Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Adaptations are hard

...and seldom work satisfactorily.

So, the latest "Day of the Triffids" adaptation by the BBC. As I said it seemed to get very little promotion and was buried in the back end of the Christmas schedule. I imagine the powers-that-be realised that it "wasn't very good".

John Wyndham was a phenomenal writer, leaving aside his predictions of GM crops, global warming, satellite-based weapons, and who knows what else, he had a knack for creating menace using a very matter-of-fact style. His skill was, perhaps, in plotting the behaviour of people and society when put under incredible stress.

While occasionally he would get into nasty details - the horror of the attack on the sea-coast town by the aliens in "The Kraken Wakes" really sticks in my mind. Yet it's not really gory, just matter-of-fact recording (the narrrator is a journalist).

The problem with adaptations is that novels are a very different animal to TV or film. The best recommendation for writers involved in adaptations is to capture the spirit of the novel - the intention of the original author - and not worry so much about the actual plot, though one does try to keep the same sequence and events.

Peter Jackson took huge liberties with "Lord of the Rings" (and everybody leaves out Tom Bombadil) but created something that truly carried the spirit of the original. It's a phenomenal piece of work.

*** Utter Spoilerage from here on out ***

So we have to ask: what is the spirit of "Day of the Triffids"?

John Wyndham is always making a point about the human condition - usually human arrogance and stupidity. In the book he makes the point that the blinding of the population is caused by satellite weapons, and that the triffids are completely manufactured. In other words: humans did it to themselves.

In this version the blindness is caused by a solar storm, and the triffids are natural (if slightly modified to increase their oil yield).

In other words, to my mind, the story had its heart ripped out.

Purists will complain that huge liberties were taken with the events that took place - but I'm not really complaining about that. I understand why the writer introduced Torrance from the start and had him as the leader of the Brighton group - now shifted to London. It's not what I would have done, but I understand it.

Let's look at the triffids themselves. In the original they are plants, they can move slowly and have their poison whip - and they can hear and communicate with rattles. They are a type of carnivorous plant but still plants, mostly they sit around and wait for their prey to come to them. They kill to create a richer soil to grow on. Blow its flower off and it'll grow another one eventually. Guns don't really bother them, shotguns can slow them down a bit.

In the new version they move reasonably fast and have tentacular roots that are completely controllable (so must have a complete nervous system). Obviously this new nervous system is the reason why guns have a bigger effect and they can be killed by beating their flower head to a pulp. They also want to eat people - just people. They will travel a hundred miles for a human lunch.

And, apparently, one human every couple of days is sufficient to keep dozens of them satisfied - I am referring to to the nunnery sequence here - except they don't completely absorb these ones (just to be sure they're recognisable). Yet the other triffids are not satisfied with even one dead human, kill one and then ignore it and go to kill another.

It may be just me, but I feel the originals are far scarier then these new ones. By making the triffids an obvious danger - even one being lethal - their overall menace is taken away. The fact that triffids can hear is the key point of the menace. It means that as long as people are quiet they can get away (as long as they don't get too close) but if someone starts shouting or starts a car. the audience knows what's coming - it's how you build tension: audience superiority and inevitability. All this is lost with psychotically murderous triffids that can hear and feel - and think.

There were, of course, the other obvious problems: characters wandering around alone and at night when they know there are triffids around - typical stupid schlock horror rubbish. The main character going off to capture a triffid by himself ... by himself? Yet there were three other people who could go with him (one of whom was another triffid expert). When Susan hides in his landrover (which was impossible, by the way, there was no way she could have got to it unseen) you know that either he's going to get into trouble and she'll save him, or she'll get into trouble and he'll save her. (It was the latter.)

My feeling overall is that the story completely lost the point: the title of the story is "Day of the Triffids" by concentrating on the characters and their relationships - and changing the plot to increase that interdependence the triffids became an afterthought, it was no longer about them.

In regard to other aspects: the acting was all good (Eddie Izzard makes a great villain), the actual dialogue was good, the effects certainly good enough.

I have to say that I still prefer the 70s TV version, obviously it's a bit slow by modern standards and the acting (not to mention the triffids) are a bit wooden; but it is more faithful to the original and manages to communicate the level of menace that is the essence of Wyndham, despite its handicaps.

I didn't hate this new version (no point turning my emotions up to 11, it's only TV). I liked some bits, understood why other bits were the way they were, and tutted at the TV in places at the utter stupidity of it.

What's on the turntable? "Saturday Night's Alright for Fighting" by Elton John


Robin Kelly said...

But isn't "humans did it to themselves" still the theme? It's only the origin of the solar flare that's changed - which makes it simpler.

Adaddinsane said...

I didn't really see it that way, in the original the triffids were GMed into existence - for this they were "natural".

(I love the way the spelling checker for blogger knows "triffid".)