Friday, May 11, 2007

"28 Weeks Later" and "The Day of the Triffids"

One of my favorite pieces of science fiction is a little known novel by John Wyndham called "The Day of the Triffids." In this prescient book, written in 1951, a contemporary plot explores the militarization of space, the genetic engineering of weapons and the breakdown of social order in a post-apocalyptic setting. The story starts in London when a large meteor shower strikes the earth, causing the explosions of military satellites in space that blind over 95% of the world's population. With most of the world suddenly sightless, order breaks down immediately and London becomes a wasteland of the dead and the recently blinded shuffling around trying to survive. Into this enters a ruthless predator, the triffids. They are a militarized plant that was engineered to be seeded into enemy soil where they grow quickly into a large carnivorous hunter. Using an acid laced whip, they blind their prey and drag it in to be digested alive. The triffids live off of human flesh, reproduce quickly and are tireless hunters who never need rest. As London devolves into chaos these militarized plants escape and begin to spread in England, feeding off of the living and blind majority.

All of this happens in the first few pages. The genius of this book is in Wyndham's exploration of the breakdown of social order as the remaining sighted survivors and the few blind who have help struggle to stay alive in a world where they are suddenly alone and hunted by an remorseless predator. The characters must leave London to try and survive in the countryside where they have a better hope of making it as they search for a weapon that will defeat the triffids once and for all.

Wyndham's particular genius as a science fiction writer is not in predicting the specifics of technology development, but rather in the implications of it on society and the individual. His work frequently explores the implications of world-wide technological collapse, and what that means for individuals suddenly isolated in an apocalyptic setting. In the post 9/11 West, Wyndam's books resonate with the underbelly of our collective apocalyptic fantasies. They seem to have a new relevance.

A couple of years ago my wife and I rented "28 Days Later" on DVD and sat down to watch. I had low expectations of it, but what I saw came as a complete surprise. Nearly the entire plot mirrors Wyndham's book, right down to the cinematic final scenes. Portions of the film so exactly match the descriptions from the book that is seems impossible that Wyndham doesn't get an adaptation credit. If you take the book, remove the blindness, substitute zombies for the triffids and jazz up the story to include a lot more visually driven effects, you get the film.

After it was over I turned to my wife and commented that the only thing they left out from Wyndham's book was the exploration of the small societies that band together to survive in a depopulated England. And now enters "28 Weeks Later," the follow up film that, no surprise here, explores how the survivors of the virus band together to try and survive in a depopulated England, with a ruthless predator still on the loose.

Check out A.O. Scott's review in the New York Times and then read the book. You'll have a great weekend and the films will never look the same again. Better yet, read the book first, then the review.


Martijn said...

If you like both Day of the Triffids and 28 Days/Weeks later you should check out the BBC TV adaption of Day of the Triffids (much better and more faithful to the book than the 1960s movie) and the BBC TV series Survivors, which explores survivors of a cataclysmic virus outbreak coming to terms with the aftermath of the disaster and finally starting communities and attempting to restart modern society to an extent. Both are gripping and suspenseful and available on DVD

Day of the Triffids (1981):

Survivors (1975-77):

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this view on The Day of the Triffids. However 'little known'? In America perhaps. You may be interested in viewing an article on
that compares and contrasts Triffids and Zombies.