Finney, Walter Braden (“Jack”)
Finney, Walter Braden (“Jack”)
(b. 2 October 1911 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin; d. 14 November 1995 in Greenbrae, California), writer known for his novel of travel into the past, Time and Again (1970), and for his novel The Body Snatchers (1954), which was adapted into film three times.
Finney was an intensely private, almost reclusive man. He never wrote any memoir pieces; he spoke in public only twice, one of those times to his goddaughter’s grade-school class, and he rarely gave interviews. Thus, little is known of his personal life, and his writing is largely left to speak for itself, perhaps as Finney intended. In one interview Finney stated that when he was two years old his father, whose name is unknown, died. Finney and his mother moved to live with his grandparents in Chicago. One on-line biography adds that his stepfather, Frank Berry, was a railroad and telephone worker, and his mother, a homemaker, was also skilled in sewing and woodworking. Another source reports that Finney “amended his name to Jack for writing purposes,” while the on-line biography states that he was born John Finney and called Jack but was legally renamed for his dead father.
After attending Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois, Finney lived in New York City and worked for an advertising agency sometime in the 1940s. He began writing his first works, suspenseful short stories, in 1946, and around that time he won an award from Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine for “The Widow’s Walk.” Soon he wrote stories for other magazines, including Collier’s, Saturday Evening Post, and McCall’s. Although his short stories often featured fantasy or science-fiction elements, he marketed them to these “slicks” instead of “pulps” such as Amazing Science-Fiction Stories.
Around 1950 Finney married Marguerite Guest, who was called “Marg” with a hard g. According to an interview, they met in Reno while each was divorcing a previous spouse, but no other source mentions another wife for Finney. Jack and Marg had two children. Sometime between 1947 and 1954 Finney and his family moved to Mill Valley, California, near Sausalito, where he lived for the rest of his life. Finney remained little known, even in his hometown. He avoided friendships with other writers, spending most of his time at home and later visiting his children and his one granddaughter. His marriage with Marg was obviously close and mutually supportive, although he never told her about his stories before they were finished. Finney was careful with money and investments. In early 1995 Don Congdon, his agent for four decades, called Finney “an agent’s dream” because he never asked for advances and always delivered a full manuscript for sale.
Doubleday published Five against the House, Finney’s first novel, in 1954. This story of college students who plan to rob a casino in Reno, Nevada, was made into a movie starring Kim Novak in 1955. Finney disliked the film. The author’s reputation rests largely on his next novel, The Body Snatchers, which was serialized in Collier’s in 1954. The novel was adapted for the screen in 1956, 1978, and 1993 as Invasion of the Body Snatchers. The earliest adaptation, directed by Don Siegel, is generally considered the best. Finney collaborated on that screenplay.
The Body Snatchers, depicting a small town in which pods from space replace the inhabitants with almost exact duplicates, has been interpreted as an allegory of the perils of communism, of McCarthy-style anticommunism, of consumer conformity, and of fringe-cult obedience. Finney insisted he had no allegory in mind, just a striking suspense story inspired by scientific thought that life may have originated in outer space. The novel’s happy ending appears in none of the film adaptations. Finney earned only $15,000 from all three films, $7,500 in the 1950s for selling all rights forever and $3,750 for each of the remakes due to a loophole in the copyright law. The setting of the novel, called Santa Mira in the first editions, was revealed as Mill Valley in later editions.
Finney’s one play, Telephone Roulette, was published in 1956. The novel Assault on a Queen, a thriller about a plot to burglarize the luxury ship Queen Elizabeth, and Good Neighbor Sam, a humorous novel based on Finney’s advertising experience, were published in 1959 and 1963, respectively. Both were made into movies in the 1960s.
Time travel, especially into the past, is a theme in much of Finney’s work, both novels and short stories. Many critics find this fiction escapist, too nostalgic, and sentimental. Finney argued that he did show the past as flawed, though overall it is presented as offering a cleaner, gentler way to live. Simon and Schuster published Finney’s second best known novel, Time and Again, in 1970. This book tells the story of a New York City advertising illustrator who travels back to the 1880s and falls in love. Its exceptional historical detail, including photographs, made the book a favorite even among readers who dislike fantasy fiction, and the novel garnered critical praise that was unusual for fantastic fiction. Urged by his agent, Finney wrote a somewhat less successful sequel, From Time to Time, published by Simon and Schuster in 1995. It was his last novel. In 1987 he won the World Fantasy Convention Life Achievement Award. He died of pneumonia in Marin General Hospital after a long, if little-publicized, career.
The impression of Finney that remains is of his books—well written, often ingenious, and emotionally effective whether thrilling or nostalgic—and the movies made from them. The Pod People of Body Snatchers have become cultural icons, like Frankenstein or Dracula, despite or perhaps because of their many possible interpretations. His time-travel stories, sometimes dismissed as overly sentimental, appeal to even hardheaded readers due to Finney’s precise detail and atmospheric power.
Despite copious interpretations of films based on Finney’s works, especially Invasion of the Body Snatchers, little has been written about his life. The New York Times Magazine (19 Mar. 1995) and the Washington Post (13 Feb. 1994) offer useful facts about and interpretations of Finney the man. Obituaries are in the New York Times, Washington Post, and Los Angeles Times (all 17 Nov. 1995).
Bernadette Lynn Bosky