Tuesday, March 25, 2008

BOOK REVIEW: The Body Snatchers

In 1954, Dell published a science fiction novel entitled The Body Snatchers by Jack Finney. Finney's landmark work has been translated to film a whopping four times, in 1956, 1978, in 1993 and just last year, in 2007 (as The Invasion). Some of the terminology associated with the Invasion of the Body Snatchers franchise, including the descriptor "pod people" has landed in the pop culture firmament of our country and remained there for decades. We have seen variations of the paranoid tale in efforts such as The Stepford Wives (1975), and even on Buffy the Vampire Slayer ("Bad Eggs"). There have also been entire TV series titled The Invaders and Invasion which grapple with some of the same core concepts as Finney's story.

Considering the importance of this novel in genre film history, I thought it might be interesting to go back to the beginning and examine first Finney's novel, and then all four celluloid adaptations of the story. We can survey the whole franchise together, surveying the efforts for similarities, differences, and variations on a theme. In particular, I enjoy gazing at how the tale changes with the passage of time, reflecting the decade in which the particular film was made. So if you happen to be near a library, pick up a copy of Finney's novel so you can contribute to the discussion. I've also just queued the various cinematic versions of Invasion of the Body Snatchers at Netflix and urge you to do the same. This is always more fun if we do it together and have points in common to discuss. I won't start blogging the films till next week, so you can catch up with me, if so inclined, by acting now.

Finney's novel (which was first appeared serialized in Colliers Magazine) commences with this paragraph, and one might consider it a mission statement for the book, and also for the film adaptations :

"I warn you that what you're starting to read is full of loose ends and unanswered questions. It will not be neatly tied up at the end, everything resolved and satisfactorily explained. Not by me, it won't anyway. Because I can't say I really know exactly what happened, or why, or just how it began, how it ended, or if it has ended; and I've been right in the thick of it. Now if you don't like that kind of story, I'm sorry and you'd better not read it. All I can do is tell what I know."

After this disclaimer of sorts, Finney escorts us to the evening of October 28, 1976 in a small-town in southern California called Mill Valley. It's a Thursday around 5:00, and the book's main character, Dr. Miles Bennell continues to narrate the story in the first person. He's a young family practitioner, having inherited the local medical practice from his father, and is well-known and well-liked by the locals. Miles is an effective literary protagonist for Finney to deploy here because his style of narration is crisp and at times it feels as though we're actually reading doctors notes, narrated directly into a tape recorder. The voice is intelligent, the language smart, but there's nothing too flowery, too knowledgeable, too over-the-top or melodramatic to break the spell. And Miles never gets to see the whole picture...he just reports what he sees. A kind of literary Cloverfield, in a sense. We aren't privy to the big picture, only on how the events impact Miles and the town of Mill Valley.

In short order, the divorced 28-year old Miles is met at his office by his old flame, the recently divorced Becky Driscoll. She wants to talk business not pleasure, however. Her aunt, Wilma Lentz, has begun acting...strangely. She claims that her uncle Ira is not her Uncle Ira at all. Oh he looks like Uncle Ira, sounds like Uncle Ira, moves like Uncle Ira and has all of Uncle Ira's memories...but Wilma is sure -- just sure -- he is not the same man. Hot for Becky but also genuinely concerned for his patient, Miles goes to see Ms. Lentz and question her about this. "Miles, there is no difference you can actually see," asserts Wilma to the town doctor. She won't be moved from her position, and Miles attempts to talk some sense to her in what is the first of the novel's many comments on psychology and psychiatry, which in the 1950s were moving rapidly into the American mainstream.

"Now listen to me," says Miles..."I don't expect you to stop feeling emotionally that this isn't your uncle. But I do want you to realize that he's your uncle, no matter what you feel, and that the trouble is inside you. It's absolutely impossible for two people to look exactly alike, no matter what you've read in stories or seen in the movies. Even identical twins can always be told apart - always - by their intimates. No one could possibly impersonate your Uncle Ira for more than a moment without you, Becky or even me seeing a million little differences. Realize that, Wilma, think about it, and get it into your head, and you'll know the trouble is inside you. And then we'll be able to do something about it."

The preceding paragraph is critical to an informed reading of Finney's novel because it lays down the underlying subtext and dynamic of Finney's novel: the idea that psychology/psychiatry and rationality has in essence - by exploring the human mind - killed God, faith and belief and most significantly, imagination. Wilma Lentz just knows that her Uncle isn't the same man that he was, but she can't prove it, and there is no scientific rationale - no acceptable scientific rationale, for her beliefs. Therefore, she must be sick. Right? If you know the story of the Body Snatchers, you know that Uncle Ira is indeed not himself, but a "snatched man," a replicated man, an alien invader who duplicated Ira but who lacks the emotionality of mankind. This new being, one who looks and sounds like us, is the ultimate triumph of the rational age, the age of such sciences as psychology, one might assert. The aliens have not merely sublimated emotion (as Miles has asked Wilma Lentz to do), but have eliminated it from the gene pool.

Miles is torn between two competing belief systems in the book. On one hand is the intelligent, rational, steadfast psychology of his friend Mannie Kaufman, a local psychiatrist. Mannie suggests that Wilma and the others who begin to suspect that their loved ones are not their loved ones, are actually delusional. That the madness is all within their sick minds, not in reality. He lays out a convincing case that this strange belief is merely a "contagious neurosis." In compelling terms, he describes case histories of mob hysteria (including the Mattoon Maniac of Illinois...) to prove his point. You want to believe him, he makes the case so powerfully and so logically.

But the other voice in Miles' head, the voice that ultimately allows him to believe in the alien invasion, belongs to an imaginative writer named Jack Belicec. As a hobby, Jack collects newspaper clippings that involve inexplicable happenings around America. Like the time frogs fell from the sky in Edgeville Alabama. Or that story in Idaho, about a man who spontaneously combusted...but his clothes were unharmed. Jack is the opposite side of the human equation from Kaufman, the side that can conceive of things beyond science, beyond psychosis. There are more things in Heaven and Earth than are dreamed of in Kaufman's philosophy (or in the DSM IV), and Jack is the character who gives voice in the novel to that aspect of "us."

Ultimately, the novel serves a as a rejection of "cold" science and also as plea for humanity to hold fast to the sometimes strange beliefs he holds. From the valedictory passage in the book, as expressed by Miles:

"But...showers of small frogs, tiny fish and mysterious rains of pebbles sometimes fall from out of the skies. Here and there, with no possible explanation, men are burned to death inside their clothes. And once in a while, the orderly, immutable sequences of time itself are inexplicably shifted and altered. You read these occasional queer little stories, humorously-written, tongue-in-cheek, most of the time - or you hear vague distorted rumours of them. And this much I know. Some of them - some of them - are true."

Besides the battle between science and belief, Finney's The Body Snatchers
treads primarily on the idea of relationship "alienation" made literal. Those alienated from their families are actually dealing with alien life forms. That's pretty clever, actually. But if one gazes at the characters in the book, many are also coping with the fall-out of bad relationships. It can't be a coincidence that the two main characters - Becky and Miles - are both divorced. And that's the ultimate form of human alienation, isn't? You live with a person you love for years and years and then you wake up one day and suddenly don't feel the same way about that person anymore. Without warning, something has changed. Overnight, you "don't know" that other person anymore, that husband, that wife, that uncle, aunt, parent or child. Alienation of affection is what I'm talking about here, and it happens all the time in normal, mundane relationships. The alien invaders of Invasion of the Body Snatchers symbolize this strangeness in human interactions. I don't believe it a coincidence either that the changeover from human to alien comes like a thief in the night, during sleep. Alienation of affection can go on for months or years but when grappling with it, it seems to have come all at once. You don't recognize the person in bed beside you anymore. They feel like a stranger. They look like your mate; they have your mate's memories...but they feel like an interloper, a changeling.

What the aliens in Invasion of the Body Snatchers lack is the core of humanity and the human experience: emotions. They can pretend to have feelings and they can skillfully mimic emotions, but they don't feel anything at all. Without emotions, there is no excitement. Without excitement there is no ambition, no love. Without ambition, nobody writes books anymore...imagination vanishes. Kaufman - now an alien - will never finish the textbook about Psychiatry he began as a human being. That is the fate mankind is doomed to here in the novel if the aliens win; if we abandon the imaginative side of ourselves.

Late in The Body Snatchers, Miles confers with Kaufman as well as with a "converted" professor. They explain to Miles the end game of the aliens, beings who have arrived on Earth in giant seeds, pods for lack of a better word:

"What do you do and for what reason? Why do you breathe, eat, sleep, make love and reproduce your kind? Because it's your function, your reason for being. There's no other reason, and none needed...You look shocked, actually sick, and yet what has the human race done except spread over this planet till it swarms the globe several billion strong? What have you done with this very continent but expand till you fill it? And where are the buffalo who roamed the land before you? Gone. Where is the passenger pigeon who once literally darkened the skies of America in flocks of billions? The last one died in a Philadelphia zoo in 1913. Doctor, the function of life is to live if it can and no other motive can ever be allowed to interfere with that. There is no malice involved; did you hate the buffalo? We must continue because we must..."

You have to admit, there's a cold logic to the alien motive for their takeover of Earth, but the difference is that we still feel pity for the buffalo or the passenger pigeon. If we could change their fates, I submit we likely would. With cold science, there's no need for pity, no need for remorse, no need for compassion.

Some other interesting notations about the book and how it differs from the film versions. First, the ending. The climax of Finney's Body Snatchers is not inherently nihilistic, bleak, depressing or dark, as some have claimed over the years. In fact, at least two film versions feature abundantly darker endings than what is featured here. In the novel, the pods flee Earth when they realize how irrational human beings are (again, human emotions!), after Miles and Becky wage a hopeless war burning fields of the alien pods.

Secondly, the alien countenance: In this novel, the aliens are not easily detectable. They lack strong emotions, but as I wrote above, they have the capacity to mimic human emotions. It isn't so easy to spot them in the novel as it is in all the film versions.

Thirdly, Finney goes to great lengths to describe the science behind the "body snatching" procedure and why that procedure occurs during sleep. The explanation involves "tiny electrical force-lines that hold together the very atoms that constitute" human beings. These force-lines are in constant flux, constant change, but they change less, according to Finney, during sleep. And during sleep, that "pattern can be taken from you, absorbed like static electricity, from one body to another." Only the 2007 version of the material came this close to offering a scientific explanation for why the changeover occurs during sleep.

Also, Finney reveals what the future is for planet Earth should the aliens win: all organisms on the planet will die within five years and the the pods will seek another world to duplicate. The novel indicates that there was once life on Mars and even on our Moon, but that the pods duplicated - and then destroyed - all life there. Not one of the four films have picked up on this element, to my recollection. (I'll be watching them all soon - hopefully you will too -- so I may be wrong about this.)

With this information about the novel behind us, I hope you get the chance to read Finney's stand-out work and study some of these points, and find others of interest too. Let's see your comments below. I may have missed something important, but these are my initial thoughts about the novel after a quick reading. I'll update, perhaps, after I sleep on it...assuming I'm not a pod person by tomorrow morning.

1 comment:

  1. I just read this novel for the first time a few months ago, and I was fascinated by the ending. Not so much by the triumph of the humans, but by the surrender of the pods. After the aliens flee, Finney tells us that a few pod people are left behind in Santa Mira. In the following years, they slowly die out. This illuminates one of the many interesting ideas in the novel - the pods operate only as a group. They physically cannot operate as individuals. Although this doesn't seem to jive with Finney's concept of the aliens as "great adapters" (they can transform themselves into the slime at the bottom of a can of peaches, but they can't operate independently?) it does provide roots for the famous Body Snatchers political debate. One could make the argument that Finney's perspective in the novel is pro-capitalist, since one of the key indicators that something is "wrong" in Santa Mira is the fact that traveling salesmen can't make any money there. But I don't want to oversimplify a wonderfully complex myth... Finney's disclaimer about not knowing the whole story is his way of saying "We're only human after all." We can only understand things from our limited, individual perspective. Even moreso than the film adaptations, the source novel dismisses political agendas and focuses on a pervasive fear that our basic humanity is changing too fast.... We are "great adapters" too, but what will we become?

    I look forward to reading your thoughts on the films.