3.01.2016

From Novel to Film pt. 28: Invasion of the Body Snatchers


"The wind had the flares twisting the flames till they sputtered and choked, and on the high cutaway embankment beside me, I saw a giant shadow - mine - squirming and dancing in a wild flickering, insane caper, the whole nightmare scene bathed in a mad light the color of froth from a wound, and I think I came close to losing my mind."

THE NOVEL

First serialized in Colliers (1954), published as novel (1955).

In the sleepy town of Mill Valley, California in the future world of 1976, recently divorced general practitioner Dr. Miles Bennell is visited by also-recently-divorced (and former crush from back in the day) Becky Driscoll, who tells him her cousin Wilma keeps insisting her husband has changed somehow and is not really her husband. He investigates and discovers - along with his writer friend Jack Bellicec and his wife Theodora - that she is correct: Mill Valley has been invaded by seeds that have drifted to Earth from space that replace any living thing they encounter with perfect physical duplicates grown from plantlike pods. When the growth is complete, the human victims turn to dust. 

Miles and Becky watch helplessly as the pods take over everyone in town but themselves. Mill Valley is slowly sealed off, and the pod people organize supply lines to spread their seeds to neighboring counties. Miles manages to escape and comes across a field full of pods and begins to destroy them. The remaining pods decide it's all too much trouble and float away, into space to try again on some other planet.

Planet Earth is saved...
but for how long?

The sci-fi is pretty wonky, but it's more of a horror novel so who cares. It has many well-written passages and more than a few moments of insight and subversion. (A whole piece of its own could be written on Shoe Shine Bill. I won't be its author, though.) 

I was confused by Finney's decision to place the action in the mid-1970s, mainly because he does nothing to make it actually seem like a possible world of tomorrow. In fact, it's such a precise and carefully-considered evocation of a 50s-Americana-type town that to pretend otherwise is distracting. Perhaps the unapologetic out-of-wedlock sex Miles and Becky have at one point in the novel was considered more palatable if it was between people of the future? 

The (fantastic) cover to the 50th anniversary edition definitely implies it's some kind of cosmic love story:

Miles and Becky do consummate their mutual attraction as mentioned, but I don't think anyone's going to mistake their romance for one of the greats in 20th century literature. It seems hardly the beat to emphasize for the cover. None of this is to say it's badly developed. Maybe there's some symbolic value to it that's sailing over my head.

Becky's played by Dana Wynter in the 1956 film version. (Up to the changed ending, a very faithful adaptation.)
Wynter in  Sink the Bismarck (1960).

Even for the 50s, never mind the 1970s, Miles is not a very modern doctor. He could actually be swapped out with any Victorian doctor from HG Wells or Bram Stoker and no one would probably notice. He's at his most medicinal when he's mixing the drinks or giving women shots to "calm them down." Finney may be playing with this trope intentionally:

"I said I'd phone her in the morning (and) muttered some nonsense about relaxing, taking it easy, not worrying, and so on, and Wilma smiled gently and put her hand on my arm, the way a woman does when she forgives a man for failing her."

The pod people live only five years and cannot sexually reproduce. Consequently, they will eventually turn Earth into a dead planet and have to move on to the next world. When confronted with this, one of the duplicates says that this is only what all humans do; use up resources, wipe out indigenous populations, and destroy ecosystems in the name of their own temporary survival. What difference does it make if the same thing is accomplished by and for pod people?

"You don't really see the familiar until it's thrust upon you." 

The picture on the above-right is a man's face on a dog. It is a true wtf moment in the film, but it is not in the novel. And it doesn't even tie into the above in any literal way. Yet it feels right. The aliens are slicing and dicing and cloning and cross-planting, the way humans have for centuries and still do.

Both the novel and the 1956 film were popularly interpreted as allegories of the 1950s Red Scare. Finney denied this, but Dean Koontz makes an interesting observation in his introductory remarks to the 50th anniversary edition:

"Communism and fascism are the obvious examples of ideologies that not merely devalued the individual but denied legitimacy to the very idea that the masses exist for any purposes other than to serve an elite and to die for the philosophies of that elite. (...) Even many basically nonpolitical movements with admirable intentions have embraced the anti-human attitudes and methodology of totalitarian ideologies."

I think this dehumanizing effect of ideology - an invasive species that crowds out all other plants in the garden - is very much on Finney's mind. I take him at his word that he wasn't specifically describing any particular -ism, but it is unquestionably the loss of independence to a collective (the death of ambition, variety, creative improvisation, etc.) that forms the existential dread of the novel. The process of being replaced by something that looks and sounds like you but serves the hive is painless, after all, and none of the duplicates display anything but total contentment. Why would anyone resist it if it wasn't the worst thing imaginable?
  
This relates to a sort of nostalgia on the novel's part, a lamentation of an older way of American life passing into history. Even when the replacement is less-than-perfect.

"I said 'hello' again, a little louder, jiggling the phone, the way you do, but the line was dead and I put the phone back. In my father's day a night operator, whose name he'd have known, could have told him who'd called. It would probably have been the only light on her board at that time of night, and she'd have remembered which one it was, because they were calling the (town) doctor. But now we have dial phones, marvelously efficient, saving you a full second or more every time you call, inhumanly perfect, and utterly brainless; and none of them will ever remember where the doctor is at night (...) Sometimes I think we're refining all the humanity out of our lives."

"I wondered if phones weren't being lifted in the houses we passed, and if the air at this moment wasn't filled with messages about us."

Richard Grid Powers writes in his intro to the work to the Gregg Press edition of the novel: 

"With the hindsight afforded by Finney's later books, it is easy to see what the critics overlooked (when they) interpreted both the book and movie simply as by-products of the McCarthyite fifties. (...) Finney's heroes, particularly Miles Bennell, are all inner-directed individualists in an increasingly other-directed world." 

 Two final things before moving on to the film. 1) The paranoia of the book is well-sketched (and, from where I'm sitting, well-grounded.) Miles and Becky make their way through town at one point, knowing they're watched but unsure of just how far the contagion has spread. 

"If I was an artist, painting the way Sycamore Street seemed to me I think I'd distort the windows of the houses. I'd show them with half-drawn shades, the bottom edge of each shade curving downward, so that the windows looked like heavy-lidded, watchful eyes, quietly and terribly aware of us as we passed through that silent street. I'd show the porch rails and stair rails hugging the old houses like protective arms, sullenly guarding them against our curiosity. I'd paint the houses themselves as huddled and crouching, alien and withdrawn, resentful, evil, full of icy malice against the two figures walking along the street between them. (...) And I think I'd make every color just a shade off-key."
 

And 2) as King writes in Danse Macabre

"Humans, Finney asserts, have a natural drive to create order out of chaos (and) want to improve the universe. These are old-fashioned ideas, perhaps, but Finney is a traditionalist. (...) The scariest thing about the pod people is that chaos doesn't bother them a bit and they have absolutely no sense of aesthetics: this is not an invasion of roses from outer space but rather an infestation of ragweed. The pod people are going to mow their lawns for awhile and then give it up."

"They don't give a shit about the crabgrass."

THE FILM


The novel's been adapted for the big and small screen a few different times and ways. Philip Kaufman directed the 1978 version which starred Donald Sutherland and Brooke Adams as the main characters (changed to Matthew Bennell - a city health inspector - and Elizabeth Driscoll) and Jeff Goldblum and Veronica Cartwright as the Bellicecs.


The plot follows the same trajectory but changes/ adapts a few things: here, Bennell is attracted to Driscoll, but she's in an unhappy relationship and it is she who suspects her lover has changed. Jack Bellicec is still a novelist, but he's also the owner of a mud bath, leading to some weird (and gross) scenes. 


At story's end, instead of being repelled, everyone has been replaced. The film's two most iconic images are of Brooke Adams and Donald Sutherland pointing to the camera, heads tilted back, mouths agape, shrieking their alien cry. And while those are certainly memorable, it's a film of many striking images, courtesy of cinematographer extraordinaire Michael Chapman:


In the novel, Dr. Bennell resists the truth of what's happening thanks to reassurances from his psychologist friend Mannie Kaufman and the person who originally reported seeing the pods, Professor Budlong. These characters are compartmentalized into Dr. David Kibner, a pop-psychologist-author played by Leonard Nimoy.  


At this point in time, casting Nimoy in anything brought the inescapable association with Spock. (Any point in time, really, but especially so in the 70s.) This association is toyed with pretty well here. Kibner is an alien incapable of feeling emotion who nonetheless mimics it near-perfectly -


commentary on pop psychologists, maybe?
Great performance from Nimoy, but he gave no other kind.

The original is a classic, of course, but this is the rare remake/ reinterpretation that arguably surpasses its source material. In the 1956 version, Mills Valley is changed to Santa Mira, a fictional town with an interesting pedigree. In Kaufman's film, the setting is San Francisco. I can see King's point (again from Danse Macabre) that something is lost moving the action from a small town to a metropolis, but ultimately I agree with Dean Koontz: doing so "brought new power to the dual themes of alienation and dehumanization."

It's imbued with the decade's particular range of sensibilities, particularly changing mores, personal freedoms, and unlawful surveillance.

I've heard this described as a slow film, but I prefer to think of it as hypnotic. Plus, it's not really accurate. Heart of Glass is a slow film. Let's use that as a calibrating standard; as measured on that scale, Invasion of the Body Snatchers is a high-octane thrill ride. It rewards a close viewing and is filled with wonderful little touches that slowly build an atmosphere of dread.


Kevin McCarthy cleverly reprises his role from the 1956 film. (Well, sort of - he's officially listed as "Running Man.") Donald Sutherland and Brooke Adams are driving along when McCarthy - just as he did at the end of the original film - runs into traffic shouting "They're coming! They're coming!" Moments later, they see him struck down in the road, with non-reactive citizens standing around his body.


Is this the same character from the original? i.e. has the madness spread from Santa Mira all the way to San Francisco, and this is the original Dr. Bennell's fate?

McCarthy also reprised the part in Anthony Hopkins' lone directorial effort Slipstream. That film is an oddity altogether, often described as "messy, self-indulgent," etc. And it is, but I think there's a lot of interesting things going on in it. The scenes with McCarthy are definitely bizarre. He plays himself and ends up getting into the car driven by Hopkins' character, whereupon Hopkins (the actor, presumably, though the role between actor/character, artist/viewer is intentionally blurred throughout) tells him how much his work has meant to him over the years, and they drive off into the literal sunset. 


Final Verdict: Entertaining and thoughtfully written novel that translates well to the screen, regardless of era. And the film is one of the all-time 70s greats.

2 comments:

  1. I'd have thought, if you were in the middle of a Pod Invasion, and you ran into the actual Spock, then he'd likely be the only standing in the way of the total annihilation of Earth (if Nimoy were still with us, I'd say someone make that scenario happen).

    For me, the detail about short lifespans is what give the story it's power. The loss of identity and freedom is still a factor, however the lifespan concept introduces what is probably an even bigger element: the threat of meaninglessness.

    In other words, the fact that the Pods do what they do is ultimately revealed to be an exorcise in futility. With such short life cycles with no goals except the dullest animal-like existence, these creatures have no reason even existing, an yet they go about following some random imperative even they may be a bit fuzzy about. Hence, the threat of meaninglessness. It's a strangely Lovecraftian concept Finney appears to be toying with. If so, it does just the right thing for his story by giving the final perfect touch of existential dread.

    ChrisC

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    1. That's it exactly, right there. If I was Marvel Comics, I'd send you a No-Prize! But, like, a real one. A, official Certificate of No-Prize. But yes, absolutely.

      And this concept is conceptualized (no pun intended) brilliantly in the opening credits to the Kaufman film.

      Speaking of puns, "random imperative they may be a bit fuzzy about" made me chuckle, whether intentional or not - I just pictured all those tendrils and cilia flailing about in the void of space, or springing from pods.

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