Wednesday, 3 November 2010

‘The Body Snatchers’ – Jack Finney (Gollancz)

I don’t read an awful lot of science fiction, so I’m at a bit of a disadvantage before I even get going really, but I still find myself looking at the list of ‘SF Masterworks’ books and wondering what’s so special about some of them. What’s so great about them that merit inclusion on such a list? When I read H.G. Wells’ ‘Food of the Gods’ last month, I couldn’t help thinking that the list compilers were just trading on Wells’ name rather than the book itself...

Jack Finney’s ‘The Body Snatchers’ though... I’d never read the book, until now, but I knew it had to have a decent claim to ‘Masterwork’ status purely because of the two movies that came off the back of it. I’d have a hard time choosing between the 1956 edition of ‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers’ and its 1978 remake; I have a sneaking feeling that the remake just edges it but they are both classic sci-fi material and there’s no denying it.
The questions I had though were around how Jack Finney’s original work matches up to the films. Did the films improve on the book or are they diluted versions of the original? And having finally read ‘The Body Snatchers’, does it deserve ‘SF Masterwork’ status? My answers to these two questions were ‘I think so’ and ‘a resounding yes’...

There’s something going on in the sleepy town of Santa Mira although you wouldn’t think it at first glance. People are getting on with their lives and going about their business as they did the day before and will do the day after. Or are they? Dr. Miles Bennell is getting an increasing number of visits from patients who are sure that family members and friends have been replaced by imposters. A suspected wave of mass hysteria becomes something far more sinister when a friend of Bennell’s shows him something that can only lead to one possible conclusion. There are aliens hidden amongst the townsfolk of Santa Mira and their numbers are growing...

I’ve heard that the original ‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers’ film was a commentary on the anti-Communist McCarthy era in 1950s America so would assume that the same can be said about the source text. Not knowing an awful lot about that era I’m loath to make the same comparison so read ‘The Body Snatchers’ on the basis of what it ultimately is; a tale of infiltration, possession and paranoia in small town America.

In this regard ‘The Body Snatchers’ easily achieves ‘Masterwork’ status as far as I’m concerned with a smooth flowing tale that effortlessly builds up the fear and tension way past the point where you would expect the climax (along with an alien life form whose approach is well conceived and thought out). Finney makes it all too clear that knowing the cause of a problem is far removed from actually being able to solve it. Bennell and his friends may have worked out what’s going on but they still have to live in a town where it’s impossible to trust your neighbours and friends. How can you when you don’t know if they are human or alien? And even if you can tell the difference, just what are you going to be able to do about it when there’s no way out of town and the phone lines have been cut?

Finney doesn’t appear to do much with this scenario, keeping things simple and telling them just the way they are. This simplicity somehow adds to the urgency of the plot, it’s almost like there’s no time for flowery language with what’s at stake! The urgency is also highlighted by the seemingly idyllic surroundings that the story plays out against. How can something so horrifying be happening somewhere so tranquil? And if something like this could happen in Santa Mira, where else could it happen? Finney invites us to wonder whether this could happen in our street, an invitation that I found very easy to take up. You know it couldn’t really happen but as Bennell himself says, ‘once in a while, the orderly, immutable sequences of time itself are inexplicably shifted and altered’. Strange stuff does happen and Finney’s greatest gift to his readers is to leave them with the sense that there just might be a little more to his story than meets the eye. You may well find yourself paying a little closer attention to the people around you after finishing ‘The Body Snatchers’...

The only real issue that I had with the book was the way in which Finney concluded Bennell’s dealings with the pod people and the decision that the aliens made based on that. Finney had gone to great lengths to portray the alien life form as plant based and with no other real urge than survival through usurping the local flora and fauna. There was a real mindless ‘matter of fact’ behaviour to its progress that appealed to me through its incompatibility with humanity and then Finney went and turned it all on its by having the pod people react to Bennell’s ultimate attempt to repel them. Maybe the pod people took on more of humanity than they realised but it still felt like it went against all that Finney had been building. The two films did better with the subject matter, in this respect, by making it all about humanity’s ability to deal with this threat.
Having said that though, I loved one particular part of the story’s ultimate conclusion; I don’t want to give it away but it was a great bit of window dressing to bring the curtain down on.

That one small flaw aside, ‘The Body Snatchers’ is a book that well and truly deserves to sit on the ‘SF Masterwork’ list. It’s a great concept that is delivered superbly (for the most part). If you enjoyed the films then you really need to go back and see where it all began...

Nine and a Half out of Ten

2 comments:

yllektra (force-oblique) said...

Is this the book on which the movies were based?
I loved the Abel Ferrara version (at least I think it was directed by him) with Gabrielle Anwar! <3

Esther said...

I spent most of my life hearing about these fms and never seeing then I managed to watch both the 1978 remake and the 2007 reimagining in one week. Both were excellent.
I didn't realised they were based on a book. Know I will have to read it.