Thursday, August 23, 2007

The Body Snatchers

True confession time. One of my favorite all-time movies is Invasion of the Body Snatchers. The original one. The ‘70s one is okay and it’s interesting to see Mr. Spock doing something other than raise his eyebrows, but it’s not nearly as good as the original. Kevin McCarthy does an awesome job of bringing Miles Bennell to life as a pretty savvy guy stumbling across a mysterious epidemic in his small town. And folks, Dana Wynter blows away Brooke Adams in sheer star power. When I find something related to the movie, I’m usually pretty intrigued. Imagine my delight when I found a first edition paperback of the novel that inspired the movie, The Body Snatchers by Jack Finney.

The man who ran the booth where I found the novel was pretty excited that I was buying the book, asking me if I was familiar with the novel (I’ll pretend his excitement did not stem from the fact I was paying $40 for a paperback book). When I told him I loved the movie but had been looking off and on for the novel for a long time, he warned me that once I started it, I wouldn’t be able to put it down. And while that wasn’t entirely true, it wasn’t far from wrong either.

The first thing I noted as I read was how closely the novel hewed to the original movie (or perhaps the hewing ran in the other direction). But the second and more important observation was that Jack Finney is a hell of a fine writer. Using a first-person narrative, Finney is able to drag the reader directly into the emotional state of Miles Bennell, at first curious and then slowly overcome with dread at what he is discovering in the pastoral community of Santa Mira. Bennell also has an internal conflict that provides a stark counterpoint to his initial decisiveness: he finds himself falling in love with Becky Driscoll, but being recently divorced thinks he is damaged goods and perhaps unable to really love her as she deserves, fearing the emotional repercussions of another divorce before he’s even gotten together with her. During the course of the novel, his responses to these issues end up switching with one another, so that at the book’s crisis he is more confident of his relationship with Becky—perhaps because he comes to find that she is the only thing he is able to count on as the people in Santa Mira are replaced—and he becomes more and more resigned that he is going to fail at saving Santa Mira from the alien invasion.

Writing in first person is a prop in some ways; unless the writer is particularly bad, it’s hard not to feel something of the mental state of the narrator. Finney uses the tool well, but his strengths go beyond such facile writing. While his style is conversational and smooth, he spends a great deal of time carefully crafting his sentences and paragraphs for the most emotional impact. And his descriptive passages are tremendously powerful, homey and yet evocative at the same time. Finney’s style adds a dimension to the book that is missing from any adaptation of it that I have seen—The Body Snatchers is much more than just a thriller; it is a story of loss and its effects.

The most powerful passages of The Body Snatchers are the ones where Bennell wanders through his town, the images of its current state—dusty windows, dirty streets, empty businesses—conflicting with his happy memories of a vibrant town. It doesn’t really matter to these passages why Santa Mira has reached this state; the town could be dying because of loss of industry or any other reason that towns die off. What stands out is Bennell’s genuine sorrow which is expressed in how and what he describes rather than any explicit statement of emotion. Not only do we see the town in its current state of disrepair, we also see its potential and its history, generically but enthusiastically described with all the fondness of a lifetime resident.

And ultimately this leads to what the book is about. The first movie has long had a reputation as a “red scare” movie, as much for its plot as for its potentially terrifying ending: “They’re after all of us! Our wives…our children…they’re here already! You’re next!” The book could be taken in the same light, but that would require some twisting of the words. The real focus of The Body Snatchers is the loss, through whatever means, of the things that make us human. It’s not only the emotions that the aliens lack, it is the relationships that bind them into a network of humanity. And Bennell’s place in Santa Mira is predicated on those relationships. He recognizes people by their face and can recite their history and personality. He genuinely likes the town and its people, often expressing fondness over their peccadilloes and quirks. But even if Bennell is not replaced by an alien, what kind of life can he have when all those connections are severed from the other end? Everything he knows, the very foundation of his existence as Miles Bennell, will be removed just as surely as if his place was taken by an unfeeling vegetable life form.

Finney’s novel does go into more detail about the pods and where they are from, and, more importantly, why they do what they do. The story is told by one of he “pod people” so, of course it has a little bias to it, but Bennell quickly sniffs that out and gets to the true core of their existence. They merely do what they do to survive, independent of the species they might destroy along the way. Embedded here is an accidental sideways glance at the ecological problems our world currently faces, made especially poignant as the alien reminds Bennell about all the species man has destroyed to claim his place in the world.

An unexpected treat is that, despite how closely the book and the first movie are bound, the book ends in a method entirely different from the open-ended conclusion of the movie. The book’s conclusion seems a little artificial and may be the weakest part. But taking a step back to appreciate the source of the story, originally a serial in Collier’s and for a far less cynical audience, it makes a lot of sense.

All told, The Body Snatchers is truly a thriller that is difficult to put down and that calls seductively to be picked up whenever it is not in the reader’s hands. It may be difficult to find but it is a book that true lovers of speculative fiction need to have in their library. And a regular viewing of the original movie isn’t uncalled for too.

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