‘Invasion of the Bodysnatchers’: From Communist Hysteria in 1957 To A Zombie Hybrid in 2019.
“Nothing is so painful to the human mind as a great and sudden change.”
― Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, Frankenstein
The cinematic history of the adaptations of Jack Finney’s novel ‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers’ gives us a real insight into the anxieties pervading the society at the time in which it was turned into a movie and also shows us how a deflection of those anxieties can be achieved by reworking the original source material into something that we would define as a cultural hybrid.
Don Siegel made the first screen adaptation in 1957 when America and Russia had been in a Cold War for 10 years. The euphemism is itself as far removed and distant from the actual reality of the situation, as you can get. World War Three would have been hotter than any of the conceptions of Judeo-Christian hell you care to think of. However the idea of a ‘Cold War’ is a perfect description of the actual attempted takeover of the Earth by the alien spores.
The alien simulacra have no emotions whatsoever. They are cold. Whereas we humans are blistering hot in our emotional response to the Invasion and the replacement of all human life by our doppelgangers. The literary history of doppelgangers warns us already, that when we meet an image of ourselves, it portends death and in the Invasion that is exactly the outcome.
In the next brilliant and faithful iteration by Philip Kaufman the events of the Invasion are moved up significantly in threat level by the transfer to a bigger urban centre, San Francisco circa 1978, post-Watergate and Vietnam. A country still in shock and still suffering from a deeply wounded national psyche. A country examining its soul. Into this scene of confusion arrive the spores from Outer Space. People start to report that their closest loved ones are ‘‘not themselves’’. They look exactly like them but are behaving different. The same but different. A classic example of ‘Das Unheimliche’ as discussed by Freud in his essay of 1919.
Our hero does the only sensible thing in America in 1978 and takes his colleague to see his famous friend who is a psychoanalyst and a celebrity. Obviously. He has written books on psychic self-help that have made him famous. In the first film adaptation it was Communist hysteria infiltrating the whole narrative and in this adaptation it is another hysteria pervading society but this time created not by a creeping external ideology entering the body politic but by an internal, self-created, weakening of the body politic through a complete lack of confidence in the American Dream and a corresponding deep questioning of purpose both individual and national.
To cut a great story short our psychoanalyst knows the truth and it has nothing to do with Freud. He is an alien. His advice, to take two of these sleeping tablets and get a good night's sleep. Perfect. As of course it is during REM sleep that the alien pods grow their allotted doppelganger. The ending to Kaufman’s film is bleak, as the twist ending reveals, that our hero, has become an alien. This reveal is one of the most disturbing moments in film history. In 1957 we are left with our hero, still our hero, who has (in an added beginning and end) escaped and managed to warn the Authorities that ‘‘they are here’’ whilst in 1978 the hero has been defeated by the invading forces and America is set to fall as its power is now impotent against such threats.
Next in 1993 is Abel Ferrara’s adaptation ‘Body Snatchers’ set on an American military base. American military might is back. However, the cost seems to be the irresponsible use of toxic materials in sustaining that powerful position as the alien pods seem to have grown in a body of water contaminated with leaking toxic material from the base. It is a worthy and even prophetic connection to make. But of course it does deviate drastically from the very important source material. Change is necessary to make it resonate with a new generation, but if the source material is that good I don’t think I would ‘mess’ with it too much.
The film by setting the Invasion inside a military base does fully close the circle on the idea of those in Authority being the most likely target for the first wave of the invasion. It is hinted at tangentially in 1957 and pushed more in 1978 but it is fully realised in this adaptation. Trust in Authority has now crept into the narrative of the Invasion trope. Can we trust those in power to safeguard our security or are they, themselves, a threat to our very existence? This question applies both before the Invasion, during, and after. The film itself answers that question with the total annihilation of the convoys heading out across America by helicopter gunships. It is a scene reminiscent of many a war film situated in Vietnam. There is no mercy shown. Maybe that’s right, as the doppelgangers have no mercy for the humans on the base.
The threat to humanity which is expressed best, by both the earlier films, is that we will, by being replaced, lose our individuality and everything that makes us human. The alien simulacrum have no sympathy for this or understanding as to why this should make us fight to the death as they are without any emotion. They answer with logic and pragmatism. Become one of us and the world will be as one, unified and united. No war, no anxiety, no conflict, but of course no love, no hate, no art, no music. This is the argument pushed most strongly in the last adaptation just called ‘Invasion’ by Oliver Hirschbiegel in 2007.
However, once again there is a huge deviation from the source material. It is a virus now and it is transmitted from person to person by vomit. No doubt an attempt to latch on to the wave of popularity for Zombie films already out and those in production. Our hero is now female and she is a recently divorced mum, whose child seems to be immune from this alien virus. It is now the very people who are in charge of preventing an epidemic in America (CDC) who are first infected. Those who should be responsible for stopping the spread of this epidemic are the ones actively facilitating its spread. They are even inoculating people against the virus with the very virus itself. For me this is a narrative step too far as it brings into question the essential importance of vaccinations in the fight to eradicate disease.
The Communist threat and concomitant hysteria is entirely absent in 2007 although there is a connection to the psychic hysteria of 1978 with the heroines profession as a psychiatrist. Worryingly though and very much on the money for its time is her proscribing an increased amount of drugs for the lady patient (played by the actress from the 1978 film) who is convinced her husband is not her husband. A female doctor gives her more drugs to calm her hysteria? What century are we in again? Didn’t she read ‘The Madwoman In The Attic’ when she was at college?
Once again the film ends on a positive note as the American military are at hand to save her life and more importantly the cure that is in her son. Although maybe the boy will be sucked dry for the cure and his withered husk also thrown in the garbage truck later when nobody is watching. All in all the film barely touches on paranoia or hysteria. Just the one scene on the underground train tries to tap into the now familiar Invasion trope. It is surprising given the fact that many sci-fi films of the period were truly haunted by 9/11. The obvious trope of the homegrown terrorist who looks like us, but is not like us, doesn’t even get hinted at. This I find odd. It is almost as if the film is in denial and is deliberately keeping clear of a very pressing issue.
This year another version, ‘Assimilate’ was released. I have watched it. I was very curious to see how it would use the source material and if it touched on any issues of paranoia or hysteria in our world today. I can without reservation say that it is bloody awful. But here is what takes place.
The scene of the Invasion has reverted back to a small town as it was in the original but this time the protagonists are teenagers with high tech cameras recording their town for a realtime show on the internet. In this adaptation gone are the pods and in their place is a creature which looked to me like a spider that bites the intended victim who then is replaced by their doppelganger.
It is a film that contains many scenes reminiscent of ‘Night of the Living Dead’ and it is another example of the Invasion/Zombie hybrid that seems to have replaced the original story. The only original idea is at the end when our young survivors witness on TV that the major cities of the world have already been taken over and they are the last remaining human survivors. Although one wonders who is taking the pictures.
The film touches on none of the hysteria tropes connected with the Invasion trope but it does however deal with the typical generic issues facing young adults in these type of coming of age American movies, how to lose ones virginity and/or creating a nuclear family to keep normative American society running along nicely and provide plenty of fodder for alien pods, spiders and Zombies.
The two lads are quintessential geeks until they stumble upon the Invasion scenario. This will be their coming of age test. Although even the Invasion trope isn’t that strong as there is little dialogue or any real meaningful monologues which explain what the creature is up to. The two geeks team up with our female protagonist who likes one of the geeks. But of course two’s company and three is most definitely a crowd in normative society. The offer made by the mature lady to take both the boys into her bedroom is momentarily considered but then declined with decent normative embarrassment.
However, later in the film one of the boys must sacrifice himself for his friends. By doing so he facilitates the pairing of a couple who find themselves at the end of the film as a nuclear family (with her little brother who has somehow survived a hundred Zombies) albeit perhaps the very last nuclear family in human history. Hysteria? Gone. Forever.