Monday, June 27, 2005


Influenced more by the movie versions than the novel, generations have seen Well's '>The Invisible Man as an entertaining acting out of a cherished fantasy. But some readers and critics see the novel as a dark fable akin to Stevenson's '>Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and Oscar Wilde's '>The Picture of Dorian Gray---the story of a scientist who sells his soul for the power to act without responsibility, and a portrait of a kind of terrorism.

Wells was writing with vivid images, but also with literary and social consciousness. There is as much in this novel that is pertinent to class systems and struggles as in The Time Machine, and even more specific to terrorism than in The War of the Worlds. This scientist is a violent revolutionary who sets off on a self-described reign of terror. There are cautionary echoes here not only of violent revolutionaries but of the arrogance of scientists too sure of their rightness. Though they might be right about the middle class mediocrity, they are not as insightful when analyzing themselves, and their motives and breadth of understanding.

There's even an air of absurdism in this novel, especially since the Invisible Man turns out to be pretty hapless at fomenting revolution, or doing much of anything right. Most of the other characters don't fare much better.

But once again, these subtleties get lost pretty easily in translation. The additional problem is that invisibility is so inviting. The protagonist of Wells' novel is not supposed to be any more admirable than Dr. Frankenstein, but that's not as much fun: audiences want to identify with the invisible man. They want to be Harry Potter with the invisibility cloak, getting even, having fun and solving the mystery.

There is menace in some of the more than 30 movie versions and variations---the translated titles of two Japanese films (Invisible Man-Dr. Eros, and Invisible Man-Rape!) suggest their nature. Comics from Abbott and Costello to Chevy Chase have exploited comic possibilities.

But the first and most famous version is the '>1933 black and white film with Claude Rains. To illustrate how deeply he is identified with this role, this true story: on a movie set I was visiting, technicians had finished setting up the lighting and getting everything else set for a shot. Everyone was standing around, focused on a couch, where this scene would be. Only the actor (Susan Sarandon, actually) was missing. It got quiet and for some reason everyone was thinking the same thing, until finally one of the crew members said, " We're ready for you, Mr. Rains."

But this film had a lot more going for it---principally the director, James Whale, who created the classics, "'>Frankenstein" and "Bride of Frankenstein." The plot is different, the subtext about the misuse of science is muffled, but at least the Invisible Man is not a hero. This may be the best screen version of a Wells novel, which Wells himself saw and apparently liked.

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