As yet another version of his 1957 classic, The Midwich Cuckoos arrives on Sky Max starring Keeley Hawes and Max Beesley, Chris Hallam takes a look at past attempts to adapt the work of science fiction author, John Wyndham (1903-69) to the screen…
ARTICLE FIRST APPEARED IN INFINITY MAGAZINE IN 2019
In the land of the blind…
It is one of the most dramatic openings to any novel of the 20th century.
We join the narrator, Bill Masen as he wakes up one morning in hospital following a routine eye operation. The operation has been a success, but soon after removing his protective bandages, Masen realises that something has gone horribly, terribly wrong. It quickly becomes clear that the staff and patients of the hospital have all, aside from him, been struck suddenly and simultaneously blind. Worse, as he slowly ventures outside, he comes to recognise an even more horrifying truth: London, Britain and indeed, it emerges, the entire planet has been similarly afflicted. The eyesight of almost the entire human race has been irreparably damaged, failing largely simultaneously only hours after witnessing a sudden spectacular unexpected astronomical display in the sky, the night before. Only a few exceptions, such as Bill whose eyes were safely bandaged (much to his frustration) during the display, are left with their eyesight intact. Humanity has been reduced to a grim, shuffling, sightless mass by the catastrophe. It soon becomes clear: mankind is doomed. Particularly, as a lethal man-made race of giant, walking plants lies in wait, ready to take its place as the dominant species on the Earth.
So, begins John Wyndham’s classic 1951 novel, The Day of the Triffids. The novel was a huge success both at the time and in the years since, for example, making it onto the BBC’s Big Read list of the nation’s most popular novels more than fifty years later.
Wyndham’s opening directly inspired novelist Alex Garland when he penned the screenplay to Danny Boyle’s apocalyptic 2002 film, 28 Days Later. The film’s early scenes are reminiscent of the earlier book with coma victim Jim (Cillian Murphy) waking up to discover an eerily abandoned city of London (Director Boyle created the “empty city” effect simply by filming early in the morning. His main problem was preventing wayward nightclubbers from wandering into shot). In 2010, Frank Darabont deployed similar tactics as wounded police officer, Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) discovers a similar catastrophe after a hospital stay in the first episode of the long-running US TV series, The Waking Dead. The series was itself based on an earlier graphic novel.
Both of these 21st century stories dealt with a world overrun by zombies. In Wyndham’s book, the planet is stalked by a different foe, the Triffids: giant man-made, walking killer plants. Already in existence before the disaster having been conceived as a botched Cold War attempt to resolve post-war food shortages, the new world order provides the Triffids with the perfect opportunity to have their day in the sun. They are equipped with lethal stings which they now deploy to good effect on the suddenly very vulnerable, newly blind human population. Our hero, Bill, a biologist, was indeed temporarily blinded by just such a sting while working on a Triffid farm, giving him the eye-injury, which ironically ultimately spared him suffering a worse fate, alongside nearly everyone else.
Later it is strongly suggested the surprise “meteor shower” which blinded the world may in fact have been the result of a Cold War germ warfare experiment released by satellite (satellites still being a futuristic notion in 1951). The light display may have been unleashed accidentally by either side with calamitous results. With the blind majority either starving or being gradually picked off by Triffifds, Bill and the few other remaining sighted are left to fend for themselves in an increasingly hostile, Triffid-filled world.
Success came relatively late in life for John Benyon Harris.
The son of a barrister, he had been born in 1903 and had enjoyed a variety of careers including farming, law, advertising and the civil service. He had also been involved in the Normandy invasion in 1944. But despite this, it’s hard not to feel he was kept afloat by his family’s money, with his novelist brother seen as more of a success than he was himself.
Arthur C. Clarke felt Wyndham’s social background was something of a flaw, robbing him of the financial desperation which for many writers helps nurture inspiration.
“John was a very nice guy,” the 2001 author later wrote. “but unfortunately suffered from an almost fatal defect for a fiction writer: he had a private income. If he hadn’t, I’m sure he’d have written much more.”
This is probably unfair. Wyndham had numerous short stories and a few books published throughout his life from the 1920s onwards, some with titles as intriguing as Jizzle (1949), Tyrant and Slave-Girl on Planet Venus (1951), Spheres Of Hell (1933 ) and (ahem) The Third Vibrator (1933).
But it was only in his late forties writing as John Wyndham for the first time that he achieved his first major success, after deciding to fuse two story ideas into one. One story was about a world suddenly struck blind. The other was about a race of killer plants.
The release of The Day of the Triffids marked the beginning of a golden period for Wyndham.
The year 1953 saw the release of The Kraken Wakes, which saw the world again imperilled, this time by an alien force which establishes itself under the sea, having dropped into the ocean from space. This time humanity is threatened by the aliens’ decision to use the Earth’s environment against it, flooding the planet by melting the polar ice caps. The book had a slightly different ending in the US where it was called Out of the Deeps.
The late Brian Aldiss described Wyndham’s works as “cosy catastrophes”. In reality, there is little cosy about any of them. If anything, The Kraken Wakes has grown more resonant in the decades since as humanity has become aware of the growing threat to our way of life by the very real threat of man-made global warming.
Wyndham moved dramatically forward in time for The Chrysalids (1955) which saw a society in thrall to Christian fundamentalism, following what appears to have been a nuclear holocaust centuries before. This event has come to be known as the Tribulation. Conventional wisdom has it that God is likely to unleash further retribution on the populace, unless the occasional mutations occur within some people are not exposed and driven out. In reality, of course, the mutations are the consequence of the nuclear war, rather than the cause of it. When a group of children start developing such mutations – notably telepathic powers – they soon find themselves in a struggle for their lives.
Psychic children also play a vital role in Wyndham’s next novel, The Midwich Cuckoos (1957) in which a race of all powerful hyper-intelligent children come to dominate a small, ordinary mid-20th century English village. The circumstances around the children’s conception are strange indeed. Every woman in Midwich simultaneously falling pregnant following a bizarre 24 hour incident when the entire village (and, indeed, anyone who tried to enter it) fell unconscious). The resulting children, all of whom seem remarkably similar and Aryan-looking, soon show signs of malevolent behaviour, further fuelling suspicions that they are the product of some alien breeding experiment in which the women of Midwich were deployed unwittingly as vessels.
The Outward Urge (1959) marked something of a departure for Wyndham, not least because according to the cover, it was produced with another author, Lucas Parkes. In truth, Parkes was just another name for John Wyndham himself: he had already used this pseudonym in the past. The use of the name here does reflect a change of course for Wyndham, in this book which details the “history” of the world between 1994 and 2194. The story is told from the perspective of the Troon family who witness the continued stand-off between the west and the Soviet union culminating in nuclear war in the mid-21st century, resulting in a new world order dominated by the new superpowers, Australia and Brazil. In reality, of course, the USSR collapsed peacefully in 1991, an event Wyndham would have done very well to predict even if he had written the book in 1984, let alone 1959. The book owes something to H.G Wells’ The Shape of Things To Come (1933). Wyndham was a big admirer of the earlier science fiction pioneer.
Wyndham grew less prolific in his final years. Trouble With Lichen (1960), though not especially strong story-wise raises many interesting questions about the implications of a discovery which stands to substantially increase the duration of the natural human life-span.
Chocky (1968), meanwhile, saw a family jeopardised over concerns that what initially appeared to be their teenaged son’s imaginary friend is in fact a hyper-intelligent alien life force which is communicating with him telepathically. The books Web and Plan for Chaos (the first written around the time of The Day of the Triffids), were both published posthumously.
By the time of his death in 1969, John Wyndham had grown used to seeing his works adapted for TV, radio and cinema. This process has continued, with mixed results. The Day of the Triffids has spawned one not especially fateful film, a surprisingly compelling early 1980s BBC series and a further not very distinguished mini-series, featuring Eddie Izzard, a decade ago. The Midwich Cuckoos, meanwhile, became the monochrome cinema classic, Village of the Damned. In the 1990s, the film received the distinction of a parody on The Simpsons. The same decade also witnessed a remake by Halloween director, John Carpenter. A generation of schoolchildren were also collectively traumatised when three series of the deeply disturbing Chocky appeared on Children’s ITV in the mid-eighties.
More is sure to come. Fifty years after his death, John Wyndham’s legacy extends far beyond the actual books and short stories he left behind. His overall influence on others is impossible to measure. He is a giant of 20th century British science fiction.
World of Wyndham: A Timeline
Intro: His life and times, on page and screen…
1903: John Wyndham Parkes Lucas Beynon Harris is born in Dorridge, Warwickshire
1928-1936: Writing either as John Benyon or John Harris, Wyndham pens numerous detective and sci-fi stories
1951: The Day of the Triffids is published to huge success. The name “John Wyndham” is used for the first time
1953: The Kraken Wakes, a similarly near-apocalyptic tale follows
1955: The Chrysalids
1956: The Seeds of Time, a short story collection by Wyndham appears
1957: The Midwich Cuckoos is published
1959: The Outward Urge is published
1960: Midwich Cuckoos is filmed as Village of the Damned by Wolf Rilla starring George Sanders and Barbara Shelley
The Trouble With Lichen published
1961: Another short story collection, Consider Her Ways and Other Stories is released
1963: Film version of Day of the Triffids. It is directed by Steve Sekely and stars Howard Keel
Children of the Damned, a film sequel to Village of the Damned is released directed by Anton M. Leader, starring Ian Hendry
1968: Chocky is released this year
1969: Wyndham dies in Petersfield, Hampshire. He is 65
1981: UK TV version of Day of the Triffids starring John Duttine
1984: TV version of Chocky. Followed by Chocky’s Children (1985) and Chocky’s Challenge (1986)
1995: John Carpenter remakes Village of the Damned. It stars Christopher Reeves, Kirstie Alley and Mark Hamill
2009: Dougray Scott, Joely Richardson and Eddie Izzard features in a new Day of the Triffids TV series