Invasion of the Body Snatchers by Jack Finney
Although Don Siegel’s 1956 film Invasion of the Body Snatchers has long been a favorite of this viewer — it is, most assuredly, one of the genuine sci-fi champs of the 1950s — it was only very recently that I finally got around to reading Jack Finney’s source novel. The occasion was Simon & Schuster’s 2015 release of the book’s 60th anniversary edition, with a most interesting foreword by author Dean Koontz. Actually, Finney’s novel had originally appeared serially in 1954 in Collier’s, a “slick” magazine of that era (as opposed to a “pulp” magazine), under the shorter title The Body Snatchers — the Milwaukee-born author was 43 at the time — and in book form the following year. The Siegel film, apparently, lengthened the title so as to avoid confusion with the 1945 Boris Karloff film The Body Snatcher. As of this date, Finney’s book has been re-filmed no less than three times — Philip Kaufman’s same-name remake in 1978, Abel Ferrara’s Body Snatchers in 1994, and Oliver Hirschbiegel’s The Invasion in 2007 — and I have gone to see precisely none of them, not being a big fan of remakes of beloved perfect movies. But source novels are another question, and now that I have finally read Finney’s original, I can happily say that it stands as a quite-solid thrill machine, besting its first big-screen adaptation in several departments, if not all.
Unlike the first film, which transpired in the fictitious California town of Santa Mira, Finney sets Invasion of the Body Snatchers in Mill Valley (just one of many touches of verisimilitude in the book), in the futuristic time of, uh, autumn 1976. Dr. Miles Bennell (wonderfully portrayed by Kevin McCarthy in the film), a 28-year-old, divorced, family doctor, first catches wind of a problem when numerous residents begin to complain that a close relative of theirs is not who he or she seems. When his old sweetheart Becky Driscoll brings him to see her cousin Wilma, he hears a complaint that Wilma’s Uncle Ira is NOT Uncle Ira at all, despite the fact that he looks and talks just like the genuine article. And before long, Miles and Becky, and their friends Jack and Theodora, learn a very startling truth: Alien pods from outer space are systematically replicating everyone in sight! No one can be trusted, even the sweet-seeming lady librarian and the Mill Valley police chief. And with communication cut off to the outside world and a new load of seed pods just trucked in from the local farms, it would seem only a matter of time until Miles and his friends are taken over, too…
Finney, of course, was not the originator of the concept of alien life forms taking over a small American town — the idea had already been touched on in Robert Heinlein’s The Puppet Masters in 1951, and in 1953 in the films Invaders From Mars and It Came From Outer Space — but to his eternal credit, the idea of “pod people” most assuredly arose here first. Finney turns out to be a very fine writer, and the book in question is absolutely unputdownable, simply written by with great energy and drive. Besides that use of an actual location as the site of the action, Finney adds realistic touches from page 1. He tells us that October 28, 1976 was a Thursday, and yes, indeed it was. Miles constantly says things like “this isn’t a movie, and I’m not a movie hero,” and tells us that Becky “actually wrung her hands, a thing you read about but rarely see.” Indeed, in his opening paragraph, Miles tells us that he does not have all the answers to his story’s many mystifying aspects, engendering an air of honesty and adherence to fact from the very outset. Finney, besides being a compelling and convincing writer, shows here that he was also capable of throwing in a colorful phrase when required — “…the whole nightmare scene [was] bathed in a mad light the color of froth from a wound” — and even, possibly, some prescient humor. (Miles takes Becky to a movie to see Time and Again, which is “about a guy who finds a way to visit the past.” The film, of course, is based on… Finney’s 1970 novel Time and Again! What? Or was this snippet added much later on by the author?)
As it turns out, Siegel’s film, despite some minor differences, is largely faithful to Finney’s original vision, and any fan of the movie should just love reading its source material, adding as it does many details that the film lacked. For one thing, Finney gives us the backstory of the pods here, which we never get in the film. We learn, thus, of their millennia-long journey through space, and hear, from the lips of one of the “replicants,” why they are seeking to take over our world and what their future plans are. We learn how the pods feel about emotions, and get a precise scientific explanation for how they are able to replicate. And, most importantly, for those viewers of the original film who have long wondered about what became of the bodies of the Santa Mira residents after having been duplicated (this has long been a problem of the film for me; an unexplained conundrum of sorts), well, they will be happy to hear that Finney’s book spells this all out quite clearly for us.
There ARE two areas in which the film, surprisingly, does manage to top Finney’s book. The horrifying sequence in which Becky is taken over — one of the most frightening moments in cinema history — is not to be found in the source novel at all! And Finney’s book ends on an optimistic note, as opposed to the film’s more-effective downbeat endings (there ARE two versions out there). Strangely enough, Finney has maintained that his book holds no political allegory whatsoever (the film has long been viewed as both an anti-Communist and, ironically enough, anti-Senator McCarthy piece), and McCarthy (Kevin, not the senator) has, in later years, said the same thing about the 1956 film. Finney’s target, apparently, was the mindlessly conformist 1950s American consumer who would do anything to blend into society, including giving up his/her own individuality. Still, that did not stop Collier’s from calling his novel “The Nightmare That Threatened The World.”
Finney’s book is an almost-perfect affair; a highly influential piece of sci-fi that is both chilling and profound. I say “almost perfect” only because of a few minor slips that the author makes. He tells us that the last passenger pigeon expired in 1913 in a Philadelphia zoo; that should be 1914, in the Cincinnati Zoo. And he writes of it still being light outside at 8 p.m. on a November evening in Mill Valley. Does that seem right to you? But quibbles aside, (Invasion of) The Body Snatchers really is some dynamite stuff. No wonder it was chosen for inclusion in Jones & Newman’s excellent overview volume Horror: Another 100 Best Books, in which author Andy Duncan writes that, as regards its central conceit, Finney’s work “became the definitive novel on the theme.” Koontz, in his intro, tells us that the book makes him wish that someone could create a gadget “that can warn you if the person to whom you’re talking is composed of a significant percentage of vegetable matter.” And after reading Finney’s brilliant original, you just might be inclined to agree! Happy 60th anniversary, pod people!
Like Sandy, I loved the movie when I was a kid (it is one of the few I remember watching multiple times) and was delighted to find the novel just as compelling when I finally read it in April 2022.
Blackstone Audio’s edition, narrated by Kristoffer Tabori, is fabulous.