The novel “The Body Snatchers” by Jack Finney was published for the first time in 1955. It’s the expanded version of a novella published in 1954 as a serial in the magazine “Collier Magazine”. In 1978 it was published in a revised version titled “Invasion of the Body Snatchers”.
Miles Bennell is a physician who works in Santa Mira (in the 1978 version it’s Mill Valley), a small town in California. One day, Becky Driscoll, an old flame, comes to him and tells him the strange story of his cousin Wilma, who suddenly became convinced that her uncle Ira has been replaced by an impostor.
Miles knows both Wilma and Ira and when he goes visit them he has no reason to think that the man’s not the real Ira. However, other cases occur in the city of people who believe a family member has been replaced by an impostor. When a couple of friends of Miles, Jack Belicec and his wife Tehodora, find in their basement a strange body without fingerprints, it’s clear that something real and frightening is happening.
“The Body Snatchers” is a novel whose fame was amplified by the movie “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” (1956), a classic of science fiction cinema. The story was interpreted as anti-communist but both Jack Finney and director Don Siegel always denied that there was a political meaning. What is certain is that the story is really well suited to the Cold War climate of those years in which the risk of infiltration of Soviet spies led to paranoia.
“The Body Snatchers” is a story of invasion out of the ordinary because it’s being pursued not with weapons in a direct fight but subtly, secretly, trying to gradually replace humans with aliens apparently identical to them. The invaders are more similar to plants and grow from giant pods creating doppelgangers of the people they want to replace.
“The Body Snatchers” is told in first person as an account of what happened written by the protagonist Miles Bennell. Being a doctor, some inhabitants of the town where he works turn to him when someone says that a relative has been replaced by an impostor, thinking they have a mental problem.
Even Miles thinks about a psychological cause but at some point he discovers that in Santa Mira there are alien creatures that are replacing humans. At that point, for him and the other protagonists an escalation of paranoia starts because they realize that anyone could be an alien and they don’t know who they can trust.
When Miles and his friends discover an alien who is forming, they try to get in touch with some authority outside their town but they’re not believed, then their contacts with the outside world are cut increasing their paranoia.
Today it may seem absurd that a city, however small, can be isolated so easily but in the ’50s the telephone line was the only means of distance communication for ordinary people. Therefore, taking control of the telephone system meant to control who could communicate with the outside.
Page after page, the tension grows as the protagonists look more and more closely at the familiar faces of people trying to catch anything wrong in their words to understand if they’re aliens. However, after all this build-up, honestly the end is rather anticlimatic.
Another flaw of “The Body Snatchers”, typical of the era in which it was written, is that women tend to become hysterical. Instead, a problem present in stories of every age and genre is that the protagonists in some moments seem very smart and in others they act stupid, depending on how the author wants to develop the story.
For example, to convince someone of the existence of the doppelgangers it would be helpful to take pictures of them, especially in details such as their hands without fingerprints, then heading for the city where there’s the nearest army or FBI office. However, none of the protagonists think about it.
Despite these flaws, “The Body Snatchers” is a good novel but undoubtedly it owes part of its fame to the first movie that was adapted from it, where the end is more ambiguous. Over the years, four movies have been produced more or less loosely based on the novel: after “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” in 1956, there were in fact “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” in 1978, “Body Snatchers” in 1993 and “The Invasion” in 2007.
It’s difficult to separate the reputation of the novel from the one of the first movie so I recommend them both. In my opinion the other movies aren’t at the same level but if after watching the first one you’re curious it might be interesting to watch them as well.