The Short Story that Inspired “They Live”

“They Live” is a movie remembered for its aliens living among us, a line about bubblegum and kicking ass, and a five-and-a-half minute fight between the two main characters over the issue of putting on a pair of sunglasses. Also noteworthy was the creepy social commentary, conveyed through the subliminal messages the aliens had plastered everywhere and only realized when wearing special glasses. The film also enjoyed the brilliant casting of wrestler Roddy Piper and Keith David as two nobodies who get caught up in the floundering resistance against the invaders.

The movie was based on a brief but effective short story written by Ray Nelson titled “Eight O’Clock in the Morning.” The story is a quick read. It’s also a good example of spare language serving a narrative. The revealed aliens appear to the main character as green with reptilian flesh. They have multiple yellow eyes. Much of the rest is left to our imagination. More interesting is their motivation, which I won’t spoil here. Like the Carpenter film, the aliens want us compliant. The subliminal messages command humanity to work, reproduce, and obey.

they live street signs

The story gets to the action right away. George Nada discovers the truth about the aliens through an accident and can’t ignore what he’s now seeing. Soon the aliens realize he’s seeing past their disguises and are out to get him, proclaiming upon Nada a death sentence which is what the title of the story refers to. The tone is creepy, reminding me of some of the best Outer Limits or Twilight Zone episodes.

they live based on eight o clock in the morning

This is a case where the adaptation brings much to the table without taking anything away from the source. The story could be described as bare bones and lacking detail. Any work of fiction that leaves the reader wanting more is a success on some level, and “Eight O’Clock in the Morning” leaves you happy there’s a competent and fun film that takes the world Ray Nelson presents and expands upon it.

they live ray nelson

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