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We’ve been talking about movie remakes. A remake is a copy, by and large, and more often than not, one that lacks the subtle, defining characteristics of the original. That is also the plot of one of the most remade films of all time, 1956’s Invasion Of The Body Snatchers.
In 1954, author Jack Finney serialized a story in Collier’s magazine called The Body Snatchers. It was slow-burn, tension-filled science fiction story set in the very real city of Mill Valley, CA. Mill Valley is the heart (and epitome) of Marin County, just over the Golden Gate Bridge north of San Francisco. The Body Snatchers is a story of deep-rooted paranoia, in which alien seed pods descend from outer space and begin replicating human beings with perfectly identical, emotionless, obedient copies. All one has to do is fall asleep, and the pods do the rest. And no, the originals never wake up.
It’s a compelling, brilliant story. In the novel, the aliens inform a human holdout that they only have a five-year lifespan. Once they have completely subsumed humanity, they get four or five good years and then Earth will be left a dead planet. When the human comments on the insanity of this, the alien makes the point that this is also, pretty much, exactly what human beings do. Destroy everyone and everything in their path to insure their survival. One man’s genocide is another man’s progress.
Finney’s novel has a happy ending, with the pods floating away to a different planet when confronted with humanity's fierce opposition. It's not that they don;t think they can win, it's just easier to find a different planet. At the time, it was likened to an allegory to America's fight against the faceless terror of communist infiltration. It was also likened to an allegory to America's struggle against the sickening paranoia of McCarthyism.
Such is the beauty of the story. You see in it what you need to see in it. That continues, as we will see.
The novel was quickly optioned by producer Walter Wanger (pronounced “Wainjer” - suuuure it is) and adapted by screenwriter Daniel Mainwaring. Wanger had a small budget, which was then slashed even further as production approached. Dealing with this stringent financial reality, Wanger had to pass on big names. He had considered Joseph Cotton for the film’s lead, but ended up with the excellent-but-not-nearly-as-famous Kevin McCarthy. Vera Miles was thought about for the second lead, but television actress Dana Wynter was much more budget friendly. Future Morticia Adams Carolyn Jones also played a major character.
The film was set in the fictional town of Santa Mira, CA. and shot in around Los Angeles and directed by the young Don Siegal, who would go on to collaborate with Clint Eastwood on Dirty Harry and many other films. The resulting movie, renamed Invasion Of The Body Snatchers, went on to become one of the seminal 1950’s sci-fi films. Its story of emotionless copies infiltrating American cities and towns fit perfectly into the hotbed of aspirational conformity and Communist paranoia that were the order of the day.
The original cut of the Invasion Of The Body Snatchers ended with the sleep-deprived and paranoid Kevin McCarthy running blindly through traffic screaming, “You’re next! You’re next!” A spot-on coda for the era's anxiety. The studio, however, was leery of so pessimistic a message and forced Siegal, very much against his will, to shoot a tacked-on prologue and epilogue, where McCarthy’s character is found, brought to a hospital and, once the doctors have realized that his bizarre story is true, spring into action and call… the FBI! What better organization to fight faceless conformity!
The critical reception to the film at the time of its release was … non-existent. According to A Case For Insomnia, George Turner’s essay on the film for American Cinematographer magazine, “Most mainstream critics pointedly ignored it…. Wanger made a personal plea to Bosley Crowther, the film pundit of The New York Times, to view the film, but the critic couldn’t be bothered."
As is so often the case, time has been kinder to the film. Its current Rotten Tomatoes rating is 98%. The Library Of Congress has placed it in the National Film Registry and the American Film Institute has named it one of the top ten science fiction films of all time. It’s main concept, people being replaced by identical yet nefarious replicas, has appeared in a myriad of other films, including It Came From Outer Space and I Married A Monster From Outer Space and The faculty. It is not in the original the Thing From Another World, but it is front and center in that film’s brilliant remake, John Carpenter’s The Thing. Additionally, in a case of identity is destiny, Invasion Of The Body Snatchers, the film about copies, has been remade three times. The brilliant 1978 Phillip Kaufman version starring Donald Sutherland, a 1993 version by Abel Ferrara and a 2007 version by Oliver Hirschbiegel starring Nicole Kidman and a pre-Bond Daniel Craig.
So what is it about this story that compels filmmakers to run at it again and again and again and again?