a book on its movie, especially a science fiction book. You wouldn’t base your opinion of [B[Starship Troopers** on the movie would you? God, I hope not.
There was a *very * good BBC adaptation of Day of the Triffids about 15 years ago. It ran on PBS in the US, and I don’t think it’s available on tape or DVD. Too bad, it was good, and faithful.

In the book, Triffids were a developed plant. Today we’d say “genetically engineering”. It was commercially useful, propducing “Triffid oil”. The unfortunate poison-whipping, mobility, and intelligence was supposed to be an unfortunate side effect. One wonders about what would bring about such lethal side effects. Probably Wyndham was hinting that Triffids were a military development, too.


The “comet” that blinds most of the people on earth is later revealed to be (probably) a military device that went off accidentally. The twin plague of people-killing Triffids and people-blinding “comet” were thus both the result of man’s handiwork.

The first movie dumbed this down considerably, suggesting that the Triffid seeds came from the same rather benign-looking meteor storm that blinded everyone. (SPFX by Wally Veevers, who went on to do 2001 with Doug Trumbull) To get rid of the Triffids, the screenwriters fell back on that jhoarty device
“They’re allergic to seawater!”, which Wyndham would never have tried to palm off on his readers. At the end of the novel, the blind people and the sighted few have to build a new society that has to cope with the omnipresent threat of Triffids. Just the way H.G. Wells would have handled it.
Read the book! It’s worth it!

The 1981 film:

the 1962 film:

I didn’t think so. It really had very little to do with the book anyway.

There was a British mini-series version that came out in the early '80s that was much more faithful to the book. Nifty little Triffid guns too.

Well, the Triffids themselves really wouldn’t be much of a threat without the blindness aspect, would they? I think that was the point of the whole thing.

Let me try to explain. The Triffids are potentially dangerous but not too dangerous as long as you take a bit of care around them. They also have a fairly good list of benefits. (I think they were extracting medicines from them. Can’t remember for sure, it’s been a while since I read the book, but there was something useful about them.) The decision is made that Triffids will be used and spread around and people will just have to be careful around them. Everyone gets used to them and even starts keeping them in their yards for decoration.

Then, the blindness hits and everyone is suddenly at the mercy of this plant that was so useful a few minutes before.

What I think the point the book is trying to make is that it is not a good idea to let potentially dangerous things around just because we think we can control it. Think of the Triffids as representing nuclear power or genetic research or the political movement of your choice. All useful but potentially dangerous.

Now, think of the blindness as representing what happens when people start ignoring these things or information about them is hidden, suppressed or ignored.

Or, replace Triffids with a 737 and blindness with a change in policy that reduces airport security screening. Then assume its 9/11/2001.

I’m not sure if I explained that very well but that was my take on the story anyway.

British science fiction seemed to go through this phase at one point where they had a lot of novels involving some disaster causing the collapse of civilization except for a few noble individuals who set out to save some small piece of the world. Another one I remember reading about the same time as Triffids was No Blade of Grass by (I think) John Christopher which involved a plague which wiped out all grasses, including wheat, causing massive famine around the world. The Day of the Triffids falls into this category too.

But I will agree with you that The Midwich Cuckoos is the better book.

Er, yes, Cal I read the book. I’m a bit put off by the glib assumption that I didn’t. Did I at some point post something that caused you to file me in the “Drooling Idiot” bin?

Most of what you state as fact is offered by the characters in the novel merely as speculation. It’s never stated definitively whether the triffids were engineered, or whether they’d been found in some natural setting and possibly selectively bred, or what.

The whole orbital blinding weapon thing didn’t sit well with me, either. Joselle (or somebody . . . Coker?) speculates that perhaps satellites that were supposed descend in altitude to blind people in a localized area, but that dust from the comet caused them to go off in orbit, blinding almost everyone. But if it was designed to operate from a low altitude, how would it have enough intensity to blind people from its usual orbit? Well, it’s all offered as speculation, anyway, so who knows? But that’s exactly what bugged me. The lack of a firm, plausible scenario.

(Also, small nitpick: at the beginning of the story, the green flashes were attributed to a meteor shower caused by the Earth’s passage through the dusty tail of the comet, not the comet itself.)

And, yeah, of course you’d have to beef up the triffids if they were going to be the only threat to a normally-sighted populace, but that shouldn’t be too tough, should it?

tanstaafl, I can buy your moral for the story. Just seems kind of hamfisted, doesn’t it? “They kept dangerous plants about, which ran amuck when entire population of the world went suddenly went blind! Learn from their mistakes!” (Or, if you prefer, "They built hideous blinding machines that went awry, and unexpectedly made the populace vulnerable to the, uh, killer plants that they were, uh, growing in . . . vast . . . numbers. . . ")

If the either component of the disaster was a touch more plausible, I think it all would have been more satisfying . . . or if the two had been more closely related in some way–if blindness ultimately attributed to triffid-oil, or if the triffids were aliens and it was all part of a diabolical (and therefore logically-consistent!) invasion plan . . .

I kept waiting for a tidy explanation to tie it all together, and instead was left hanging.

The whole rebuilding society thing, as you say, Cal, was well-handled, which is why I still think it was okay . . . but it’s really odd that it’s Wyndham’s best-known book.

… I preferred The Kraken Wakes personally. The image of the “fishing nets” pulling people into the sea will stay with me for a long time. Come to think of it, it has stayed with me for a long time…

Wyndham was one of the masters of the cozy British apocalypse story.

Why exactly do you have to know where the meteors came from? Why does it have to be spelled out?

There are hints that the Triffids are man-made (“genetically engineered,” if you will, but I don’t think Wyndham was thinking of that concept). There are hints that the meteors are man-made – or maybe not. Maybe the Triffids are man-made and the meteors aren’t. Maybe it’s the other way around. Maybe both are natural.

It doesn’t matter. Not all fiction needs to have a tidy explanation.
The point of the novel is to show the breakdown of civilization and the horror it entails. It’s also made very clear that the triffids can be easily contained – if you can see. The blindness suddenly gives them the advantage.

It’s his best-known book because the visceral feeling of horror it creates. There are scenes that can give you a chill years after reading it. It’s probably better known than other Wyndham titles along the same lines because the monster is a physical presence (unlike The Kraken Wakes) and is nonhumanoid (unlike The Midwich Cuckoos). Finally, it’s the perfect blueprint for a horror movie.

I actually own the 1962 film, which is terminally mediocre and has to come up with a magic Hollywood solution (one of the best things about the novel is that the ending shows that things are going to be difficult for a very long time). However, there is one scene (in the airplane when the passengers realize the pilot is blind, too) that gives the same sort of chill the book does.

FWIW, I have read the book, and I think I still have the copy somewhere. But it’s been years. The movie stuck with me more.

Well, I could be really wrong about this but I seem to remember that the Triffids and the Comet were linked. IIRC, and I could be wrong, the Triffids showed up right after the comets first pass. The whole blinding comet thing happened a few years later. Therefore there was time to ‘tame’ the Triffids.

When I read the book it seemed to me that there were a couple of possible explinations. I’ll re-read the book since it is sitting on my bookshelf.


IIRC that was part of the government cover-up, and part of the reason everyone was affected was that both sides had them up there. They were supposed to go off at a lower altitude, not because they’d only do damage there, but to reduce their area of effect.

I’m sure there was something about someone on a plane with crate loads of seeds being shot down or something, and the seeds scattering. Normal people didn’t grow them intentionally, they didn’t know what they were.

I thought the point was that it wasn’t intentional, it was all about how two completely seperate screw-ups could combine, rather than anyone being insane enough to plan the whole thing.

tanstaafl The Death of Grass right?

Has anyone read the sequel? I can’t remember who wrote it, but it’s come out recently.

I rather liked that things were simply not tidily explained. The characters are normal people, caught up in events they didn’t cause, don’t understand, and whose origin are a mystery to them…and muddling through the best they can. Tying-together exposition would have been a stretch to provide in the first place (“Hey, Bob! Look at these shredded Top Secret documents that the Triffid Tribulation Team found in an abandoned military base and taped back together! They explain everything, listen!”), and at the very best simply introduced a jarring artificial note.

The '61 film was just terrible. It was, amusingly, the first video my family ever rented back in the stone age when we got our first VCR for the cost of about four DVD players today. It was a childhood-development milestone, in that it marked the first time I understood how movie adaptations could just be a travesty of a book. (The triffids dissolve when hit with seawater? What the hell? Some scriptdoctor hack thought that gem up and thought it was a good idea, and a few other responsible parties agreed with that? It was the end of an innocence.)

Well, right, that’s what the book implied, but why would you design the things to be so intense that they were effective in orbit (100% effective, I might add, since everyone who saw them went blind!) if you planned to activate them at a much lower altitude? It doesn’t make sense from an engineering standpoint.

Maybe the characters who were speculating about it didn’t quite understand the intentions of the satellite builders. . . After all, any given satellite could illuminate at most 50% of the Earth, so maybe the Asians were planning to blind the western hemisphere, or vice versa., and the satellites functioned as planned–except that they all went off at the same time, regardless of whether they were over the enemy.

Or maybe the whole bit about intensity being proportional to r^(-2) didn’t occur to Wyndham.

Well, anyway, it’s just another niggly little loose end that bugged me.

The Soviet plane being shot down did release triffid seeds around the world. Until then, they had been grown in secrecy in the USSR. The point was made that Soviet scientists had withdrawn from the rest of the world, and thus diverged from Western biology. Who knew what methods they’d cooked up? A Soviet scientist was bribed to smuggle some seeds out because Western business interests wanted to grow the triffids for their valuable oil, but the Soviet authorities caught on, and shot the plane down.

As soon as the triffids were accidentally disseminated, triffids were grown agriculturally, tethered to stakes in fields, and their oil was widely and profitably used in foods and industrial applications. (Chopped up triffid was also used as silage, IIRC.) Triffid were also planted and tethered as ornamental plants in gardens–though those were “docked,” meaning that the stingers were removed. They had to be docked every year or two, or the stinger grew back. Agricultural triffids were not docked, because undocked specimens were found to produce a higher-quality oil.

True, but there are copies floating around. . . .:smiley:

I’m with Drastic on this. Although the lack of a detailed background might be seen as unconvincing, to include it would have seemed even more unconvincing. If the triffids are such an integral part of life for the characters, then any explanation stretches credibility somewhat.

Sorry, Pod, I’d hoped that I didn’t put it in a way to sggest that you were “Drooling Idiot”. But I know that putting things on the Web seems to automatically add ten times the sarcasm, th way the caera adds ten pounds. My apologies if you thought I implied you were mentally impaired.

Besides, The Bad Astronomer’s assertion about “dissolving in sea water” threw me off.

Nonetheless, as I point out (and others after me have), the implication that this was human doing is pretty clear throughout, even if it is not definitey stated. People bred and maintained triffids, and could have wiped them out earlier, but there was greed for triffid oil. It only took a singe catastrophic change to make triffids from a nuisance to a grave threat, and that catastrophe, it is strongly suggested, was huma doing, too.

Sorry, Cal, but I have never picked up any such ‘strong’ suggestion in the book. And I’ve read it I don’t know how many times. I think it is quite deliberately left up in the air. It is suggested that it may have been man-made, just like it is suggested there may have been a link with the triffids, or that it might have really been the comet. But, really, no-one has a clue. Putting the two events, lights in the sky and triffids, simply down
to nasty old human tinkering and war-mongering seems way to pat an answer to me, and a bit of a cliche.

This is the whole point of the book, as I understand it: Humans, no matter how clever we may think we are, are still at the mercy of the universe and cruel chance. We can still get struck down by forces we do not understand or control. This is contrasted with the power of the triffids, a man-made force that we are well aware is dangerous, but that we think we can control. But all it takes is one circumstance to follow the other and we’re practically wiped out.

Wyndham’s point was, IMHO, to emphasis that we’re not as in control of things as much as we might like to think. It doesn’t matter how many precautions we take, if we’re going to play with fire the one day we’re going to get seriously burnt. The allegories with nuclear power and weapons are obvious. As tanstaafl pointed out, quite a few British novelists produced similarly themed stories in the 50s, at the height of the cold war. But, like all good fiction, the message could just as easily be applied to modern day concerns like genetic engineering. In fact, the parallels are even more obvious. You might also like to consider the subject matter of The Kraken Wakes to see another obvious parallel. Wyndham simply was a genius ahead of his time.

My favourite Wyndham is The Chrysalids. A great novel that you just have to read at least 3 times before you pick up on half of the subtlies in it.