Seeds of destruction: The Day of the Triffids

A new TV adaptation of John Wyndham's classic sci-fi novel The Day of the Triffids faces one enduring problem: how do you make plants scary? Gerard Gilbert reports

All plants move – but they don't usually pull themselves out of the ground and chase you". Delivered so straight that it's unintentionally funny, this line from the 1962 CinemaScope movie of The Day of the Triffids points to the main problem faced by any film adaptation of John Wyndham's sci-fi classic.

It's the Triffids themselves. What you might buy on the page doesn't necessarily sell so well on the screen. It's certainly a conundrum that is worrying Patrick Harbinson, the LA-based British ER writer, who has scripted the latest adaptation of Wyndham's 1951 novel. He thinks that all previous attempts to depict the Triffids have made them look like "walking lampshades".

"That initial film... that was the one where I thought, 'What the bloody hell are we in for here? You know, moving plants... how do we make them scary?" he says. "I looked again at the 1962 film, as well as the 1981 BBC version, and, yes, they're fine in a sort of mock-horror sort of way. But they're not scary."

The plants in the 1962 movie are indeed some sort of rococo lampshade – or scenery run amok from the panto version of Babes in the Wood – but in the BBC's 1981 version (check it out on YouTube) they look more like orchids crossed with rhubarb. In fact, in the great tradition of BBC sci-fi ingenuity, they were apparently constructed from a mixture of latex, fibreglass, sawdust and string, hollow inside in order to house a crouching operator, who was cooled by a fan installed in the Triffid's neck.

Harbinson's lavish new 180-minute version for the BBC (a co-production shared with several other countries, should any licence-fee payers be already huffing about such expenditure) sets the latest CGI technology on to the killer vegetation. He is, however, keen to point out that they won't be relying on computer wizardry alone – a touch of old-fashioned suspense was also called for. "Do the Jaws thing," he says. "Hide them as long as you can."

His Triffids are based on a rare tropical plant discovered by the production designers at the Eden Project in Cornwall. "The idea was to turn the Triffids as much as possible into animals, working on root shapes and root movement and things like that," says Harbinson. "That way we might be able to make it scary. They think they've done it, but, well, you'll be the first to judge..."

There are no Triffids on set when I visit Dorney Court in Berkshire, a beautiful Grade I medieval manor house sandwiched between the River Thames and the M4 motorway – "just" some of an impressive human cast that boasts Vanessa Redgrave, Joely Richardson, Eddie Izzard, Dougray Scott and Brian Cox. An interior at Dorney has been fashioned into the library of Dennis Masen (Cox), a scientist whose life work has been to study Triffids. Dougray Scott (Mission: Impossible II and Teri Hatcher's love interest in Desperate Housewives) plays his son, Dr Bill Masen, the story's handsome hero.

As anyone who has read Wyndham's novel, or seen either of the filmed versions, will know, the tale begins with a temporarily sightless Bill waking up in hospital and discovering that, while his eyes had been bandaged after a run-in with a baby Triffid, most of the rest of humanity has gone blind from watching a dramatic meteor shower (changed to a solar storm in this version). Bill collects a ragbag of the sighted, including Jo, a journalist (played here as a radio DJ by Joely Richardson), with whom, of course, he falls in love.

"It's a beautiful exploration of loneliness and the disintegration of society," says Scott, during a break from grappling with Triffids that only exist in the actor's imagination – the computer-generated plants to be included later. Richardson found herself unexpectedly enjoying these so-called "green-screen sequences" where the actor has to play off an as-yet not included special effect.

"Really good fun," she says. "The director shouts, "action", and then you have to hide from a Triffid by ducking or scurrying behind a bush. I've been playing the same character for the last five years in Nip/Tuck, so it's been fantastic to be out there running around. It's a welcome relief from scenes of arguing about divorce around the kitchen table."

Eddie Izzard has been enjoying himself too, rushing around with a pump-action shotgun. Izzard plays the villain of the piece, the sinister and enigmatic Torrence, who survives a spectacularly staged plane crash by stealing the other, blinded, passengers' life jackets and inflating them all together – a sort of giant airbag – in the aeroplane toilet (note to self: would this work?). "He's disconnected from everyone else," says Izzard. "They left it up to us to fill in our characters' back stories. So I've decided that maybe Torrence was orphaned.

"I didn't want him to be just a bad guy – that's too obvious. I wanted him to be ambiguous, so other people could never quite tell what they'd encountered. Hitchcock said that all villains have got to be charming. The most serious sociopaths often have a magnetic, avuncular thing going on. I made him cute and flirty. At first he is rather likable – he reveals his darker side only gradually."

As with the BBC's other current apocalyptic saga, Survivors (which returns in January), the remnants of humanity divide into the communally minded and those of a more selfish bent. In some ways it's a perfect metaphor for the arguments raging around the newly founded welfare state of the post-war Britain that Wyndham was writing in – the battle between collectivism and the individual.

John Wyndham Parkes Lucas Beynon Harris had already had failed literary careers as "John Beynon" and "Lucas Parkes" before he took up science fiction writing under his best known pseudonym, and achieved immediate worldwide success with the first of several apocalyptic novels that were also to include The Chrysalids, The Kraken Wakes and The Midwich Cuckoos. The Day of the Triffids, written during the Korean War and the first sharp snap of the encroaching Cold War permafrost, struck a deep-seated chord with its story of a blinded population at the mercy of carnivorous vegetation.

Wyndam's artistry divides opinion. Stephen King called him "perhaps the best writer of science fiction that England has ever produced", while Brian Aldiss characterised him as "the master of the cosy catastrophe". Whilst ambivalent about his literary merits ("as far as sci-fi writers go, yes, he's good, but a little angular... stiff... with occasional sweet things"), Patrick Harbinson immediately realised how to adapt the book for our times.

"What surprised me as I re-read it was how quickly I saw a way of updating this. When you look at exactly when it was published, 1951, and the nuclear shadow that a lot of writers were working under, I saw how easily and interestingly this could be adapted to where we are today, with our multiplicity of earth-threatening events, all of them created by man's genius. Without beating anyone over the head, this is a nice metaphor for where we are now."

"What Patrick has done," says producer Stephen Smallwood, "is to turn the Triffids into genetically modified plants... they have been genetically modified to provide us with oil. It doesn't feel like a rehash, it feels like an updated attempt to make a classic book right for now, with our resource shortages and our need to find alternative energy sources."

"It feels like every actor says this about every programme," adds Richardson, "but The Day of the Triffids does seem appropriate in these dark days. In these times of enormous global concerns such as drastic climate change and huge financial crises, what could be more apt?"

Patrick Harbinson purposefully avoided watching the two previous screen versions and closely followed Wyndham's book – albeit not too slavishly. "There's the famous scene in the hospital where he's asked to open the blinds by a ward full of blind men, and I had that in there because I thought it was good, but I also did another scene where recently birthed mothers are looking for their babies, which was more horrible. Not better... more horrible."

The mass blindness itself posed its own problem, he adds. "Lots of blind people staggering around can be – let's be brutal – unintentionally comic. In the writing we aimed to move the population off screen as soon as possible".

And how could you not love an apocalyptic sci-fi story that ends on the Isle of Wight (the Triffids, it seems, don't like salt water)? "A lot of dystopian novels, like Nineteen Eighty-Four or Gattaca, when they translate to screen are actually quite grim as watching experiences," says Harbinson. "With Wyndham's novel, you were very pleased that his hero and heroine managed to get together and they fought off the Triffids and they managed to escape... there was hope for humanity. It was sweet. And I thought the idea of escaping to the Isle of Wight was especially sweet."

The Day of the Triffids starts on BBC1 on Monday 28 December at 9pm.

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