Invasion of the Body Snatchers by Jack Finney
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
There’s this moment after watching one of the Invasion of the Body Snatchers movies (there are four and I’ll have more to say about them later on in this review) when I think to myself “I really should read the original novel by Jack Finney.” Well, after watching all four adaptations again recently, I finally read the book, and what a surprise it turned out to be.
You know the story: seed pods from space arrive in a small town on Earth and begin replacing people while they sleep. What surprised me about the 1955 novel was how faithfully it was followed by the 1956 film adaptation starring Kevin McCarthy as Dr. Miles Bennell and Dana Wynter as Becky Driscoll. The first half is essentially the same between novel and film. About halfway through, details and plot points begin to diverge slightly, leading to a different ending. To be honest, the book’s climax seems a little silly, and it’s much less horrifying than the fate of the main characters by the end of the film. The film has its only silliness, in the shape of a framing device tacked on when the studio decided the ending was too dark, but what I view as the film’s real ending is absolutely bone-chilling.
The novel has more room for exposition than the film, and in general this additional information is really interesting. The novel is told in first person by Dr. Miles Bennell, who is even more cheeky and self-centered in the novel than he is in the film. He’s also much more progressive in the novel, which I didn’t expect from a male character created in the 1950s. Dr. Bennell makes particularly incisive observations related to race and gender. The novel cannot avoid all stereotypes, though. Becky Driscoll is primarily a passive and emotional damsel in distress, but there are several great moments in the novel when she becomes much more active and heroic, including coming up with a particularly great escape plan from a seemingly impossible situation.
The pod people plot from the movies is one of my favorite delicious terrors from horror and that creepiness and consistently frightening progression is definitely there in the original novel. The only thing that really disappointed me about the novel was the ending. The film adaptions tend to lean toward darker endings and more ambiguity. They make me feel like the horror has only just begun. The book’s ending instead is lighter and conclusive. It just doesn’t pack the same punch. Until then, though, the book is genuinely creepy and frightening.
The first three of the four movies based on the novel are some of my favorite movies of all time. They work because they capture the fears of their time. The 1956 film directed by Don Siegel is perhaps the best, and the fear it evokes with its seed pods and pod people is the fear of communism, in which your neighbor might turn out to be a communist plotting against America. As I mentioned, the ending gets really dark, though the framing device undercuts this. All of the actors are fantastic, and there is a scene with McCarthy and Wynter near the end of the movie that is one of the great chillers of all time. The film is a masterpiece of paranoia, the practical effects are still amazing, and the chase scenes are much more frightening on the screen than they are in the book.
The second adaption arrived in 1978, directed by Philip Kaufman and starring Brooke Adams and Donald Sutherland as the leads. They are joined by a great cast, including Veronica Cartwright, Leonard Nimoy, and Jeff Goldblum, as well as a fun cameo by Kevin McCarthy from the original movie. The fear of the 1970s seems to be of pop psychology and the effects drugs like Xanax prescribed for anxiety and depression have on emotions. The 1978 film doubles down on the special effects and paranoia, and the scream-screech of the aliens when they spot humans will always be frightening to me. The film departs from the novel in many ways and changes the characters quite radically, but it retains the paranoia and creepiness.
The third adaptation from 1993, Body Snatchers, was directed by Abel Ferrara and stars Gabrielle Anwar, Meg Tilly, Terry Kinney, Billy Wirth and Forest Whitaker. The movie departs from the novel in many ways. The protagonist here is a teenage girl dragged to a military base by her father, an Environmental Protection Agency agent investigating the impact of the base on the local environment. The fears of the early 1990s seem to be of the military, stepparents, and the environment impact of humans. While the plot is simplified quite a bit compared to the earlier movies and the novel, what elevates the movie in my opinion is just how frightening it becomes. Making the protagonist a young woman and part of a family with a stepmother and half-brother leads to truly horrific moments that make me jump in my seat every time I see them. Meg Tilly is frightening as hell, especially during a monologue in which she asks “Where are you going to go?”
One great novel, three great movies. And then there’s 2007’s The Invasion, directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel and starring Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig as gender-reversed versions of the novel’s protagonists. This movie is terrible! The fear of the Aughts seems to be of pandemics and bodily fluids. The invasion spreads by vomiting on other people; it’s even grosser on screen than it sounds. There are no pods, just gross skin effects. No other fears are that well developed. Veronica Cartwright is always great, but her cameo here is wasted. The movie isn’t all that frightening, there aren’t any particularly captivating or scary scenes, and the talents of all of the actors are completely wasted. Unlike the earlier movies, The Invasion doesn’t really seem to have much to say. It doesn’t offer any compelling parallels to the contemporary world. It just seems to exist as an exercise to distill the novel to the very basics; it fails miserably.
But three great movies out of four is an incredible track record for any franchise. I think this rate of success is the result of Jack Finney coming up with a timeless and frightening plot particularly worthy of film adaptation. It’s one novel I think should be adapted about once every decade, because pod people are a great device for reflecting on our changing times and fears. What would an Invasion of the Body Snatchers movie look like today, in 2017?
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