The Day the Earth Caught Fire: The 1961 film that predicted a ‘boiling planet’

One of the smartest creative decisions that Guest and Mankowitz made while writing The Day the Earth Caught Fire was to show the film entirely from the perspective of journalists, rather than the politicians that are trying to solve the problem. The result is that Peter, Bill, and Jeannie are all completely powerless as the end of the world looms larger and larger.

“I think the best novels out there on climate change show how people are affected in small communities,” says McGuire, who has written several books and short stories on the subject. “Small personal stories are the best way of getting across to people how bad things are going to be in the future.”

By not even naming the British prime minister, president of the United States, or UN general secretary, the film highlights how powerless they are in a battle against nature.

The Day the Earth Caught Fire also shows governments trying to play down and hide the seriousness of what’s happening. During a radio address to the nation, the prime minister suggests that the only impact the displacement of the Earth will have is that “some of the seasons may be disturbed and changed in their intensity”, before making a joke about the British weather. Within weeks, water is being rationed and the Thames has completely evaporated.

But it’s The Day the Earth Caught Fire’s ending that really enhances the power of its message and story (warning: spoiler). The world’s governments decide that, in order to try and return the planet back to a safe orbit, they will explode numerous nuclear bombs in western Siberia. However, even the prime minister admits that he doesn’t know if they’ll succeed.

Rather than revealing if the Earth is saved or doomed, The Day the Earth Caught Fire just shows that two versions of the next day’s newspaper have been prepared. One that celebrates with the headline “World Saved”, while the other laments “World Doomed”. By ending in this way, the film highlights the problems with passivity in the face of crisis. As Stenning asks, after the prime minister finally reveals that the planet and everyone on it could soon die, “I suppose they’ll do something? They’ve got to do something!”

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