Book vs. Film(s): 'Invasion of the Body Snatchers'
Collectively speaking, we as a society accept that horror novels and movies not only reflect universal fears, but also contain critiques of contemporary—and, eventually, present day—social issues. Whether or not the creators of horror had an agenda in mind, we can retroactively root out evidence of Dawn of the Dead as a critique of consumerism, Videodrome as an equation of television addiction to insanity, Alien 3 as a warning against pro-life politics infiltrating the government, and so on.
Perhaps one of the most flexible horror narratives ever written is The Body Snatchers, a short novel by Jack Finney that inspired four film adaptations in as many decades, each one shaped to echo the particular fears of the generation in which it was made. Let's delve into the original novel and explore how each subsequent movie handles the source material.
Note: This probably goes without saying, but there will be SPOILERS aplenty in this column. However, if you've read the book and/or seen the 1956 film, then you've also basically seen the 1978 version and The Invasion from 2007 as well. Body Snatchers represents the only significant departure from the source material, and you'll find my discussion of that film intentionally vague. Significant spoilers for any of the narratives discussed will also be individually forewarned.
For those in need, here's a quick plot synopsis of the source material:
Medical doctor Miles Bennell lives in the small town of Santa Mira, California—the kind of town people live in their entire lives. A nice town full of nice folks who are all so gloriously nice to everyone. Except Miles begins to notice something is amiss with the nice people of Santa Mira: while they're still themselves, they're also not themselves. They are off in some fashion. Together with his maybe-girlfriend Becky Driscoll and old friends Jack and Teddy Belicec, Miles soon discovers an alien plot has invaded his nice little town, whereby citizens are copied via large vegetable pods and replaced with duplicates who look, sound, and more or less behave just like their predecessors, except that they display no discernible emotions—no fear, no hate, and no love. The four remaining humans set out to thwart the invasion before it spreads beyond the borders of their nice little town. They ultimately succeed through their sheer refusal to give in and let the pod people take them. They stand up against impossible odds, and the aliens collectively decide to abandon earth for a planet populated by less aggressive and stubborn beings.
The repetitious use of "nice" in the above paragraph is intentional, as it reflects Finney's own language from the novel. Stephen King points out just how "nice" things are in Santa Mira in his book about the horror genre Danse Macabre. He also quotes Finney, who insists The Body Snatchers is an entertaining story, nothing more:
I have read explanations of the 'meaning' of this story, which amuse me, because there is no meaning at all...The idea of writing a whole book in order to say that it's not really a good thing for us all to be alike, and that individuality is a good thing, makes me laugh.
But as King points out, this is more or less what Finney did with The Body Snatchers, as well as his other novels and short stories:
Nevertheless, Jack Finney has written a great deal of fiction about the idea that individuality is a good thing and that conformity can start to get pretty scary after it passes a certain point.
In other words, we're dealing with the universal fear of loss of identity, which can materialize in all kinds of narratives, including ones that deal with insanity, or the inability to recognize thoughts and behaviors as your own. We as humans don't like the idea of losing (or having stripped away) the elements that make us who we are, the individual mind and consciousness that separates one person from another.
Finney's narrative explores this notion without any sociological or political agenda, but as we'll see, the creative forces behind each successive film adaptation attach, intentionally or otherwise, some kind of criticism to the basic story.
'Invasion Of The Body Snatchers' (1956)
For all intents and purposes, there isn't much of a difference between Invasion of the Body Snatchers (heretofore IOTBS 56) and Finney's novel, though from a tonal consideration, that depends mostly on which version of the original film you're watching. The initial cut was more or less faithful to its source material, minus a few surface changes, right up until the third act, when screenwriter Daniel Mainwaring and director Don Siegel change both Belicec and Becky's fates, letting them fall to the pod people's plot. The filmmakers also altered Finney's happy ending, creating the now iconic scene of protagonist Miles (Kevin McCarthy) stranded and harried on a highway in the dead of night, screaming at oncoming traffic (and right into the camera), "They're already here! You're next! YOU'RE NEXT!"
The studio behind the film, Allied Artists, were wary of releasing IOTBS 56 with this bleak denouement, and coerced the filmmakers into tacking on a framing story at the beginning and the end of the movie, showing that Miles did indeed make it off that highway and into a hospital room, and that furthermore a crashed truck carrying pods had been discovered nearby, vilifying his wild tale of an alien invasion. The hospital doctors notify the FBI, and the audience is left with the impression that status quo will return shortly.
To this day, official releases keep the framing story intact, but viewers and critics alike disapprove of this sugarcoated ending. The open and unsettling final scene of Miles yelling in vain at passing automobiles beautifully buttons this exploration into the fear surrounding loss of identity and autonomy.
At the time of the film's release, some critics took this exploration of a universal, ageless fear for social commentary, interpreting the cold, emotionless pod people as representatives of either Communism or the squeaky-clean banality of Eisenhower and McCarthy-era America. Siegel denies any agenda whatsoever, insisting the narrative examines the loss of one's heart, soul, and individuality, regardless of any socio-political origins. According to the director in an interview with American Cinema in 1975 (reprinted at Exclamation Mark):
I think that the world is populated by pods and I wanted to show them. I think so many people have no feeling about cultural things, no feeling of pain, of sorrow...
The political reference to Senator McCarthy and totalitarianism was inescapable but I tried not to emphasize it because I feel that motion pictures are primarily to entertain and I did not want to preach.
Despite protests from the creators, this interpretation of IOTBS 56 persists, and not without good reason: as a culture, we remember the 1950s for the Red Scare, threat of nuclear annihilation, and an emphasis on the perfect nuclear family, where smiles and home-cooked meals solve all our problems and conformity to social norms was the only price of entry. Viewed through this lens, we're hard-pressed not to see Invasion of the Body Snatchers as anything but a commentary on this society.
'Invasion Of The Body Snatchers' (1978)
Twenty-two years after the original film, Allied Artists released a new version, starring Donald Sutherland as the protagonist, here a health inspector rather than a doctor, as well as Brooke Adams, Jeff Goldblum, Veronica Cartwright, and Leonard Nimoy (most definitely playing against type here). Screenwriter W.D. Richter moves the action from a small town in California to San Francisco, an immediate indication of the overall grandness of this update. Moreover, IOTBS 78 is not only a remake, but also a sequel (featuring Kevin McCarthy reprising his role in a cameo appearance), and rule number one in Hollywood concerning sequels is, GO BIGGER!
Plot-wise, history repeats itself here, with no major differences between this narrative and both its cinematic and literary predecessors. Jack is the only character to retain his original given name, changing Miles to Matthew, Becky to Elizabeth, and Teddy to Nancy. Richter and director Philip Kaufman do however add an iconic (and unsettling) ingredient to the series: when a converted pod person discovers a human, they point and let out a piercing shriek, alerting any other pod people in the area to the "intruder." The filmmakers also up the bleakness factor (GO BIGGER!) by allowing not only Jack and Becky to transform into emotionless doubles, but also (SPOILER!—though I'm sure you've seen the image before) our protagonist Matthew, in one of the most haunting final scenes ever committed to film.
All things considered, IOTBS 78 tops IOTBS 56, and it's still thoroughly watchable today. As Variety reported at the time of the film's release,
This new version of Don Siegel's 1956 cult classic not only matches the original in horrific tone and effect, but exceeds it in both conception and execution...
Aside from improved filmmaking and storytelling, part of the film's longevity is due to its near absence of political skewers (much like Finney's novel and IOTBS 56). However, look a little closer, and a critique of the "Me Generation" surfaces, primarily through Nimoy's role as celebrity pop-psychologist Kibner, who (much like in the book and previous film) convinces the other characters the suspicion their loved ones aren't their loved ones anymore is an aberration of the mind. According to Jack (Goldblum), he "pops off" a new self-help book every six months. He touches the faces of his "patients" and hugs them intimately, pushes people against walls to make a point. He puts people into predetermined molds regardless of their personal history, and he believes he can assess and "cure" people immediately upon meeting them, in a matter of minutes.
But perhaps the best assessment of Kibner's method is summed up again by Jack: "He's trying to change people to fit the world." And yes, it turns out Kibner was a pod person the entire time.
Remember, the good doctor is a best-selling author and wildly popular. His presence in this film echoes the pop-psychology boom in the 1970s, and Kibner's character reflects real-life self-help gurus Thomas Anthony Harris (who wrote the highly influential I'm OK, You're OK), Arthur Janov and his "primal scream" therapy (enthusiastically endorsed by John Lennon and Yoko Ono), and Werner H. Erhard, a former door-to-door salesman who popularized est training, just to name a few. In every instance, these therapies makes broad assumptions about people and their psychological motivations/actions, and thus they strip people of their individuality—just as the pod people do.
For better or worse, this criticism of quick-fix psychology is still relevant today, with the continued popularity of people like Doctor Phil, Tony Robbins and Eckhart Tolle.
'Body Snatchers' (1993)
This grossly underrated film is the first (and only) entry in the series to drop "The Invasion of" from its title, aligning itself with Finney's novel. Despite this, Body Snatchers is also the only film to deviate from the author's original plot. The basic premise remains intact—emotionless copies are replacing the citizens of a small town (here, a housing community within a military base in Alabama)—but beyond that, this film takes its own course. There are no Bennells or Belicecs here, and while the plot centers around a scientist from the Environmental Protection Agency moving his family to the base to test the grounds for contaminants (echoing Bennell's medical profession), the protagonist here is the scientist's teenage daughter Marti (Gabrielle Anwar).
Conceived of and written by notable horror figures Stuart Gordon, Dennis Paoli, Nicholas St. John and Larry Cohen, and directed by twisted crime noir expert Abel Ferrara (Bad Lieutenant), the film is less a sci-fi thriller and more a straight slow-burn horror narrative. Body Snatchers is also an indirect sequel to IOTBS 78, and thus the look and overall function of the pods, as well as the piercing alarm shriek emitted by the pod people, appear here. Though never expressed outright, the idea is that the invasion has spread beyond San Francisco and infiltrated the U.S. Army.
This setting provides the element of subtle social critique. Roger Ebert—who loved the film in a backhanded sort of way, saying it "deserved the highest praise you can give a horror film" [emphasis mine]—noted in his 1994 review:
Ferrara's key scenes mostly take place at night, on the Army base, where most of the other people are already podlike in their similar uniforms, language and behavior. There is a crafty connection made between the Army's code of rigid conformity, and the behavior of the pod people, who seem like a logical extension of the same code.
Remember, this film hit theaters in the early nineties, only two years after the end of the Gulf War and four years after the end of the 80s, when America saw an exponential rise in military spending and blind patriotism. This isn't a Clinton-era film, but a Reagan and Bush-era film, an exploration into the faceless quality of militarism and war.
Beyond thematic elements, Body Snatchers is a damn good movie. The pod people are thoroughly terrifying here, their scream more crazed and shrill than in IOTBS 78, and the sense of mounting dread and claustrophobia (given the gated locale of a military base) creates for a thoroughly unnerving viewing experience.
'The Invasion' (2007)
(sigh)...Okay, let's do this.
The most recent entry into the series, The Invasion, isn't tied to the previous films, but is rather a straight reboot/remake/reimagining/regurgitation/whatever. It's an unfortunate film because, while it features some really solid ideas, it is also insultingly moronic, void of logic, badly written, badly directed, badly edited, and so on. It's just bad. Really, really bad.
We have a gender swap here, with Nicole Kidman playing Dr. Carol Bennell, a Washington DC psychiatrist who may or may not be from the South (her accent comes and goes from scene to scene). There's almost a cohesive feminist statement with this casting decision (combined with an intelligent dinner-table monologue by Kidman's character that somewhat jabs holes in the patriarchy) but it's sadly left underdeveloped, just another loose thread dangling in this mess of a film. Bennell begins to notice strange behavior in some of her patients, namely a distraught woman played by Nancy Cartwright (who played Nancy in IOTBS 78, a referential cameo by an accomplished actress, who sadly wastes her talents here with ludicrous dialogue). After discovering a strange, semen-like lifeform at her son's Halloween party (yeah), Carol begins to wonder if the widespread detachment she's noticed around the city is perhaps connected to reports of a flu epidemic and the mysterious space shuttle crash.
Confused yet? Get used to it. Confusion is this movie's middle name.
She enlists the help of her friend Ben Driscoll, played by Daniel Craig, who reportedly learned he'd be the next James Bond while filming this movie, and thus looks like he's ready to get the hell out of there and start making Casino Royale. He then enlists the help of another scientist played by Jeffrey Wright, whose actual character name I can't recall, but who may as well be called Doctor Exposition.
The rest isn't anything new: Running from the pod people, trying to stay awake so the characters don't get podded out (or in this case, covered and suffocated by semen), the love interest becomes "one of them" and tries to convince the protagonist it's better being a pod, but the protag refuses, and eventually stops the invasion—in this case, with the assistance of Doctor Exposition, who has conveniently escaped his quarantined lab and is hovering over the city in a helicopter at the exact moment Bennell needs a lift outta there (also, the movie devolves from sci-fi thriller to A Good Day To Die Hard with the zombies from 28 Days Later thrown in for "good" measure).
The Invasion underwent massive reshoots with a different director before its release, and this is no doubt one aspect of the film's slapdash nature. It's hard to say whether the movie would have been any better or (shudder) worse if left intact, but I personally suspect we would have at least had a better emphasis on the intended thematic elements. It's clear at some point the film was really about our modern-day fear of germs and spread of infectious disease in the wake of bird and swine flue epidemics that had us all scrambling to the nearest Walgreens for our shots. But if this element relates to the universal concept of losing one's identity, that connection isn't made. Sure, an alien invasion masking itself as a superflu is the cause of identity loss, but what is the ultimate message here? That fearing sickness makes us mindless sheep? Granted, some people overreact to the prospect of a widespread illness, but taking precautions against it doesn't require one give up their individuality, does it?
Moreover, on top of the superflu aspect, we also have shoehorned references to ongoing violence in the Middle East, leaving us with the interesting but sloppily executed idea that maybe, just maybe, the emotionless world the pod (semen) people desire is better than humanity's preexisting and continuous path of destruction (an idea better conveyed in Body Snatchers). Again, confusion is king with The Invasion, and that extends to the film's underlying message.
Perhaps the most wasted concept presented here, though, is the idea that certain humans could be immune to the pod people's plot. No previous narrative has ventured into this territory, and it's a shame it was employed within the sucky confines of The Invasion.
Not surprisingly, The Invasion was a critical and commercial failure, which means it might be a while before we see another adaptation of Finney's novel—maybe not until 2020 or thereabouts. Considering the narrative explores a fear of losing one's individuality, what societal ills could potentially find their way into a present-day version? What churning issues could boil over in the next five years that might spur filmmakers to revisit this story? Possibly something to do with an INVASION of privacy by the NSA, allowing the government to see anything and everything that comprises yourself, makes you who you are? What about the increase of personal technology that some people insist are turning us into mindless, screen-staring zombies? Global warming? There are numerous ideas to mine (and by the way, Hollywood, I'm in the book, so call me).
What's your favorite Body Snatchers adaptation? What social issues do you foresee arising in future films? Let us know what you think in the comments section below.
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