Originally serialised in three parts in Colliers magazine in late 1954, author Jack Finney’s sci-fi horror The Body Snatchers has proven to be one of the most adaptable literary properties. It’s been filmed no fewer than four times, with moviemakers continually reworking this paranoid classic to reflect the fears of the times in which it’s made, from Cold War anxiety and the threat of communism to issues of conformity, dehumanisation, AIDS and political corruption.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)

Released barely a year after Finney’s novel was first published, Don Siegel’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers is set in the fictional Californian town of Santa Mira, where local doc Miles Bennell (Kevin McCarthy) returns from a medical conference to find his patients claiming their loved ones aren’t their loved ones. 

His former beau, Becky Driscoll (Dana Wynter), is also back on the scene after a recent divorce. But any hope that Miles might have of rekindling their romance is soon scuppered as the neighbourly folk of Santa Mira are systematically replicated and replaced while they sleep by perfect physical duplicates grown from plant-like pods, who are indistinguishable from real people except for their lack of emotion. 

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)

At a time when cinematic aliens were mostly schlocky monsters or atomic mutations, Finney’s threat was more realistic and more insidious. These invaders looked like us, sounded like us, and had a seemingly reasonable modus operandi – “Love, desire, ambition, faith, without them, life’s so simple,” insists Miles’s psychiatrist pal Dr Kaufman after he’s been taken over — advocating a new world order, free of pain and suffering. 

Test audiences found the original ending – a hysterical Miles running into traffic, trying to warn passing drivers of the impending threat, screaming: “They’re here already! You’re next! You’re next… You’re next…!!” – so distressing that producer Walter Wagner insisted Siegel bookend the movie with a framing device that showed Miles briefing the authorities, theoretically providing a more hopeful denouement than the bleak one he and screenwriter Daniel Mainwaring intended.

Despite the post-production tinkering, Invasion of the Body Snatchers proved a modest box-office hit, but the film’s impact has been longer lasting. Siegel’s cult classic left an indelible mark on the culture at large, introducing the term ‘pod people’ into popular use, a name given to mindless, soulless, non-thinking zombies or those who, according to the dictionary, “behave in a strange, mechanical way, as if not fully human”. 

Politically, the film found itself in the unusual position of being co-opted by both the left and right. Released at the height of the red menace scare and Senator Joe McCarthy’s communist witch-hunts, Finney’s story of dehumanisation and its attack on conformity, as personified by the pods who take you over, robbing you of your individuality for the good of the whole, was read as anti-communism and anti-McCarthyism, as well as a rebuke on Eisenhower-era conformity. 

Siegel disputed any political subtext, claiming he had simply wanted to make a scary, entertaining picture. (Finney, who worked in advertising, helping pitch happiness to the masses, quit his day job after the success of Body Snatchers to write full-time.)

The 1956 version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers is released on BFI Blu-ray on 25 October 2021.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)

Twenty-two years later, Philip Kaufman reimaged Finney’s novel for a new generation of cinemagoers, relocating the story to the big city, emphasising the end of the flower power and the dawn of the Me Generation. “We’ve taken some of the things expressed about the original film – that modern life is turning people into unfeeling, conforming pods who resist getting involved with each other on any level – and put them directly into the script,” explained Kaufman at the time. 

His Invasion of the Body Snatchers, scripted by W.D. Richter, starred Donald Sutherland as San Francisco health inspector Matthew Bennell, Brooke Adams as his work colleague and unrequited love interest Elizabeth Driscoll, Leonard Nimoy as celebrity shrink and self-help guru David Kibner, Jeff Goldblum as failed poet Jack Bellicec, and Veronica Cartwright as his wife Nancy.

Opening with images of the alien seeds drifting through space before landing on Earth, spawning first flowers then pods, Kaufman’s film took the characters and situations from Finney’s book and ramped up the body horror, paranoia levels and conspiracy-theory angle, as well as telling part of the story from the pods’ point of view. 

With knowing cameos from Kevin McCarthy, still warning of the impending invasion, and Don Siegel as a taxi driver, Invasion ’78 uses Michael Chapman’s noir-inspired cinematography – deep shadows, distorted wide and Dutch angles – to unsettling effect, adding to the sense of dislocation, mistrust and dread. The film’s final image, of a duplicated Bennell emitting a shrill, alien scream to alert the other pod people to a real human in their midst, remains terrifying to this day.

Body Snatchers (1993)

Body Snatchers (1993)

It was Larry Cohen, writer-director of The Stuff (1985), who had the idea of relocating Finney’s story to an Alabama army base for this third adaptation, in which Environmental Protection agent Steve Malone (Terry Kinney) is dispatched to test the effects of the military’s actions on the surrounding ecological system. “That seemed to make good dramatic sense,” said Cohen. “Because military people are very similar in their behaviour and look, so, in a way, they are already pod people to begin with.” 

After Cohen left the project, his script went through several hands, among them Re-Animator’s Stuart Gordon who was due to direct but was forced to bow out for scheduling reasons, to be replaced by Abel Ferrara (Bad Lieutenant).

Less known than its two predecessors but arguably scarier, Ferrara’s criminally underrated take diverges the most from Finney’s source, with Malone’s rebellious teenage daughter Marti (Gabriel Anwar) taking the lead rather than the usual medical professional. Moreover, Ferrara fuses the usual pod play onto a believable family drama and reintroduces the character of a young boy – in this case Marti’s half-brother – who insists his mother, played by Meg Tilly, isn’t his mother, as well as incorporating two ideas lifted from Kaufman and Richter, namely the rubbish trucks that dispose of the human “remains” and the pod’s unearthly scream to warn of a human threat.

The Invasion (2007)

The Invasion (2007)

Set against the backdrop of the Gulf war, with Nicole Kidman as psychiatrist Carol Bennell and Daniel Craig as her scientist friend/love interest Ben Driscoll battling an alien invasion in Washington, Downfall director Oliver Hirschbiegel’s adaptation began as the most overtly political. “I wrote a script that took the ambiguous allegory of the original book and tried to apply it to living inside the Bush administration, post 9/11,” recalled screenwriter David Kajganich. 

The script had initially started out as a straight remake, before morphing into something altogether different as Kajganich dispensed with the idea of the pods entirely. Here the alien spores arrive on the Space Shuttle that explodes upon re-entry, showering infected debris across the US, resulting in a flu-like plague that spreads via liquid into the blood system, taking over a person’s DNA when they’re asleep. (Veronica Cartwright returns in a nice piece of stunt casting as the first of Kidman’s patients to claim her husband isn’t her husband.)

Predating Coronavirus by a decade-and-a-half, The Invasion’s flu – and the hastily created vaccine that returns infected people to their previous human condition – looks remarkably prescient given the last 18 months. But this remains the weakest of the four adaptations to date, a consequence of the studio changing creative tack during production, initially roping in the Wachowskis to rewrite Kajganich’s ambiguous conclusion, before drafting in V for Vendetta director James McTeigue more than a year after filming wrapped to oversee 17 days’ worth of reshoots. Needless car crashes and action were added, and an incongruous happy ending was slapped on.

Given Hollywood’s current propensity to remake and reboot its entire back catalogue, it won’t be too long before we see yet another Invasion on our screens, with The Conjuring 2’s David Leslie Johnson the latest to attempt to bring Finney’s cautionary tale to life.