Jack Finney’s 1955 novel The Invasion of the Body Snatcher, first serialised in Colliers Magazine, has been adapted four times for cinema. The original remains the best, an independent production starring Kevin McCarthy and Dana Wynter (both of whom have died in the last couple of years). I read the novel recently and enjoyed it, only the unthinking sexism of the time dated the story. It was remade in 1979 and 1994, as well as the most recent version, suggesting that the narrative is able to dovetail nicely with the zeitgeist.
The original film version’s title suggests it’s an exploitation movie, where the outrageous premise of the narrative is used to titillate audiences. However, even though it deals with alien seeds taking over humans, its tone is sober and clearly meant to be about the ‘threat’ of communism. It uses the trope of the time that under communism everyone is the ‘same’ (actually, everyone is ‘equal’) and individuals become soulless vessels. The original ending had Dr Miles Bennell (McCarthy) screaming ineffectually, in the midst of traffic, that ‘you’ll be next’ as no one believed him about the invasion. The financiers were frightened by the unresolved climax and foisted a framing device to offer audiences the traditional happy end. The director, Don Siegel, stated later that the ‘pod people’ were producers.
It’s a mix of horror and SF with some Expressionist mise en scene, particularly in the scene where the protagonists discover the pods. It’s ‘hard’ SF, that is to say that it deals with what it means to be human; most effectively in the climactic kiss between Bennell and Becky Driscoll (Wynter).
The most recent remake was a major flop: it cost $80m and taking only $15m in North America. I’m not sure why, starring Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig it rattles along at a satisfying pace and, by switching the protagonists’ genders, clearly updates the premise. In addition, we are more aware of the dangers of viruses now, so the 1950s ‘Red scare’ is replaced by tapping into fears about contagious viruses that will, almost certainly, create a disastrous pandemic in the near future.
Another change is that Dr Bennell is a parent (mother) and so much of the narrative is driven by her desire to protect her child. Is it ‘unmanly’ for a man to do the same? I suspect if Craig had been the lead then protecting Kidman would have been sufficient. However, an action film were a female protects the male love interest has yet to be made. As far as I am aware, all the iconic female action heroes (Ripley, Connor, Croft) remain manless at the films’ conclusions. Women may feel this is a good thing, only men require women, but there is surely room for one romantic coupling where the woman is the dominant?
Despite Bennell’s undoubted dynamism in avoiding capture, she shows plenty of skill with both cars and guns, I wasn’t entirely convinced we were watching a female ‘hero’ who was entirely proficient. Why, for instance, does she on two occasions throw away guns? Even with scriptwriters who are obviously trying to offer a strong female action lead it seems necessary to add a dose of ineptitude.
Kidman’s Bennell is a giant step forward from Wynter’s Driscoll, as you would expect given the 50 years between the films. Driscoll does help her ‘man’ once, and has to remind him that she is capable of action, but soon undoes the good work by displaying emotion (a sure sign of being human) when a dog(!) is threatened. She is also at home in the kitchen and unquestioningly prepares breakfast.
There is a sex scene in the 1956 version. One passionate kiss, when they think they are doomed, is followed by a fade out; the fade in is on a close up of cigarettes the following morning. The Production Code allowed no representation of sex, but it was important to include it as it is fundamental to being human; the subject of the film. The other version under consideration has no sex; is that because Kidman is playing a mother and mother’s aren’t deemed to be sexual? In the one scene that sex could happen, Bennell says she ‘can’t do it’, as it seems her relationship with Driscoll is new and she’s not ready. Surely if they had had sex at the point the scene later when the two are in conflict with each other would have had more poignancy.
The newer version does offer the possibility that humanity would be better off being ‘pod people’ as that would mean the end of war. Unfortunately they also insist that difference be eliminated so Bennell’s immune son would have to be disposed of. So not a good option after all.
Despite its reactionary politics, Invasion of the Body Snatchers is one of my favourite films. It’s easy to ignore the framing narrative and McCarthy’s performance as the complacent small town doctor is good. The Invasion can’t match it but has some interesting devices to drive the narrative; for example, on at least a couple of occasions brief flash-forwards are interpolated a few times into a discussion about what the characters are going to do next. While the original focuses on the micro scale, the big budget means they go large and there are some chilling scenes of the city, Baltimore, being filled with soulless beings.