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Tuesday, 5 January 2010

John Wyndham and Me

I haven't seen the new adaptation of The Day of the Triffids yet - the parts are lined up on my hard drive, ready for when I've fought my way through all the BAFTA screeners in time for the next round of voting - but this review on the Blowing my Thought Wad blog inspired me to a response that outgrew the comments section.

A while back I wrote of how I once worked on a TV adaptation of The Midwich Cuckoos with producer Marc Samuelson, who'd taken a block option on all the available Wyndham screen rights. The Day of the Triffids was excluded from the package, as the feature and TV rights had been signed away some years ago. The Midwich Cuckoos was available for TV only; MGM had owned the feature rights ever since The Village of the Damned and had exercised them again in the disappointing John Carpenter remake.

Marc had ambitious plans for the properties; when I came along he already had in hand Stephen Volk's script for The Chrysalids. He'd commissioned coverage on all the material as the first step in assessing how well each book or story might lend itself to adaptation, and he asked me to cast an eye over it and share any thoughts.

I passed on The Kraken Wakes, citing the main big insoluble problem; the audience will be expecting a Kraken, and they'll expect it to wake. The novel has neither.

Cuckoos was the one I most wanted to get my hands on, possibly because Village of the Damned had nailed it so well that I felt free to be as daring as was needed to make the concepts work in the here-and-now. I wrote a treatment. You know that feeling in your gut when the whole thing clicks and, like a solved equation, it works and it feels like music?

Marc was already in talks with the BBC and they seemed up for it. You'll no doubt be astonished to hear that months passed into years and nothing ever happened. Finally the whole proposal disappeared into litigation, as the producers of the Carpenter remake attempted to launch a TV spinoff that infringed on Marc's rights.

Triffids came up in a different context, further down the line; Life Line director Jamie Payne was pursuing an adaptation and asked if I'd be interested in scripting. I reread the novel and came to two conclusions; firstly, that the triffids played no central part in the story and were barely more than an added background threat, and secondly, that the book's spine narrative had been lifted almost intact and refashioned as 28 Days Later.

The latter point pretty much squashed my interest, as I felt it left me with nowhere to go. As for the triffids themselves... my thought there was, what if they could run? Okay, they're plants, but so was the creature in The Thing from Another World. What if they could uproot and move at speed for, say, thirty seconds, before having to smash open the ground beneath them and ram down the roots again for a recharge?

Never went any further than that. Perhaps just as well, you may say.

2 comments:

Good Dog said...

I’d completely forgotten about your previous post about The Midwich Cuckoos. With the possibility of that and The Chrysailds from Stephen Volk it just does to show there are people sitting behind desks at Television Centre who seriously deserve a good slap for not giving them the go-ahead.

I should have mentioned that this adaptation does something interesting with the character of Durrant, played by Vanessa Redgrave, but the fact is the triffids really remain more of an inconvenience that a menace and they only become a threat because those who still retain their sight act are written as complete imbeciles in a vague attempt to heighten the drama.

It doesn’t have to go the route of the film version, which wiped the pests out with sea water, but it seemed utterly bonkers that Masen, having worked with the triffids so long, wouldn’t know of some way to deal with them when they got uppity beyond a quick tazer zap or pass even that tiny nugget of information on. Still, wait until you get to his eventual solution for getting away from the plants. The only way to swallow that is after a serious concussion.

Obviously logic shouldn’t be applied to the extent that it simply scuppers the story, because that doesn’t do anyone any favours, but surely suspension of belief only goes so far. For me The Day of the Triffids turned out to be just another example of programme makers thinking that because it’s “science fiction” they can pump in any old baloney to get from A to B. The only British drama that I can think of from recent years that actually treated science with any respect and still made the stories work was... ah, that would be Eleventh Hour.

hamish said...

I was massively disappointed by the 2009 Triffids (and indeed Survivors - the British used to be so good at dystopia!). Absolutely slapdash characterisation and a plot driven by coincidence.

Rather like the new wave of zombie films where they can sprint, in this adaptation the Triffids are souped up (tentacles, faster moving). Which seems to miss the point. For me the power of Wyndham's book is the continual, oppressiveness of the Triffids gathered outside the electric fence of the human outpost (just as the zombies crowd around the shopping mall in Romero's Dawn of the Dead). But this adaptation had none of that.

However I do agree with your previous poster re their Vanessa Redgrave point. In a different format (60 minutes) this chapter could have been developed into an interesting episode.

The less said about Eddie Izzard the better...