Invasion of the Body Snatchers

Novelist Jack Finney (1911-95) had a big, long, successful career, and is probably the most influential science fiction writer you have never heard of.

Since his death nearly twenty years ago, his name has decidedly fallen from general recognition. Yet Hollywood once turned half a dozen of his books into major films, including Good Neighbor Sam, with Jack Lemmon, and Assault on a Queen, with Frank Sinatra. With a single novel from 1970, Time and Again, Finney brilliantly expanded and codified the subgenre we might call “timeslip romance,” which today provides a nice living for scores of writers, and pleasure to thousands of readers. Many of his well-wrought Bradburian short stories, exhibiting a wistful and spooky vein of nostalgia, continue to be admired by fans.

And then of course, standing above all, there is The Body Snatchers, serialized in Collier’s magazine in 1954, distributed in book form the following year, and then cinematically incarnated in 1956 as Invasion of the Body Snatchers,  the ultimately more famous title attached to subsequent printings of the original. Filmed four times in total, this book constitutes the flawless execution of one of science fiction’s “power chords,” namely the “alien invasion via subterfuge.” Now, with a re-release from Olive Films of the primal Don Siegel-directed outing, we have a springboard to reassess Finney’s contribution to the mythic hoard of modern literary paranoia, and to see how his vision has been transformed over successive generations of interpreters.

The mighty theme of alien invasion through deceptive mimicry had its best and most forceful early crystallization in the 1938 story “Who Goes There?” by John W. Campbell (filmed initially as The Thing from Another World (1951), with later reboots). Donald Wollheim conceived of his “Mimic” in 1942, although it would take until 1997 for the story to achieve life on the big screen under the guidance of Guillermo del Toro. In 1948, Ray Bradbury gave us “Mars Is Heaven!” wherein human astronauts landing on the Red Planet are seduced by doppelgangers of their loved ones — Martians in disguise.

1953’s It Came from Outer Space, marked perhaps the first filmic instance of the trope — given that The Thing from Another World omitted Campbell’s central riff of shape-changing. And absolutely simultaneous with Finney’s book Philip K. Dick delivered “The Father-Thing.” Certainly, after 1956 the notion was in wide circulation: I Married a Monster from Outer Space (1958) begat The Invaders (1967), and so on.

But there were things about Finney’s novel that made it the new and persistent gold standard for such tales. Deftness of telling, sheer narrative brio, and craft are matched by the book’s multivalency: multiple and fresh layers of meaning, symbolism, and interpretation.

Finney wisely chooses a first-person narrator for immediacy of impact, a man of science, Dr. Miles Bennell, M.D. A young small-town doctor in Santa Mira, California, Miles is hip without being a jerk. Instantly apprehendable and likable, Miles — by implicit virtue of surviving to recount his tale — also offers a rock the reader can lean on through whatever horrors lie ahead. The choice of California — archetypical hopeful American frontier and La-la Land both — was essential as well. Farewell to fustily haunted Europe or New England!

We are swiftly and vividly introduced to the milieu and the cast, especially Becky Driscoll, who will become Miles’s love interest. Equally quickly, we learn of the strange phenomenon in town: people are reporting that their loved ones are “different” somehow, inexplicably replaced by perfect imposters. Miles consults local psychiatrists, is almost convinced to dismiss the notion, and then is treated to physical proof of the truth behind the fears. His writer pal Jack (with wife Theodora) has found a growing alien clone of himself in his basement. All of this within the first quarter of what is a very short novel by today’s standards, under 200 pages. (Oh, for the days of lean and streamlined horror bestsellers! Are you listening, Justin Cronin?)

From here, events spill out rapidly. The scope and nature of what amounts to an alien invasion by “pod people,” centered on Santa Mira, becomes explicit, thanks to the detective work by our quartet, who are struggling with no certainty, all other citizens being potential enemies. They trace the origin of the plague, try to fight back, are caught, escape, are cornered, and, then when all seems over for Miles and Becky, they are saved by the capitulation of the pods, who depart Earth en masse in a moment of previously unheralded anti-gravitic powers: the book’s scientifically weakest moment, but still somehow satisfyingly fit and resonant.

Finney’s sharp, efficient, bright-eyed characterization; his ability to capture contemporary life in a homey way that renders the terror all the sharper; his speedy pacing; and his suspenseful, logical but twisty plotting all make for a gripping, roller-coaster read. So much so that the reader might only begin to contemplate the many levels of higher meaning in Finney’s book after the final page.

First: Can we trust Miles’s narration? Maybe he and the others are all delusional, sufferers of what has come to be known in clinical terms as “Capgras Syndrome.” It’s a theory propounded but not totally resolved by the characters themselves. Ultimately, I think the reader has to come down on the side of “this is really happening.” But the niggling uncertainty is never 100 percent dismissed, especially since the town finally reverts to normality with no apparent repercussions.

The curious biological nature of the invaders is also never decided. Animal, vegetable, mineral, or all three? And are they Darwinically superior to us? Their indeterminate place in the chain of creation endows them with a unique eerie quality. Considering their synchronization with the human sleep cycle (that’s when they do their growing and stealing of personalities), they might even be terrestrial, or “monsters from the id,” to use the terminology from Forbidden Planet, a film also from 1956. (Why are the pods always in the basements of houses, the subcellar of consciousness?) Finney even invokes, in all but name, famed paranormal expert Charles Fort, who focused on Earth-born phenomena, hinting at an immemorial link between pods and humans.

Also tied up in the nature of the invaders is human sexuality. The erotic tension between Miles and Becky somehow mirrors what the pods are doing to their victims, especially in the scene where the two humans are in bed in a motel, and Miles forces himself to resist having sex with Becky while she sleeps, almost as if it would be a pod-like transgression on his part. On an allied plane, the pods are like children, growing to usurp the role of their “parents.”

The exact nature of the change in the victims is highly charged in an existentially intriguing manner. We are told that the pod people are perfect recreations of their victims, save for two factors: no emotions, and a subconscious set of alien memories. It’s little wonder that this has continued to resonate as computer science and SF have together explored increasingly virtual worlds, populated by simulacra.
Yet, on another level, echoes of still-recent totalitarian atrocities and the Holocaust itself are impossible to ignore. When the entire town, including all the authority figures, becomes complicit, and the replacement citizens assemble in the town square to receive their marching orders, the readers of 1956, with World War II so fresh in mind, would surely have flashed intensely on the roundup of Jews by the Nazis, with at minimum the tacit consent of the non-Jewish populace. The role of our four heroes as Resistance fighters becomes clear then too.

But the most powerful multivalency of the book lies in the allegorical identity of the pod people. Can they be reliably mapped onto a 1954 sociopolitical-cultural spectrum? Are they Communists or McCarthyites? Liberals or conservatives? Sheep-like Levittown consumers or nihilistic beatniks? Elites or downtrodden proles? Finney carefully withholds all commitments to any one interpretation, leaving his book just as beautifully and powerfully open-ended almost sixty years onward.

Director Don Siegel’s porting-over of this fine novel into an equally fine movie stands as one of the best Hollywood literary adaptations of the twentieth century, and a knockout classic film on its own merits.

Siegel and scriptwriter Daniel Mainwaring hewed scrupulously to Finney’s text, except where it could be improved for the screen. They imported big chunks of dialogue from the novel, kept the pacing and the sequence of events, as well as the multivalency. So all the novelistic virtues listed above are here as well. Director and writer were abetted beautifully by a cast of solid B-list actors: Kevin McCarthy captures the jokey, contrarian melancholy of Miles, while Liz Taylor lookalike Dana Wynter is a stalwart Becky. As Jack and Theodora, the other resisters, King Donovan and Carolyn Jones provide worthy buddy assists. And the actors who portray the taken-over victims exude a combination of Babbitt bonhomie and menace.

Where Siegel changed things, he excelled. First comes the new framing sequence, with Miles locked up in the psych ward of the neighboring town, telling his story in flashback. This allows for judicious use of voiceover during the main film, which is never overdone. Also, the film can now extend the action beyond Miles’s temporary escape — the pods don’t fly away back into space here — toward a hopeful conclusion.
Other changes contribute their own improvements.

* The addition of the Grimaldi boy’s terror extends the impact of the invasion to children, a note Finney overlooked.

* Changing Miles’s run through town to rescue Becky to a journey by car frees up the running bit for the famous climactic scene, where the doctor stumbles through freeway traffic begging for help.

* When Jack’s duplicate awakes on the pool table, we are there in person instead of reading about something offstage. The same is true of Becky’s cousin Wilma conspiring with her fellow pod people after Miles leaves her.

* The uncovering of the pods in a greenhouse and their pitchforking is a great visual set piece, showing us also how hard it is to kill even the traitorous false image of a loved one.

* The subplot with the discoverer of the pods, Professor Budlong, is excised without loss.

* Miles gets a brilliant new speech about “hardening the heart” when he and Becky are hiding in his office. He also opens up possibilities of an earthly origin for the menace, riffing on how mankind has messed up the planet with atomic bombs and other inventions.

* Hiding in a mine tunnel rather than Finney’s grassy field, Miles and Becky undergo a kind of premature burial and rebirth, only to be ironically lost again.

* Finally, of course, comes the paramount change: Becky goes down to the attack of the pods, becoming one of them. This cruel and unsentimental outcome hammers home the impact on Miles and by extension the audience.

Siegel’s deft direction and crepuscular visuals — the enclosure of Santa Mira by brooding mountains, a poster with the title “Mirroir Noir,” a menacing woman at a gas station leaning into a car window over Becky — and a hundred other touches all contribute to a complete atmosphere of claustrophobic paranoia. The film manages to capture the essence of Finney’s novel but remains a potent talisman on its own terms, even today.

If only the same could be said for the three remakes.

Once not as addicted to remakes as they currently are, the Hollywood studios waited a respectable twenty-plus years before issuing, in 1978, the first recasting of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, directed by Philip Kaufman under its original title and starring Donald Sutherland, Brooke Adams, and Jeff Goldblum. It’s a craftsmanlike production, with, of course, improved special effects and some visual panache and suspense. But on the whole, it’s a Watergate-tainted (conspiracies in high places), proto-zombie (this was the same year Dawn of the Dead appeared) rebranding of Finney’s vision.

From the start, the film casts aside the delicious indeterminacy of the original. A prologue reveals the pods definitively as alien space invaders. (So much for monsters from the id.) The interplanetary spores land in San Francisco, not Santa Mira. This means the violation of small-town ambiance is gone: Citizens of a big city are always weird and strangers to each other to begin with, so less is at stake. Donald Sutherland is unlikable, a hard-nosed prig of a health inspector. Brooke Adams, his assistant, is already in a relationship, so the romance between her and Sutherland is compromised from the start. Her husband (Art Hindle), among the first victims, exhibits suspicious changed behavior patterns immediately, contradicting the original strong motif of unvarying routines concealing almost imperceptible differences. Jeff Goldblum as the writer buddy is a ranting curmudgeon. Leonard Nimoy as a pop psychologist spouts I’m OK, You’re OK psychobabble and practically blames swingers for the collapse of all that was good in America. There’s a kind of cheap video-game feel to the attempts of Sutherland and Adams to escape the city. Some nice touches — the perpetually cracked windshield on Sutherland’s car, a cameo by Kevin McCarthy, the garbage trucks that remove the human husks — are betrayed by jabs of useless surrealism: a priest on a swing set; a dog with a human face. And the most famous, now iconic alteration — the wordless screech of the pod people — makes no sense, given their attempts at human fidelity. Add the final blow of Sutherland succumbing, and the air of 1970s malaise and futility is overwhelming.

But divergent as Kaufman’s presentation was, it still hewed pretty faithfully to Finney’s original themes and narrative structures. Abel Ferrara’s Body Snatchers, from 1993, displays even more extravagant semiotic drift or “generation loss.”

Our protagonist this go-round, complete with her opening and closing voiceovers to help us appreciate what she’s been through, is teenager Marti Malone, played by then-twenty-three-year-old Gabrielle Anwar. Wisely Ferrara chose an adult actress, though the audience can’t know it, given her juvenile looks, during her topless scene and bathtub tentacle rape. (We’re in some weird interzone between MTV, E.T., and Aliens here.) The gratuitous motif introduced by Kaufman — that the pods need physical contact with their victims to do their best work — is extrapolated with icky detail here. And so is the vocal cord-shattering pod person alarm call, uttered even as one pod person falls out a helicopter door.

Marti and her family — younger brother Reilly Murphy, mother Meg Tilly, and father Terry Kinney — are following Dad’s EPA job to a military base covertly infested by the pods. As you might predict, once a fair number of soldiers are seduced by the (now amphibious) pods, it’s just a short time before Marti and family are running for their lives, falling prey to the ultimate in identity theft one-by-one till only Marti survives, aided by her punk Thelma and Louise pal (Christine Elise, first seen piloting a red convertible) and a hunky GI lover (Billy Wirth).
The symbolism in this iteration is an absolute farrago. Mom Meg Tilly is the first member of the nuclear family to be tainted. Given that she’s Marti’s disliked stepmother, we get a whole Cinderella, teen angst vibe. Terry Kinney does his best Rick Moranis imitation (Honey, I Turned the Kids into Pods!) as an ineffectual, infantilized nerd, imbuing Tilly’s performance with a kind of castration complex. How far we’ve come from Kevin McCarthy’s quiet adult competence and mature divorce survivor’s love for Becky. In an attempt to balance out the Caucasian homogeneity of the first two versions, African-American actors are utilized, but in a strange way. Having a black man accost Marti in a gas station rest room with the first warning of danger is just overly charged with unintentional meaning, as is the scene where a black woman in charge of a daycare center is tutoring a bunch of black pod kids who all single out Marti’s brother (white) as a pariah. Finally, in line with general cinematic trends of the era, it takes missiles and giant explosions to wipe out the menace. And you thought “staying awake,” civic mutuality, and awareness of the sanctity of human life was the cure.

Another big city — this time, with somewhat heavy-handed significance, Washington, D.C. — provides the venue for our pod conquest in 2007’s star-powered The Invasion, brought to us with technical adroitness by director Oliver Hirschbiegel. Except that for the first time in nearly sixty years, the literal pods are gone, replaced by microbes brought to Earth by a crashing Space Shuttle, a fact revealed up front in mystery-destroying obviousness and which radically transforms our reading of Finney’s Ur-text. Now, humanity is implicated in its own destruction for daring to trespass into the heavenly realms.

A somber and self-possessed Nicole Kidman plays Dr. Carol Bennell, psychiatrist and single mother to winsome Oliver (Jackson Bond). Her avowed “best friend” is Dr. Ben Driscoll (an insouciant Daniel Craig). This trio will be the nucleus of our concern as the alien takeover spreads, with overtones of AIDS and other contemporary pandemics. The proper tools to oppose invasion this time around, as Craig’s co-worker Jeffrey Wright says, are “laboratories,” the Internet, and the CDC, not missiles nor an antiquated pitchfork in a greenhouse. Although Hirschbiegel does include a great homage to that 1956 moment, when Kidman hallucinates her double attacking her with an axe.

And in a move utterly consonant with modern Tiger Mom lifestyles, the tightest primal bond is between Kidman and her son. At a pivotal point, she even refuses Craig’s honorable advances to ramp up their relationship. This shift in emphasis from the bonds between adult lovers to those between parent and child tends to undercut or transform the nature of the identity theft. In this version we’re not worried about the loss of grown-up consciousness or self to the carking callous cares of the world so much as we are protective about our progeny. The climax, in which Kidman and son are rescued by a chopper, gives “helicopter parenting” a whole new resonance.

The transformation of the invader into a microbe from space is in keeping with twenty-first-century internalization and virtualization of life. The invader is now an installed app, not an exterior entity. At the same time, Hirschbiegel insists on a new physicality for the transforming victims. No longer content to just lie in place and mature, they scuttle crabwise like Linda Blair in The Exorcist when roused. Also, when a vaccine cure is perfected, victims are able to be restored to humanity — something of a cheat, I think. This is also the first iteration to overtly reference multiculturalism as subtext. A subjugated Craig identifies all of humanity’s problems as stemming from “the Other,” and boasts that among the pod people “there is no Other.” So now we are meant to equate the invader with a campaign to restore our retrograde mythic purity of national identity. The bug is the ultimate illegal immigrant!

But beyond the excellence of the book — and the superiority of its first cinematic adaptation — one satisfying fact emerges: Jack Finney created a tale that, down the decades, has shown nearly infinite adaptability to whatever existential fears and concerns happen to be current, making it a brilliantly engineered agent of memetic invasion by mimicry. The pods would be proud.