Thursday, January 28, 2010

5. The Body Snatchers by Jack Finney

The Body Snatchers is the original novel, written in 1955, that the better-known movies "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" were based on. I was mildly surprised to see that it was written by the same author of Time and Again. I guess he has had a fairly long and varied writing career (and as I see in Wikipedia was considered a genre author).

The Body Snatchers is written from the perspective of the town doctor. He's a younger man, getting over a divorce, with deep roots in the small Norther California town. The first sign that something untoward is happening is when an old high school girlfriend comes to his office to tell him how worried she is about her best friend. The best friend is convinced that her uncle is not himself, even though he looks and acts exactly the same. After briefly investigating this, the doctor starts to get patients making similar claims about other friends or family members. They can't put their finger on it, but there is just something off about them.

This is an enjoyable and quickly paced book and the adventure takes off when a farmer living out of town tells him about a strange body he found in his basement. It's like a not-quite formed human. Skepticism is replaced with real fear as the doctor (now teamed up with his old flame and another couple) realizes that there is a real conspiracy going on.

I know the common interpretation of the movies is that the body-snatchers were a metaphor for the Red Scare of the period. I really didn't get that same sense from the book. The aliens are portrayed as so passionless, empty of any real ideology or values other than sheer survival. Finney puts a lot of emphasis on the small town and how it is decaying and I wonder if general modernity is more of the bugbear in the book than anything political. He really does a great job of describing the small town, all the good things about it coming out in relief in their absence as the protagonist sees the town of his upbringing being completely dangerous and fearful to him. There is a really freaky scene where he watches the entire town gather in the main square for some nefarious purpose, at first behaving normally (going shopping, doing their business) until the last bus drives out of town and then slowly starting to switch over to their real purpose.

Finney is a calm, almost mesmerizing writer. He likes to take his time to describe things, letting the reader's own eye wander over the landscape. Because of that tone, the book is not super stressful as one might expect. You do get a sense of the hopelessness the protagonists must feel as their town is taken over, but not the oppressive fear that such a situation would create (at least in me). He's also very peaceful and there is none of the revengeful violence that we see in today's species propaganda (or anti-propaganda as we see in Avatar).

I also appreciated that the strategy and operation of the aliens was well thought-out. Sure some of the science is pretty questionable, but it all fits together in its own internal logic and the reader isn't left with a lot of annoying questions about how things worked.

However, I did find the ending highly questionable. I appreciated the theme of it, but didn't find it believable at all. (scroll down for some spoilers where I explain myself better).

Still, a great read and deserves an important place in the history of alien invasion literature. I think I need to check out the film adaptations, as I've only seen the Donald Sutherland one and that was a long time ago.

[added after seeing the 1955 Don Siegel movie] Check this out from the wikipedia page on the original film adaptation of the movie:

Despite the general agreement among film critics regarding these political connotations of the film, lead actor Kevin McCarthy said in an interview included on the 1998 DVD release that he felt no political allegory was intended. The interviewer stated that he had spoken with the author of the original novel, Jack Finney, who also professed to have intended no specific political allegory in the work.[13]
In his autobiography, "I Thought We Were Making Movies, Not History," Walter Mirisch writes: "People began to read meanings into pictures that were never intended. The Invasion of the Body Snatchers is an example of that. I remember reading a magazine article arguing that the picture was intended as an allegory about the communist infiltration of America. From personal knowledge, neither Walter Wanger nor Don Siegel, who directed it, nor Dan Mainwaring, who wrote the script nor the original author Jack Finney, nor myself saw it as anything other than a thriller, pure and simple."[14]

And here are my thoughts on the movie itself, for posterity:
Inspired by having just read the book (which was originally published as a serial in Collier's), I downloaded the first Invasion of the Body Snatchers, directed by Don Siegel (they had a VSH copy at my local video store, but it was colorized!). Except for some minor changes and the ending, this is surprisingly faithful to the book and quite entertaining. It was shot on location in some real California small town in 1955 so it was quite pleasant to see all that brought to life. I still didn't see the strong Red Scare metaphor that gets attributed to this movie, except for two subtle cinematic touches (where the hero refers to the pod invasion as a "malignant disease spreading across America" text not found in the book and where he is running out in traffic trying to get someone to stop and he stares at the camera and screams "They're here already! You're next!"). It was a cool little movie and I'm looking forward to watching the '70s version next (with Donald Sutherland and a small role by Leonard Nimoy).

Here's a trailer for you, you can check out the screaming in traffic scene at the very end.


Just when all seems lost, the aliens give up and send themselves out into space again. Their reasoning is that they realize that humans will fight them to the death and will not accept them taking over even though they (the humans) won't actually go away, they'll just have a parisitic host as part of their being. I kind of like the idea that we are the ultimate fighters who will never give up (and this isn't portrayed as entirely a good thing in the book), but I don't see why we wouldn't attribute that same quality to all life. And these aliens had behaved in such a way it seemed as if they expected resistance. They carried out their plan so well that they took over almost the entire town and were ready to spread throughout the rest of the world and then because there are a few resisters who don't allow themselves to be taken over, they give up the fight and head back into space? No, seems way too easy and I think the dark ending of the '70s version is probably a better interpretation.


Doc said...

I read this book about 10 years ago. I had forgotten the ending until you brought it up. It may be that I felt the same way after reading it, but when you consider the facts in a cold light they make sense. Species are often opportunistic and look for the path of least resistance. It could be that "humans are more trouble than they are worth." Or Finney might have been channeling Wells and looking for an ending like War of the Worlds. OR, he might have been up against a deadline. In any case I must have liked the book enough to keep it on my shelf, because it is indeed still there. Maybe I'll break it out again this year.

WalkerP said...

That's an interesting analysis and makes sense for a species that would be patient enough to drift for millenia throughout space. It's definitely worth a re-read and it makes sense that you kept it.

Lantzvillager said...

I think you mean that it was written in 1955.

I'll bet a lot of it was that the story pas partly a product of it's time. If the movies hadn't been made we probably wouldn't be talking about it.

I feel like there were often a lot of authors who copped out on the endings in those days. Many writers were working for magazines and they had word count restrictions.

The tone you describe remids me of that in Earth Abides (1949) with the sort of small town, good guy who has to deal with a messed up situation.

I'll read this.

WalkerP said...

Yeah, good comparison! It had a very similar feel now that you mention it. He's kind of the younger guy with promise and connection to the town, but a little bit adrift (divorced in this case, drinking too much in Earth Abides, oh no wait, I'm mixing it up with Alas, Babylon, which also has a similar set).

It would be interesting to see the process that brought the book to the screen. Clearly, it touched some kind of nerve.