The recent adaptation of H. G. Wells’ The Invisible Man has proven an unexpected treat. Brought to vivid life by the horror maestros at Blumhouse, this latest screen version of the seminal novel differs vastly from previous iterations from the story, allowing it to inject some new life into one of Universal Studios’ most impressive and long-lasting monsters.
Leigh Whannell’s adaptation is a superb exercise in slow, subtle horror. The film tells of Cecelia, an abused woman who recently escaped her husband, famed scientist Adrian Griffin. She prepares to move on after his apparent death but soon becomes convinced that her ex is not only still alive, but has achieved invisibility. It’s a unique and unsettling story, but it differs significantly from Wells’ original novel and the screen adaptations that preceded it.
The Original Book
In the original book, Griffin was a selfish megalomaniac who wanted to unlock the secret of invisibility out of a lust for power. His research yields many casualties, even driving his own father to suicide. After achieving invisibility, Griffin embarks on a mad killing spree, terrorizing England as the authorities are helpless to stop him. Griffin is eventually defeated, but his notes are indecipherable to those who seek to follow his research. Wells’ novel was among the most influential science fiction books of its time, paving the way for numerous screen and TV adaptations in the years to follow.
All subsequent film adaptations featured Griffin or characters based on Griffin as the lead character, though most attempted to make him more sympathetic than in the book. In the 1933 adaptation, Jack Griffin, played superbly by Claude Rains, is the titular character. Unlike his book Jack is a devoted scientist who wants to better humanity. His killing spree is explained as due to a side effect of the drugs he’d used to craft his invisibility serum. This idea of a likable character being driven insane became a staple of subsequent adaptations, from parodies like Abbott and Costello Meet The Invisible Man, to the 1999 adaptation of the Wells novel.
Perhaps the closest adaptation of the Wells novel apart from the original is the 1999 film, Hollow Man. The plot is largely the same, with Sebastian Caine (Kevin Bacon) rendering himself invisible with a serum. Growing to enjoy the freedoms granted him by invisibility, Caine begins to kill off his colleagues in order to keep his secret. Like the 1933 film, Caine is portrayed as likable and even charismatic before his transformation. Where it departs is the question of his redemption. While Jack Griffin expressed remorse, Caine takes sadistic glee in hurting people, even going so far as raping a neighbor while invisible.
Other films based on the Wells novel deviate significantly from the source material. Some, like John Carpenter’s Memoirs of an Invisible Man, are comedies. Some, like the SyFy TV series turn the character into a super hero. Others like The Invisible Woman took a lighthearted approach and changed Griffin’s gender. The variations are extreme, but they all share one common thread. The invisible character is the star, so the story tries to let us know where they are at all times. This latest film may be the first to see the genius of this idea. We don’t have to know where the character is. Not knowing is what makes the idea scary.
While previous films tried to develop the invisible character’s personality, this latest film attempts to dehumanize him as much as possible. Even prior to his invisibility, Adrian Griffin is rarely shown up close, and unlike Jack Griffin or Sebastian Caine, has very little dialogue. Even before we can’t see him, the character is more of a blunt, cruel force than a person. This approach makes this invisible man more like John Carpenter’s Michael Myers. He’s silent, sadistic, and deadly. There is nothing about this invisible man for us to latch onto, which causes us to empathize not with them, but his victim.
In not giving the character any personality, it makes the spaces he occupies empty yet malevolent. Adrian hardly speaks, so it’s easier to hide him. He rarely interacts with the world around him, so he may be present for an entire scene and we don’t know. As the film progresses, open rooms and doorways make us uncomfortable. Eventually, we are looking over our shoulders the same as Cecelia.
The new film begins and ends with Cecelia, played superbly by Elisabeth Moss. The science behind Adrian’s transformation takes a backseat to the impact it has on his victim. The film is a powerful parable on abusive relationships, with the titular villain slowly breaking down and isolating Cecelia from family, friends, and career opportunities. Her increased isolation and paranoia are shared with the audience, so when Adrian’s torment finally turns physical, we are genuinely afraid. Simply put, this new adaptation isn’t about him. It’s about her.
While Wells’ original novel told of a madman’s countrywide killing spree, this film tells a deeply personal story of a battered wife’s attempts to escape her husband. On the surface, it’s very different, but this version of Griffin may be the closest yet to Wells’ original character. Adrian Griffin is a uniquely talented man who squanders his gifts on power and revenge, exactly as in the book. Both Griffins are geniuses and both use their brilliance in all the wrong ways. The key difference is one of focus. This is Cecelia’s movie, and in her, the film has crafted a memorable heroine.
This new adaptation is among the most unique of any screen version of Wells’ book, but that’s precisely why it’s one of the best, or perhaps THE best screen version to date. In focusing less on the title character and more on the victim, the film turns a premise long viewed as silly into one of the most genuinely effective horror films in recent times. Universal had previously attempted to resurrect their classic monsters with a failed reboot of The Mummy. If future attempts are less like The Mummy and more like The Invisible Man, we may be in for a treat.
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