'Body Snatchers' Argues Resistance Isn't Futile
First of all, I'm a thriller writer.
I don't write mysteries. I don't write books with lawyers in them. I write novels meant to get the adrenaline flowing and the pages turning, where the pacing is staccato, the hero is bigger than life, and yes, that bomb is indeed ticking downward.
So what's wrong with me? Where did I go wrong?
I blame my mother. It's all her fault.
She got me reading. Not by shotgun, nor by the dire threat of her meatloaf, but by mere example. She read, so I read. In the '70s, Bantam Books had begun reprinting the old dime-store adventure novels of the '30s and '40s. As a teenager, I couldn't get enough of them.
So it was inevitable that one day I found a copy of Jack Finney's Invasion of the Body Snatchers in my hands. I was in high school, and I had just returned from seeing the 1978 remake of the original black-and-white film. I vaguely remembered Don Siegel's original masterpiece — with the haunting last scene of a raving Dr. Miles Bennell running through the streets wailing, "You're next!" But as an avid reader of all things pulp, I wanted to examine the source material upon which these two movies were based.
So I found a battered reprint of the 1955 novel in a secondhand store. I read it in one long sitting, baking under a window as the sun moved across the sky. It was a simple story: Aliens invade a small town, replacing its inhabitants with perfect simulacrums, the so-called Pod People.
Now keep in mind, I had just watched the movie. I knew the gist of the storyline, but the horror of the book reached deeper. It wasn't flickering on the screen, rushed through from opening frame to end credits. It was the first time I had ever read a book after seeing the movie.
And it was a revelation.
The book actually was better than the movie.
Since that summer, I've returned again and again to this novel. First as a reader, then as a writer. I grew to recognize the layers of paranoia folded into this slim volume, how it reflected the paranoia of Jack Finney's own time. Between 1950 and 1954, the witch-hunts of Joe McCarthy were in full swing, stoking rabid suspicion across America. Who could be trusted? Who among us hid behind false faces?
Three months ago, I picked up the novel again. The book had just been chosen as one of the 100 Must-Read Thrillers of All Time. Furthermore, another remake — this one titled simply The Invasion — was coming to the silver screen, this time starring Nicole Kidman.
So as I read the book yet again, I was struck by something new. All of the prior movies had ended on the same pessimistic note: "You're next!" But not the book.
In the last sequence, Dr. Bennell has a chance to escape, but instead he remains behind to burn a field of alien seed pods. This last act of defiance has an unexpected result. The pods abandon their invasion, rising away, forsaking the planet and its stubborn inhabitants. In that one act, Finney offers one thing absent from all of the movies: hope.
Finney has the audacity to suggest that it takes only one person to stand up against an overwhelming tide, whether it's against the invasion of Pod People, the witch-hunts of Joe McCarthy — or the slow dismantling of our civil liberties today.
It takes only one person. It was an important message then, and it's just as important now.
I just hope Nicole Kidman is listening.
You Must Read This is produced and edited by Ellen Silva.
Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.