Invasion of The Body Snatchers – Retrospective Book Review

Jack Finney’s nifty 1954 novel has four screen adaptations to its credit (including the acknowledged 1956 classic), but the original text still stands as a fine work in its own right, worthy of being read by fans of the films and by genre enthusiasts in general. Numerous incidents have never made the transition from page to screen; more important, Finney’s writing brings the story alive in a way that no screen adaptation can ever capture.
The story is set in the 1970s but feels more appropriates to the era in which the novel was actually published. Miles Bennell is a small town doctor who patients begin to believe their family and friends are impostors, even though they act – laugh, talk, and smile – exactly like the originals. Miles suspects they are suffering from some kind of delusion and refers them to the local psychiatrist, but gradually he learns that Mill Valley – a small town above San Francisco – has been invaded by pods from outer space. These pods grow into duplicates of any organic matter in close proximity; when the original falls asleep, the pod steals its memories and takes its place, destroying its predecessor. Miles and his girlfriend Becky fight to expose the menace, but the conspiracy is too big for them. Fortunately, the pods give up and leave anyway; Miles theorizes that he and Becky were not alone: other people in other places fought, too, and the pods eventually decided to abandon the inhospitable planet Earth in favor of easier pickings.
The great thing about Finney’s novel is the way he takes ordinary characters like Miles and Becky and makes them humanity’s protectors. Neither one comes close to being a radical or even a non-conformist, and yet they emerge as bastions of individuality fighting against a tide of uniformity that threatens to sweep the entire planet. Thus the book becomes a touching ode to small town America – and to the spirit of individuality in the world at large.
An interesting aspect of the book that has been more or less abandoned by all the screen adaptations is the concept of hypocrisy. Finney’s alien duplicates are not visually recognizable as emotionless pod people: they behave exactly as their human counterparts; the only subtle difference is that they are faking their emotional responses.
Finney drives the point home when Miles overhears some of them talking among themselves. In order to convey the disconnect between their public and their private persona, Miles (who relates the story in the first person) recalls his college days when he knew a black shoe-shine man named Billy who truly seemed to enjoy his job, always with a happy word in his lips for his customers, always praising their fine shoes. Waking up in a car early one morning after a night out partying, Miles overheard a voice going through its familiar routine:

The voice was Billy’s, the words and tone those the town knew with affection, but – parodied, and a shade off key. […] “I just love those shoes, Colonel,” he continued in a suddenly vicious, jerrng imitation of his familiar patter. “That’s all I want, Colonel, just to handle people’s shoes. Le’me kiss ’em! Please le’me kiss your feet!” The pent-up bitterness of years, tainted every word and syllable he spoke. And then, for a full minute perhaps, standing there on a sidewalk of the slum he lived in, Billy went on with this quietly hysterical parody of himself, […] and never before in my life had I heard such ugly, bitter, and vicious contempt in a voice, contempt for the people taken in by his daily antics, but even more for himself, the man who supplied the servility they bought from him.

Listening in on the alien conversation, Miles notes the similarity to his memory of Billy:

Now he said, “How’s business, Miles? Kill many today?” – and for the first time in years I heard in another voice the shocking mockery I had heard in Billy’s, and the short hairs of my neck actually stirred and prickled. “Bagged the limit,” Uncle Ira went on, repeating my reply to him of a week before, ages before, out on the front lawn of his home, and his voice parodied mine with the pitiless sarcasm of one child taunting another.

Finney also clarifies a point left vague in the film versions: Can the alien duplicates reproduce sexually? The answer: no. The horrifying implication is that, after they have duplicated every living thing on Earth, they will live out their five-year life spans, die of old age, and their seeds will move on to the next planet, living a dead world behind.
If the book has a failing, it lies in the happy ending, which oversells the resiliency and endurance of the human race with all the melodramatic hyperbole of a bad movie melodrama. Finney lays it on thick, even quoting Winston Churchill’s famous wartime speech:

We shall fight them in the fields, and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender. True then for one people, it was true always for the whole human race, and now I felt that nothing in the whole vast universe could ever defeat us.

Fortunately, Finney compensates with a marvelously poetic closing passage that recounts the gradual return to normal of life in Mill Valley, while the alien duplicates (left behind when the pods returned to outer space) slowly die off, replaced by normal human beings.

Drive across Golden Gate Bridge into Marin County today, make your way to Mill Valley, and you’ll simply see a town, in a few places a little shabbier and run-down than it quite ought to be, but – not startlingly so. The people, some of them, around the bookstore plaza, for example, may seem to you strange, listless, weird. You’ll see more houses empty and for sale than can quite be accounted for; the death rate here is rather higher than the county average, and sometimes it’s hard to know just what to write down on a death certificate.

As a statement about individuals resisting the pressures of conformity, INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS does not have the intellectual heft and political undertones of Eugene Ionesco’s play RHINOCERUS (in which the inhabitants of a small French town gradually mutate into the titular pachyderm, symbolizing French collaboration with the Nazi regime during the WWII occupation), but it stands as a great pop-art variation on the theme, raising interesting questions: What does it mean to be human? What is the nature of identity? What is the value of emotion, ambition, excitement? How do does each of us balance a need to conform to our society with the need to retain an individual personality?
Finney does not overtly answer the questions; he simply allows the aliens to make their case for the superiority of an emotionless existence and relies on Miles to channel the reader’s knee-jerk negative response. Thus, in the best tradition of genre story-telling, the science-fiction premise stands in for more mundane concerns (the depersonalization of modern society), and the reader is left to sort out the answers for himself. Even if Finney was not trying to make a profound statement (beyond praising the joys of being human), the story is inherently open to interesting interpretations. Perhaps that is why Hollywood keeps coming back to it.
NOTE: The novel was originally published under the shorter title The Body Snatchers. Subsequent editions were re-titled to match the 1956 film version.

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