Touchstone, 1955, 228 pages
On a quiet fall evening in the small, peaceful town of Mill Valley, California, Dr. Miles Bennell discovered an insidious, horrifying plot. Silently, subtly, almost imperceptibly, alien life-forms were taking over the bodies and minds of his neighbors, his friends, his family, the woman he loved -- the world as he knew it.
First published in 1955, this classic thriller of the ultimate alien invasion and the triumph of the human spirit over an invisible enemy inspired three major motion pictures.
The Body Snatchers is one of those modern classics that created a lot of science fiction tropes and has a disproportionate impact on popular culture. (How many literal and figurative references to "pod people" have you seen?) The actual novel turned out to be somewhat underwhelming - it was okay, but mostly earned its place in the SF canon for introducing a few particularly creepy ideas (like the idea that your loved ones could be replaced by perfect dopplegangers overnight) and being made into a classic B movie which has been remade several times since.
Set in Mill Valley, California, the protagonist is a psychologist, recently divorced, who sees several patients in succession who report to him a conviction that their husband, sister, or teacher isn't really who they're supposed to be. They can't explain how they know - the supposed dopplegangers are exactly like the originals in every respect. They have all the originals' mannerisms, they remember things only the real person could know, they even have the same scars and birthmarks. There is just something missing.
Dr. Bennell, being a pragmatic and compassionate sort, initially assumes his patients are deluded in some fashion. He takes great pains to explain to the first woman to come to him that she's not crazy, and patiently goes over other explanations. Then when more patients start reporting the same thing, he begins to believe it's a case of mass hysteria.
Then he finds a body lying on a shelf, hidden in an unused cupboard. A "blank" body, missing distinguishing features and fingerprints, yet still warm.
Gradually, he and his new sweetheart, an old flame who is thrust together with him by circumstances, realize that something is very wrong in Mill Valley. They enlist others who have also realized the same thing, and skeptics like another psychotherapist.
The aliens are really less interesting than the psychological tension created by the story. First as the reader, like the protagonist, is forced to wonder whether there really is an alien invasion going on or if people are simply losing their minds. Then, as it becomes evident that people really are being replaced by aliens, the question comes who's really an alien and who can be trusted. One by one, they'll get you... or your friends... or your family...
At its heart, this book is just a straightforward invasion story. As a work of science fiction, it's a bit weak - the premise of alien seeds being carried to Earth by stellar winds is fine, but the book stretched my suspension of disbelief after that, as the author did not bother trying to make the biology of the pod people even a little bit plausible, and the ending was both a rather silly deux ex machina and in complete defiance of physics.
The Body Snatchers is popcorn entertainment, but as a modern classic based on an idea that definitely has a creepy quality all by itself, it's worth reading.
Invasions of the Body Snatchers
The Body Snatchers has been adapted to film four times. I had not actually seen any of them, so onto my Netflix queue they went.
Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)
This is the original cult classic, based closely on the novel, except for the ending. Regarded at the time as nothing more than a B-movie, it was later reappraised as a sort of cultural milestone, interpreted as a metaphor for the spread of communism or the paranoia of McCarthyism. The filmmaker, however, claimed he never intended any such interpretations - he was just trying to make a decent movie on a shoestring budget.
Of the four remakes, the original stays closest to the novel, making only a few changes. It has the strengths and weaknesses of most 50s B movies - it achieves a lot with a fairly minimalist production, and the characters tend to be only slightly more archetypal and histrionic than in the book.
Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)
The first remake, starring Donald Sutherland, Jeff Goldblum, and Leonard Nimoy, still preserves most of the plot of the novel, but it's clearly a remake of the original film, rather than a different spin on the book. Set in San Francisco this time, the 1978 film is more horror than science fiction, with more special effects devoted to slime and gooey special effects. It has some particularly creepy moments, like a San Francisco taken over by pod people and other things...
This movie is also responsible for the classic meme of the pod people pointing and screaming in an inhuman voice when they identify a non-pod person. (How many times have you seen this picture used to refer to the "point and shriek" phenomenon?)
Creepy, sometimes gross, and not very optimistic, it's very characteristic of 70s horror films.
Body Snatchers (1993)
For some reason, the third remake, seemed to have been well-received, though I thought it was a pretty crappy movie starring a bunch of C-listers. Once again crediting Jack Finney's novel as its basis, but really a remake of the earlier films, 1993's Body Snatchers takes place on an Alabama Army base, thus turning the pod people into a rather heavy-handed metaphor for the military. The introduction of children and teenagers as characters didn't really do anything for the movie other than add a few naked titties, and the acting was laughable at times.
It did have some effectively freaky scenes, though, particularly when it borrowed from the previous movie (e.g., the "pointing and shrieking" pod people).
The Invasion (2007)
I kind of feel sorry for Nicole Kidman. I think she's actually quite a good actress, but she keeps getting attached to bombs (The Golden Compass.... sigh), and The Invasion apparently went through several rounds of renaming, refilming, and studio meddling. It shows. It's a completely unnecessary, soulless remake.
This time, there are no pods, just a "virus" brought back to Earth by a space shuttle that blew up (how it contacted an alien virus, which survived atmospheric reentry, is one of many things the movie doesn't bother to care about). Nicole Kidman is the psychologist whose patients start reporting that their loved ones have been replaced. Set in Washington, D.C., apparently the "infected" this time are supposed to be a metaphor for power and control, but it's really just a bunch of chase scenes and explosions.
Verdict: Body Snatchers is a classic that's worth reading for its historical impact on the genre, but it reads like what it is, a serialized 50s SF story. The four movies based on it range from good to pretty bad, and I wouldn't recommend you watch all four of them like certain obsessive book reviewers, but you should watch at least one (I recommend either the 1956 or the 1978 version). Rating: 6/10.
My complete list of book reviews.