This post continues a long-neglected series of posts about classic novels of science fiction and horror that were adapted into movies of the 1950s and 1960s. Years past, I talked about John Wyndham’s The Midwich Cuckoos and The Day of the Triffids, as well as John W. Campbell’s Who Goes There? In this post I consider an equally iconic novel that was adapted into four movies so far, and likely more to follow!
The 1950s and 1960s must have been a wonderful time to be a science fiction writer. Not only was the genre at the height of its popularity, but its novels were readily tapped for screen adaptations. Growing up, I was completely unaware that many of the films I watched on Sunday afternoon “Creature Features” were based on novels, but now I find it fascinating to go back and see how the movies compare to their original inspirations.
One of these that I believe almost everyone on the planet must have heard of at one point or another is Jack Finney’s The Body Snatchers (1955), later revised to Invasion of the Body Snatchers.
Finney’s book was an immediate sensation, and was quickly turned into the instant classic 1956 film Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Three other adaptations followed, in 1978, 1993 and 2007. But what of the original novel, and how does it compare to the films? Let’s take a look!
The story is narrated by Dr. Miles Bennell, a doctor in the small town of Mill Valley, California. Set in the late 1970s (at that time the far future), Bennell struggles to describe and explain the events that quietly devastated the town some time past.
I warn you that what you’re starting to read is full of loose ends and unanswered questions. It will not be neatly tied up at the end, everything resolved and satisfactorily explained. Not by me it won’t, anyway. Because I can’t say I really know exactly what happened, or why, or just how it began, how it ended, or if it has ended; and I’ve been right in the thick of it.
The trouble begins with a seemingly small event of no major significance. Becky Driscoll, an old high school crush, visits Bennell’s office. It is not a social call, however; Becky is terribly worried about her cousin Wilma. Wilma has become convinced that her Uncle Ira — who she has been living with for years — is not her uncle at all. She cannot explain exactly what is wrong with him, as his physical characteristics are unchanged and his personality is the same, but Wilma is certain it is not him.
Becky and Miles visit Wilma, and can find nothing wrong with Ira. Miles refers Wilma for psychiatric counseling and thinks nothing more about it. However, the very next day he has another visitor: a woman who is convinced her husband is not her husband. Within a week, he has referred five more patients with similar fears to the same psychiatrist.
Things come to a head, however, when Jack Belicec interrupts a dinner date between Miles and Becky and insists that they accompany him to his house. Lying in Jack’s basement is a naked corpse, horrifyingly unformed but bearing a distinct resemblance to Jack himself. They soon discover that the town of Mill Valley is being taken over by an extraterrestrial force, one that can almost perfectly duplicate a living creature and disintegrate the original when he or she sleeps. When it becomes clear that Miles, Becky, Jack and his wife are the only remaining true humans in town, they must discover a way to expose or defeat the alien threat before it spreads and consumes the entire earth.
The novel is wonderfully fast-paced; once I began reading it, I could hardly put it down. The sense of fear and paranoia in the book is palpable: from the beginning, Miles is at an almost complete disadvantage, and the odds worsen against him every day.
Perhaps my favorite part of the book is the explanation, by the pod people themselves, of their origins and goals. The pods are not themselves sentient: they are lifeforms that have been pressed by the forces of evolution into a nomadic, parasitic existence. Those people duplicated (with their human sentience) understand this very well, and can explain it with a horrifying bluntness. The pods are carried from world to world by radiation pressure of stars, like spores drifting on the wind, and they subsume any organisms they find at their destination. Like many parasites, they will eventually move on: the duplication process is imperfect and all duplicates will die within five years, leaving a dead world behind as the pods depart.
The novel originally appeared in serialized form in 1954 in Colliers Magazine, and clearly captured the public’s interest and imagination. However, many science fiction writers were less impressed with the material. As Wikipedia notes, in 1967 the author Damon Knight wrote a critique of the book in which he blasted both its science and its plot. Of the science, Knight wrote
The seed pods, says Finney, drifted across interstellar space to Earth, propelled by light pressure. This echoes a familiar notion, the spore theory of Arrhenius. But the spores referred to are among the smallest living things – small enough to be knocked around by hydrogen molecules…In confusing these minute particles with three-foot seed pods, Finney invalidates his whole argument – and makes ludicrous nonsense of the final scene in which the pods, defeated, float up into the sky to hunt another planet.
Personally, I think that Knight is being too hard on Finney. The “light pressure” referred to here is the inherent momentum, or “kick”, of light, something I’ve discussed on this blog several times (e.g. here and here). The pressure of light is so weak that it can typically only be used to manipulate microscopic particles; however, it is now known that it can also effect the behavior of relatively large objects like asteroids!
This is somewhat beyond the point, however: Finney was clearly trying to plant the image of an organism that drifts from place to place like seeds on the wind, and to me it works very well. By griping about the little details, Knight is missing what readers love about the book, a phenomenon that a recent article summarized very well.
Knight also blasts the plot details:
Almost from the beginning, the characters follow the author’s logic rather than their own. Bennell and his friends, intelligent and capable people, exhibit an invincible stupidity whenever normal intelligence would allow them to get ahead with the mystery too fast. When they have four undeveloped seed pods on their hands, for instance, they do none of the obvious things — make no tests, take no photographs, display the objects to no witnesses. Bennell, a practicing physician, never thinks of X-raying the pods.
Here again I am much more forgiving than Knight! The characters have been put into a situation of unspeakable horror, and it is not a shock to see them react out of panic rather than reason. The seed pods that Knight refers to are found in the basement of the protagonists’ refuge, clearly placed there to replace them! It seems quite in human nature for the characters to want to destroy the pods immediately rather than study them with a Vulcan-like indifference.
It is tempting to look at The Body Snatchers as an allegory about communism, or the decline of civilization, or a general agoraphobic fear of the mass of humanity. However, apparently Finney himself, as well as the creators of the 1956 movie adaptation, did not intend the story to be an allegory.
That is perhaps the strength and staying power of The Body Snatchers; it is a tabula rasa upon which the reader (or viewer) can write his own fears. Recently, I wrote an introduction to John Blackburn’s The Face of the Lion, a horror thriller that anticipated many modern “zombie stories.” In that introduction, I noted that zombie stories are likely successful because they can be used to portray and confront many different ideas in horror. Upon further reflection, it seems that The Body Snatchers could in fact be an early “proto-zombie” story itself: human beings are slowly being turned into dangerous, emotionless shells of themselves, and actively seek to spread the contagion to others. The pod people story could be seen as another anticipation of the modern zombie craze, which perhaps makes it not coincidental that the most recent movie adaptation came out at its height, in 2007.
So what can we say about the movie versions? Talking about the movies and a comparison to the book necessarily requires spoilers, which I put below the break for those interested.
A movie adaptation of a horror story often has a happier ending than the book, as studios pressure the writers and director to make the film appeal to the broadest audience possible. It is rather remarkable that the opposite is true in the case of The Body Snatchers.
In the book, Becky, Miles, Jack and his wife all survive the invasion, which ends unexpectedly as the pods flee into space, deciding that humanity is too defiant to truly conquer. The remaining pod people end up living out their remaining truncated lives as ordinary humans.
In the 1956 film adaptation, Miles is the only survivor. He flees in terror to a local highway, pleading with someone, anyone, to listen to him about the threat. The ending is an undeniable classic, in large part thanks to the amazing performance by Kevin McCarthy.
The movie ends on an ambiguous but semi-optimistic note, as a fortuitous crash of a truck laden with pods convinces the FBI to listen to Miles’ story. This twist was the result of studio intervention, however; the director and screenwriter wanted the movie to end as the clip above shows.
Nobody stopped the makers of the 1978 film from making it apocalyptic. In the climactic scene, Matthew Bennell (played by Donald Sutherland) destroys a pod growing facility, mirroring the finale of the original book. We next see him walking in public again, seemingly disguising his emotions to blend into the pod crowd. When Nancy, another survivor, waves and smiles at him, Matthew points and screams — he was converted to a pod person after all.
In the 1993 version Body Snatchers, the pod people have taken over a military base. A helicopter pilot manages to destroy a series of outgoing pod-laden trucks with explosives, but the ending narration suggests that this effort is too late, and that the pods have spread too far to be stopped. This film is considered the best of the adaptations by none other than Roger Ebert.
In the 2007 film The Invasion the pods have been replaced with an alien fungus that infects the human brain and seizes control of it. This movie has the most optimistic ending of them all, as a cure is found for the fungus and the invasion is ended, with all of the infected people being returned to their normal selves. In a perhaps related observation, this film is considered the worst of the adaptations by critics. Roger Ebert seems to have noticed the zombie connection that I mentioned, saying in his review:
And the aliens themselves are a flop. Just like zombies, they’re pushovers: easy to spot, slow-moving, not too bright, can be shot dead or otherwise disposed of.
I suspect that we’re by no means done with body snatching! With major movie adaptations coming roughly every 15-20 years, we’re due for another invasion before too long.