Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956/1978)
Adapting The Body Snatchers : The Evolution and Dilution of Themes
Science Fiction has been an effective platform for social commentary since the mid-1990s. The longevity of Invasion of the Body Snatchers (Don Siegel, 1956) based on the 1955 novel The Body Snatchers by Jack Finny can be attributed to the way in which critics and audiences perceived its estranging of certain aspects of post-World War II life. The film has been adapted three additional times as Invasion of the Body Snatchers (Philip Kaufman, 1978), Body Snatchers (Abel Ferrara, 1993), and The Invasion (Oliver Hirschbiegel, 2007). These remakes were not produced because the message of the original film once again became relevant, in fact, the original metaphors of the film was reshaped and their stories evolved (to varying degrees of success) to fit a contemporary issue, sometimes leaving vestigial elements that no longer serve a purpose in the new narrative.
Not surprisingly, each film takes plenty of material from the source novel, The Body Snatchers by Jack Finny, and each subsequent film borrows from the previous films (less each subsequent time. The book and three of the four films have the same basic premise: aliens have come to Earth and are replacing individuals with an exact physical duplicate. The replicants are grown from large seedpods and are popularly known as “pod people,” a term that has probably become more far-reaching than the book or films themselves. The fourth adaptation, The Invasion, steers away from the idea of replacement; instead the alien microbes take over and control the existing human body.
In Jack Finny’s The Body Snatchers, the pod people have an incredibly short lifespan and cannot reproduce. If they were to successfully take over the planet, Earth would become barren of anything resembling human life. This is a metaphor of the human race’s tendency to use up Earth’s resources, a threat that many theorize could mean the eventual end of human life on this planet. The novel can also be seen as anti-imperial, showcasing the horror of invaders often wipe out indigenous populations. The book ends with the aliens leaving the planet, finding the resistance of the human protagonists to be too great.
The 1956 Invasion of the Body Snatchers, directed by Don Siegel with a screenplay by Daniel Mainwaring, tells the story of the small town of Santa Mira, California being taken over by the alien clones that replace the population. Of all the film adaptations, the featured pod people are most like the individuals they replace: they look the same (right down to birthmarks), they act the same, and they speak the same. Despite this, they lack an indescribable humanity that can be sensed by the loved ones of those that have been replaced. The pod people grow from an alien seedpod and kill the actual human when they are sleeping. The film has an optimistic ending demanded by the studio; the federal authorities are notified of the invasion and show no indication of being compromised. This film was produced about a decade after the end of World War II and just after what is considered the Second Red Scare. HUAC (House of the Un-American Activities Committee) was created to investigate threats to the American government by identifying those who either belonged to the Communist Party or appeared to be sympathetic to the idea of communism. Even if not necessarily intended by the filmmakers, the film can be read as a metaphor for the Communist infiltration of American society and the loss of personal agency, the Communists hidden among the normal citizen like the pod people. However, the film could be read as the exact opposite, instead being about America’s acceptance of the McCarthy era persecution of individuals, quelling creativity and freedom of expression. In addition to the two sides of the spectrum of political conformity that can be taken from the film, a type of social conformity can also be gleamed, the pod people reflecting the conformity in small town American society following World War II. People strived for the American Dream: nuclear family, similar suburban houses, white picket fences, etc.
The 1978 remake, directed by Philip Kaufman, has largely the same premise as the 1956 version and retains the exact title but the scale of the story is greatly increased. The setting has changed from the small town of Santa Mira to San Francisco, California. Unlike the 1956 film, the pod people are much easier to identify. Even though they are once again physically identical, the pod people act very robotically, actively conspire with one another, and stare intensely at people not yet replaced. They even occasionally let out a horrifying wail while pointing in an equally terrifying way. Although the story is largely the same, the themes have shifted. Steven Persall, a St. Petersburg Times film critic, found that “Kaufman made the story’s submissive humans into symbols of post-Nixon malaise,” feeling uneasy in an undefined world. This is especially prominent in the conspiracy aspect of the invasion; the pod people are passing mysterious parcels between one another and communicating in unheard speech. Also, rather than commenting on the conformity of small town life, this film deals with the concept of feeling isolated and a lone in a city with hundreds of thousands of people. The first several shots featuring San Francisco establish the setting by featuring landmarks and well-known architectural styles but no people. Although this film does not play up the idea of conformity as much as the previous version in using San Francisco, a city known for its diversity, the setting does play up the strangeness of people of different ages, professions, and socioeconomic backgrounds. One of the main characters is established as being distant from her boyfriend before he is taken over by a pod person; he is introduced wearing headphones and watching television. Unlike the first film, this version does not feature an optimistic ending; instead the credits roll when it is clear the pod people have gained unstoppable momentum.
The third adaptation largely abandons the story and settings of the previous two films. The 1993 Body Snatchers is arguably scaled down even more than the 1956 original, taking place only on an Alabama Army base. The previous two movies portrayed the pod people’s conformity and a counter to the free societies they were over taking but the pod people feel like an extension of the order and uniformity already present in the Army. Unlike the previous versions, a teenage girl is the main character of Body instead of adults. This movie is less interested in critiquing society and more concerned with emotion, specifically family dynamics and teenage angst. The existence and eventual loss of emotion and pathos is the core of the movie. Like in the 1978 version, isolation still plays a role, the main character is already isolated in many ways before the invasion gains momentum and more than anything wants to be connected to others. She lives with her fragmented family (father, step-mother, and half-brother) on an Army base with few, if any, peers. Although they lose their agency, the dysfunctional family seems to become much more amicable once they are replaced with pod people. The identifying qualities of the pod people falls somewhere between that of the pod people of the previous two movies, the pod people in this version are not as seamlessly integrated as in the 1956 version but they are less robotic than in the 1978 version but still let out the occasional inhuman shriek. While the 1956 movie has an optimistic ending and the 1978 version has a bleak ending, the 1993 version has an ambiguous ending. Even though a truck full of pods is destroyed at the end, we are also left with a voice over that implies that the pod people are already present beyond the borders of the base.
2007’s The Invasion, the most recent version of the story deviates the most from the original book and first film. Not only did “Body Snatchers” get dropped from the title, not a single body gets snatched in the film itself. Instead of humans being replaced by pod people, alien bacteria takes over the body and is spread person-to-person like a virus via fluids. The most common mode of transmission is an infected person vomiting into the mouth of another person. This is a fairly big deviation is more akin to vampire or zombie movies. Elliott Kalen of The Flop House podcast describes how misguided this choice appears, viewing it as if the filmmakers “wanted to make a zombie movie but had already paid for the Invasion of the Body Snatchers rights.” The setting is changed once more, this version is set in a bland Washington D.C. probably with the intention of connecting the inefficiency of bureaucracy and the American government’s perpetual war waging. Unfortunately, this theme is only touched on at the beginning and end while never being reinforced in between, so the Capitol is not as effective a canvas as San Francisco proves to be is in the 1978 version.
The issues tackled by this movie are easily the least compelling of the bunch. When most the population becomes infected with the alien bacteria, world peace is reportedly achieved. This is intended to demonstrate the cost of freewill. To the film’s detriment, it does not make an argument for freewill, either through characterization or narrative, which could have included the importance of individuality and the beauty of altruism, neither of which would exist in a world taken over by this alien bacteria. Instead the film unsuccessfully relies on the grotesque spreading method of the alien bacteria to act as a foil. Because there is no argument for freewill, the happy ending of the infected people being cured falls very flat. Not only that, but the happy ending unintentionally calls into question the actions of the protagonist, who through the movie kills several infected people, which, according to the ending, was excessive because they could eventually have been cured. In fact, when faced with her infected friend, she spares him by shooting him in the knee, unquestionably an incredibly painful wound but far from fatal. Sure enough, he is back to his fully human self at the end. So, shouldn’t she have shot every infected person she came across in the knee and not just the people she was personally invested?
The 2007 version also has some strange vestigial elements from the previous movies that do not serve a purpose in this version and make very little sense without the context of the previous adaptations. In the previous movies, the pod person would kill the person they were replacing when they slept. In the 2007 film, after an infected person has been vomited into, the bacteria does not start controlling them until they have fallen asleep. In a better movie I’d be willing to ignore this but, if anything, sleeping, does in fact, help fight infection. This film also has one sequence that features an exact duplicate of the main character, however, it is a dream sequence, which is unfortunate because it is probably the most effective moment in the movie.
The World’s End (Edgar Wright, 2013) is very much a love letter to science fiction and includes many elements from the classics, mostly notably from the 1950s and 1970s versions of Invasion of the Body Snatchers in terms of human replacement. The replacements in this film are externally visually identical robots called “blanks;” the idea that they even have the birthmarks of the human they replaced is cleverly used as a plot point. Even though this film is most similar to the earlier versions of the story, it focuses on the issues poorly presented in the 2007 film: free will and its cost to society. In The Invasion, world peace is an incidental aspect of the alien takeover; in The World’s End, world peace is the goal of the alien organization called The Network. The World’s End argues that artificial peace will cause stagnation in all aspects of life, that humans should be free to do what they want, that the positive aspects of humans must go hand-in-hand with the flaws if we are to be truly free. The World’s End is not quite as subtle as it could be but it is much more effective than the philosophically flat The Invasion.
When a story has been adapted as many times as The Body Snatchers, it is no surprise that the narrative and story elements evolve over time to reflect a contemporary issue, take advantage of a lager budget (like the 1978 version), or compensate for a lower budget (like the 1993 version). Sometimes major parts of the story change while maintaining other details, seemingly without reason. Regardless of the quality of the final product, it is always interesting to see how the same or similar story manifests differently depending on external factors like the filmmakers involved, budget, and position in time.