Reading the Screen: Alien Invasions Can Be Contagious

So Steven Soderbergh is making a movie out of one of my favorite recent alien-invasion novels, Scott Sigler’s Contagious (2009). The novel is a B-movie-style horror-thriller, and, with his knack for strong visuals and equally strong characters, Soderbergh sounds like a good choice.

The mother of all alien-invasion stories, H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds (1898), first appeared as a serial in Pearson’s Magazine, April-December, 1897. Hard to believe this month marks the story’s 113th birthday.

In case you’re not familiar with the plot, here’s the ten-cent version: 200px-the_war_of_the_worlds_first_editionMartian invaders riding around in massive metal tripods come pretty close to wiping out all of humanity before being felled “by the humblest things that God, in his wisdom, has put upon this earth” — bacteria. (You can read the full text of the novel online here.) The book’s been made into a couple of movies.

The 1953 movie, directed by Byron Haskin, updates the story to the 1950s, replaces Wells’ tripods with smallish, sleek ships (a cheaper and easier special effect), and replaces Wells’ characters with new ones, but keeps a key element of the novel: the near-claustrophobic feeling of impending doom. The movie is not what you might call a faithful adaptation, but it’s considered a classic science fiction film, and deservedly so.

Steven Spielberg’s 2005 version also updates the story and characters (although, now that we have CGI, he gives us back Wells’ tripods, which are just as scary as Wells makes them sound). Some critics unfairly dumped on the movie’s storyline — Tom Cruise risking his life to protect the lives of his son and daughter — but ignored the bigger picture: Spielberg, no surprise here, gives us a genuinely frightening portrayal of the invaders’ relentless extermination of mankind.

There’s also Orson Welles’ famous 1938 radio broadcast:

And Jeff Wayne’s 1978 musical version, narrated by Richard Burton: 

And the 1988-1990 television series (a sort-of-sequel to the ’53 movie):


Like The War of the Worlds, Jack Finney’s 1955 novel The Body Snatchers body-snatchers1is a masterpiece of the alien-invasion genre. Extraterrestrial spoors come to Earth and begin replacing people with exact duplicates. Some reviews criticized the book’s lack of scientific accuracy, and the (admittedly baffling) behavior of some of its characters. But those critics missed what was important about the book: its sense of creeping paranoia, and its portrayal of a community in which nobody can feel safe in trusting anybody else. (You can read what appears to be the original three-part Collier’s serial, November- December 1954, at this Finney tribute site.)

The book’s been made into a handful of movies, the first of which, 1956’s The Invasion of the Body Snatchers, directed by Don Siegel, sticks fairly closely to the novel. Kevin McCarthy is excellent as Dr. Miles Bennell, the unfortunate guy who figures out something is going on with the citizens of Santa Mira, CA. The famous scene near the end of the movie — you know the one: McCarthy standing in the middle of the road, screaming at the cars, telling the drivers they’re next — stays in your head long after the rest of the movie fades out. Like the novel, the movie is very much a product of its time: they both came out during the height of McCarthyism (not Kevin, Senator Joe), when the “Red Menace” had everyone looking crosswise at everybody else.

Here’s the trailer:


In 1978 Philip Kaufman made another Invasion of the Body Snatchers, this one starring Donald Sutherland. It changes the characters slightly, but retains the novel’s who-can-you-trust storyline. Like the original movie, it ends on a depressing note — Sutherland pointing his finger at us and making that horrible, alien sound — and it’s nice to see Mr Spock himself, Leonard Nimoy, as a slightly creepy psychologist.

Abel Ferrara reverts to Finney’s title, The Body Snatchers, for his 1993 adaptation. He keeps the basic plot, but goes a bit farther afield with his characters, setting the movie in and around a military base. Of the three films, this one is perhaps the most psychologically intense (if you don’t believe me, maybe you’ll believe Roger Ebert). Finney’s novel really gets inside your head — he’s a vastly underrated novelist — and so does this movie. It’s not as well known as the other two, but you should definitely check it out.

About the fourth adaptation, 2007’s The Invasion, the less said the better. So I won’t say anything about it. Except this: the next time somebody makes Finney’s great novel into a movie — and there will certainly be a next time — maybe they should show a little respect for the source material.



About the Author:

David Pitt lives in Halifax, Nova Scotia. In addition to reviewing for Booklist, he writes a monthly column about paperback fiction and nonfiction for the Winnipeg Free Press. He has contributed to The Booklist Reader since 2010.

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