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Invasion of the Body Snatchers writer: A modern version would have to address social media

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Jun 7, 2018, 5:30 PM EDT

A city beset on all sides by the near constant panics of modern society becomes vulnerable to an outside force that threatens the very fabric of human civilization.

I could be describing almost any point in our history. I could be talking about right now, whether right now is the day this article is released or centuries from now if someone finds this article printed up in some very disappointing hall of records on the moon.

But what I'm actually talking about is the 1978 adaptation of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, a movie so ubiquitous, that you've almost certainly seen its ending in a meme even if you've never seen the actual movie itself.

Like a lot of stories that have permeated so completely into the cultural zeitgeist, it's easy to lose sight of the components that make Invasion of the Body Snatchers the success it was in the first place. Which is exactly why I talked with Body Snatchers writer, W.D. Richter — to find out what was worming through his mind as he typed pages furiously in San Francisco while production began.

And I asked him why this story is always relevant, but also how an adaptation would have to change for today. This is what he told me.

When this project came about, do you remember what was happening in the world at the time that might have influenced what you were writing and the way you were writing it?

W.D. RICHTER: Well, I looked it up. You know, so many things have just blurred together for me over the decades that I was fascinated by finding some of the facts that actually must have been knocking around in my head. I looked in 1976 and '77 because that's about when I was probably first presented with the opportunity and a few things popped out at me. Like the first legionnaire's disease was reported in 1976 or seven. And I remember that was such a mysterious thing. I mean it felt like it could get anybody, anywhere. And then you hear what was coming out of air conditioning units and you just felt there's a certain vulnerability that was in your head at that time.

All the President's Men was released as a movie. There was paranoia galore. And, then, just weird, spectacular science, things like Viking One Lander arrived on Mars. That was a big deal. I mean we put something on Mars that we can take pictures with. So, everything seemed in flux, I think. And then there was also a 24-hour blackout in New York City and just looting and disorder and all sorts of chaos and the fabric of society seemed to be very fragile if you lived in that time. And then amazing things like Star Wars opened and Elvis died. I can remember learning that Elvis died sitting with [Body Snatchers director] Phil Kaufman when we were working on a pretty radical revision of the script.

Everything seemed to be up in the air and a general sense of paranoia was out there. I always had felt, I think that there was just much going on under our noses that we never noticed.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)

Credit: MGM/UA

Even if you've never seen the film, you've probably seen 'the face' that Donald Sutherland makes, online or elsewhere. It's become a meme, which makes it very difficult have a person be surprised by the end anymore. Do you remember what it was like screening the film originally?

I saw it first in San Francisco and it was a very long cut of the film. I don't have a recollection of the specific reaction to the ending. I think it was dissatisfaction because the cut was too long. And people didn't want to be that unsettled. The good guys lost and, you know, that's not an easy thing for an American audience to accept.

It's great that you didn't have an alternate take on the ending, because otherwise the actual ending would never have been released. It's probably one of the best-remembered endings of any movie ever made.

If you defy expectations, you can expect people to be startled. But sometimes they won't embrace it. They'll flee it, and I think they did initially. But it's amazing how much stuff comes around and it becomes a meme. Well, there was no way to do that then either. So, it just wasn't as powerful. I think it was more disturbing on a, "they can't do this to us," level, you know, "we paid good money to see this movie, how can do this to us? These monsters!" But now, you know, I guess the world's gotten dark enough, where audiences just say, "Yep, you bet. That's where it's going."

If you were going to attempt to make a Body Snatchers movie now, would place would you come at it from?

For me, it's the sense of, "How long can this civilization go on if we don't keep our guard up or get it back or to take some kind of action." Things seem to be getting even more fragile than when I used to worry about the bomb. There's something else going on right now. And I think about it everyday and then I think I think about it too much and I should stop thinking about it. But if I were writing body snatchers, I'd probably be trapped.

It's the difference one big thing like the bomb and a handful of things happening all at once. On social media, there's literally no end to it. All you have to do is press a button and there's always going to be one more person saying another thing for you to panic about and question, "Is this true or not?"

Well, there's the key. The last thing you said, I mean, you just, you, the more I read, the more I think I'm missing some big article that's really telling me what's actually going on. But there's no reason I should believe anything. I mean, I don't disbelieve everything, but I've had my sense of trust in the printed word completely eroded because everybody's writing, everybody's got opinions, everybody's yelling at everybody else. And that's a very vulnerable society and Body Snatchers is about a vulnerable society. I don't know what the iteration would be today, but it would have to address that for sure if it's going to have any substance.