It is no secret that Hollywood is the Ouroboros, the snake that consumes itself, endlessly remaking and reinventing, hoping to create itself anew so the audience doesn’t realise that what they are consuming is the same as was offered yesterday and yesteryear. While Sherlock Holmes and Dracula are the most adapted literary characters it is rarer for a science fiction novel to receive the same continued attention, yet Jack Finney’s The Body Snatchers, serialised in 1954 and published as a novel in 1955, has now been filmed four times, first by Don Siegel in 1956 as Invasion of the Body Snatchers then again by Philip Kaufman in 1978 under the same title. Abel Ferrara chose to return to the original title of the book for his version, released in 1994, while in 2007 Oliver Hirschbiegel chose the simplicity of The Invasion for his poorly received version which endured a troubled shoot.
Though produced with no special effects other than the physical props that represented the alien invaders on a budget of less than half a million dollars, Siegel’s version gathered a reputation over the intervening years as one of the key science fiction films of the golden age, cautionary without becoming hysterical, alarming without being alarmist, its story of the inhabitants of the small Californian town of Santa Mira being replaced by alien duplicates as a prelude to invasion preying on the fears of an audience conditioned to be wary of “reds under the beds,” of dehumanisation and loss of individuality in a booming economy where the price of that success was automation and production lines and a workforce reduced to corporate drones.
Faithful to the first half of Finney’s novel, though deviating substantially in the later chapters and most particularly the denouement, Miles Bennell is the doctor who becomes aware that many of his patients are experiencing agitation over the belief that their closest friends and relatives are not the people they appear to be; investigating with his close friend, the writer Jack Bellicec, and Becky Driscoll, his high school sweetheart, recently returned to Santa Mira, they discover that enormous vegetable seed pods are spewing forth fibrous husks which mutate into the form of the nearest sleeping individual, copying their bodies and their memories.
With fifteen years of experience on stage, screen and television, Kevin McCarthy was a leading man who brought warmth, wisdom and believability to Miles, a crucial factor as he had to persuade not only the police but through them the viewers of the truth of what he had witnessed. Opposite him, Golden Globe winner Dana Wynter was beautiful divorcee Becky, a more substantial role than the typical “scream queen” of the era, intelligent and independent while fighting both her fear and the consuming fatigue which will leave her open to substitution.
Unlike many films of the era, the conclusion was not one of victory; America, a land accustomed to superiority, was shown to be susceptible to infiltration, a silent corruption spreading from within, that those who try to raise the alarm will be called dissidents, a danger to themselves and others. “They’re here!” Miles shouts as he runs through traffic. “You’re next!” Concerned about audience reaction to the downbeat ending, a brief framing sequence was shot at the behest of the studio, offering the hope that the invasion might not yet be too far advanced to be averted.
Now recognised as a leading director and adaptor of novels – The White Dawn, The Wanderers, The Right Stuff, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Rising Sun – in the mid-seventies Philip Kaufman’s was struggling with critical acclaim but little commercial success, his sacking from The Outlaw Josey Wales following disagreements with star Clint Eastwood, who then assumed the role, not helping his career.
His version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers is often described as a remake, but despite retaining the title it is in fact an entirely different adaptation, W D Richter’s script departing greatly from Jack Finney’s source novel, though some key original aspects of Daniel Mainwaring’s script were preserved into this second version, most notably the omission of the peaceful settlement which concludes the book.
Recently released in a remastered Blu-ray edition with extensive supporting material, the most significant change is the relocation of the action from sleepy Santa Mira to the bustle of San Francisco, a major city of the American West Coast noted for its inclusiveness and celebration of individuality. The choice is an apt one for the story and marks a major change in the tone, but there is no doubt that location filming using in Chinatown and near the Transamerica Pyramid adds an honesty and immediacy which adds to the uneasy mood of the film.
Having received Golden Globe and BAFTA nominations for his performances in M*A*S*H and Don’t Look Now, Donald Sutherland was already a screen icon prior to his casting as public health inspector Matthew Bennell, and here the characteristic intensity of his performance is tempered by an atypical warmth, even playfulness, particularly in his scenes with Brooke Adams as his co-worker Elizabeth Driscoll, superseding the more chaste attraction of Miles and Becky in the original.
A key change is that while both McCarthy as Doctor Miles Bennell and Sutherland and Matthew Bennell both had a grounding in science, Wynter’s Becky Driscoll was very much a passive partner in the plot of the Siegel version, whereas her counterpart in Kaufman’s version works alongside Matthew in the San Francisco health department, allowing the plot to become more driven.
Rounding out the cast were a host of names friendly to genre; as Jack Bellicec, still a writer, but not nearly so successful, it was a prominent role for Jeff Goldblum, later to star in The Fly, Earth Girls Are Easy and Jurassic Park, while his wife Nancy (Theodora in the original) was played by Veronica Cartwright, soon to be made famous in Alien and later working on The Witches of Eastwick and The X Files but with a career which stretched back to 1963 when she worked for Alfred Hitchcock on The Birds. Both Goldblum and Cartwright would work with Kaufman again on The Right Stuff.
Most interesting is the expanded role of the
psychiatrist, ironically named Kauffman in the original film but here renamed Doctor David Kibble, played by Leonard Nimoy, an actor who had resisted both science fiction and film, preferring to concentrate on his stage career in order to avoid association with his iconic performance on Star Trek, and while his character retains the intelligence and insight of Mr Spock, here he is a voice of reasoned humanity, questioning the belief of his friends who claim “People are changing, becoming less human,” suggesting an alternative reason for the distance: “We’re leaping in and out of relationships too fast, we don’t want to deal with our motives.”
Even though Matthew suggests to Elizabeth at one point that the reason her boyfriend has gone cold on her is that he may have gone gay (and San Francisco is the place for it, the Bellicecs apparently running the only straight sauna in the city), to make it as simplistic as an allegory for modern love would be to undermine the film, for the seventies were a complicated decade of disillusionment and distrust in authority, liberation and emancipation, and it is Elizabeth who voices it: “I keep seeing these people all recognising each other. Something was passing between them all, some secret. It’s a conspiracy, I know it.”
While the first half of the Siegel version is an almost slavish adaptation of the source material, Richter’s script updated and expanded the ideas for the current time, significantly also drawing on the template of Bryan Forbes’ 1975 film version of Ira Levin’s 1972 novel The Stepford Wives, a horror largely set in daylight, also focusing on the loss of individuality, fighting against the demand to conform, with Nancy expressing the environmental fears of that decade: “Why not a space flower? Why do we always expect a metal ship? We eat junk, we breathe junk.”
With references to Olaf Stapledon’s Star Maker and Immanuel Velikovsky’s Worlds in Collision, crazy philosophies and alternative lifestyles are in, with only Erich von Däniken’s outlandish views absent, though the key belief is one popularised by Sir Fred Hoyle and Chandra Wickramasinghe in the early seventies, though the book cites an earlier source, Lord Kelvin, and the term panspermia was taken perhaps a little too directly by the production team in the opening titles.
With the unambiguously extra-terrestrial element established immediately in this version, the later discussion of the origin of the pods is reinstated from Finney, having been largely absent in 1956: “We came from a dying world. We drift through the universe from planet to planet, pushed on by the solar winds. We adapt and we survive. The function of life is survival.”
While the budgetary limitations are apparent in the approach to Earth, library photographs of the blue planet rather than a more dramatic matte painting and aerial shots of San Francisco, the dispersal of the spores is depicted in detail, the first showcase of the excellent props and makeup department, as they move into the water supply, spreading the infection as the soundtrack becomes more discordant.
Equally effective is the recreation of the scene from the original when Miles and Becky try to pass as unemotional pod people and it is her reaction to a dog almost killed in traffic which gives them away; for Matthew and Elizabeth, the scene is given a modern twist in that it is most certainly not a dog which causes her to react, though it does reflect Finney’s text, where the pods would subsume and replicate any matter they fell upon.
The creativity is matched by the cinematography, the long easy shots which were the hallmark of the cinema of that decade contrasting with Dutch angles which add to the oddity, a pervasive feeling of wrongness building to an increasingly desperate and disorienting montage as Matthew tries to spread the word and is stonewalled, the ubiquity and anonymity of the replacements demonstrated in a scene where the survivors are pursued by a group unseen save for their shoes hitting the pavement.
It is interesting that while the original Jack Finney story is full of vibrant sunsets and flames, a key difference between the adaptations is of course colour, not only in that Siegel’s version was filmed in harsh black and white but also that Santa Mira was apparently white only, whereas in the big integrated city, all ethnicities are represented, and all can be targeted for replacement.
In fact, the monochrome Siegel version, whether deliberately or not, channels Finney’s writing, where the only character specifically described as black is the shoe shine man Bennell recalls when he is convinced a character has been replaced and is trying to deceive him, an unfortunate stereotyping which reflects badly on both the character and the author who was concerned with what he perceived as the decay of small town America, a theme which he reprises in his 1970 time travel novel Time and Again.
Fortunately, Kaufman is more emancipated and sophisticated, the film littered with characters seen through mirrors, often distorted as at Kibble’s book launch, or through the broken windscreen of Bennell’s car in one of the most surprising and effective direct links between his and Siegel’s film, a cameo appearance by Kevin McCarthy.
Possibly reprising his role of Miles Bennell, still trying to raise the alarm moments before being struck by a car and killed, this is sold not only by McCarthy’s performance but by Sutherland, his exclamation when McCarthy is knocked down offscreen a genuine gasp of shock and concern, unsettling in its honesty, the act of a human, not a character, certainly not the hero of a movie.
Though he has since appeared in The Puppet Masters, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and An American Haunting, this was Sutherland’s first genuine genre role, and certainly he is the heart of the film, his relaxed performance of the opening scenes becoming troubled and increasingly desperate, never more wrenching than the moment he witnesses the death of a template for a pod replacement, everything inside them sucked dry, undeniably a disturbing and effective special effect despite its simplicity but once again it is Sutherland’s horrified reaction which makes it real.
The presence of McCarthy also allows the possibility that rather than being a sequel, Kaufman’s film can be interpreted as a sequel to Siegel’s original, though like George Romero’s Dead films, each is seen as an immediate sequel to earlier events regardless of the passage of time between productions, these events taking place only days or weeks after Santa Mira was overwhelmed, dramatic licence allowing specia
l dispensation to ignore the twenty two intervening years.
Certainly Siegel took no issue with another director’s intention to revisit his work, as Kaufman himself explains in the accompanying archive documentary Re-visitors from Outer Space, telling how he went to discuss his ideas with Siegel who introduced him to McCarthy and told him how they originally intended the film to end differently from what was released. Siegel himself appears in the film as the taxi driver whom
Matthew and Elizabeth ask to take them to the airport; in the same piece cinematographer Michael Chapman recalls that Sutherland and Adams weren’t required to act as Siegel, who could barely see, removed his spectacles when he was driving and their fear was quite genuine.
Other contributors include Sutherland himself, commenting on the experience that that “it was a pleasure to do it” and that he “loved working with Veronica and Brooke, Leonard was terrific, Jeff was good” and recalling a test screening of “laugher and screams,” much to the concern of the studio.
Nimoy is also singled out for praise by both Kaufman for his “soothing voice, the last person you would think would become a pod,” and Cartwright, who states that “Leonard was terrific, he was a lot of fun,” and recalling the shooting of the final scene of the film, where she and Sutherland were given different instructions on how the scene would play, her shocked and uncomprehending reaction echoed by audiences who were accustomed to the plot of the original.
Also recognised are Ben Burtt, the sound engineer best known for Star Wars, who here manipulated the cries of pigs to make the hideous alien sound that heralds the destruction of any of the pod people in The Man Behind the Scream, while the Chapman camerawork and the art of creating an alien landscape with no budget are the focus of The Invasion will be Televised and Practical Magic.
New features for this edition include a discussion between Kim Newman, Ben Wheatley and Norman Warren in Discussing the Pod, with Newman pointing out that between Invasion of the Body Snatchers, John Carpenter’s The Thing and David Cronenberg’s The Fly, for a while there was an optimism that as Hollywood remade all of fifties science fiction it might all have been as good as those examples, Writing the Pod, discussing Jack Finney and the original novel The Body Snatchers, and Dissecting the Pod, a conversation with Kaufman’s biographer Annette Insdorf.
While Siegel did not make an optimistic film, it offered at least a glimmer of hope; Kaufman does no such thing, with an iconic final shot which is still as chilling as it was unexpected when first screened to an audience who had grown up with the cosy familiarity of the original, a wordless inhuman scream which forever removes any possibility of there being a happy ending.
That change which exemplifies why in a genre which endlessly consumes itself and is regurgitated upon the silver screen, Philip Kaufman’s version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers is regarded as one of the finest examples: like the pod people itself, it may be superficially the same, but what is within is a different creature with a different origin and a different intent, and it does not play safely for the best interest of all. Instead it is dangerous intruder masquerading as something familiar.