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The Invisible Man : Whannell Adaptation Makes HG Wells’ Monster-Hero a Monster-Villain

Credits: Universal Pictures

H. G. Wells’ 1897 The Invisible Man, the story of a reckless scientist who discovers the secret to invisibility, has been adapted so many times since its first 1933 adaptation, that the floating sunglasses and bandages are now iconic. Director Leigh Whannell (the Insidious series) who directed the latest adaptation, told Variety that his goal was to strip away the iconography around the character, and find “what would make it scary for a modern audience”.

The answer for Invisible Man lay in a perspective shift – from sociopath-scientist invisible man to sociopath-scientist invisible man’s wife.

Released in theatres this year in February, The Invisible Man stars Elisabeth Moss and Oliver Cohen-Jackson. Whannell, who retains the title of the book, has taken sweeping liberties with almost everything else. New plotlines make the story closer to a realistic thriller than a cautionary tale about scientific inventions.

In an interview with the Sydney Morning Herald, Whannel says, “The idea of an invisible man playing games with someone, torturing them, wrapped perfectly around the idea of a toxic relationship, somebody trying to escape from someone who was gaslighting them and emotionally abusing them. It was a good metaphor.”

 The Context

In the HG Wells novel, the main character is an optics scientist named Griffin, who turns himself invisible. After some disruptive behaviour, his landlady accuses him of being a thief and he reveals his invisibility and runs away. After a series of events, he becomes a criminal and commits murder. Eventually, an angry mob get together and kill him. As they beat him to death, he slowly regains his visibility and cries for mercy.

In the book, the whole story revolves around him.

In Leigh Whannell’s adaptation, however, the invisible man is the antagonist and the story is from the point-of-view of a woman named Cecilia Kass (Elisabeth Moss).

Cecilia is in an abusive relationship with an optics tech genius, Adrian Griffin (Oliver Cohen-Jackson). The film begins with her planning an elaborate escape that narrowly succeeds. Distraught and traumatised by the abuse that she has endured, she goes to live with her sister’s friend, a police officer, and his daughter.

Soon, she finds out that Adrian committed suicide and left her a hefty inheritance. Just when things seem to get better for her, Cecilia feels that somebody is stalking her and jeopardising her relationship with her friends and family. At the end, she is alienated from everyone and caught in a full-blown fight with an invisible entity. When she discovers Adrian’s invisible suit, her suspicions of his malicious intent are confirmed.

The Deviations

In the book Griffin’s invisibility gives him the power to bypass society and drives him to crime and anarchy. Here the same invisibility creates an atmosphere of horror. As a Guardian critic points out, the figure of the invisible tormentor allows the filmmaker to depict a very real fear for victims of abuse. The ex-husband, writes the critic, “paws through her room and touches her things; he strips the covers as she sleeps and photographs her without her knowledge. Waking up, she can sense something is wrong and yet, she has no idea how bad it is.”

Whannell, who conducted interviewed counsellors at LA domestic abuse shelters, says while physical abuse has been depicted on screen, “psychological abuse and being manipulated by someone is maybe harder to photograph.”

Whannell says the figure of the invisible man worked especially well to portray gaslighting. He says, “Somebody who is losing their mind because someone else was manipulating them. It just fits with the idea of the invisible man. If you think about the character as a metaphor- an unseen man that’s in your space- who can do anything he wants, can mess with you in these ways and you’re defenceless. That fit well with the idea of this woman being gaslit and manipulated to the point of madness.”

The character of the wife, Cecilia, is absent in Wells’ story. Here, Adrian creates this suit voluntarily and uses it to torment her. He is a genius, and unlike the Wells’ hero, isn’t anti-social. Instead, he is portrayed as a charming and good-looking man who is in reality a controlling and manipulative sociopath. He utilises the suit to get everyone out of the way so that Cecilia will come back to him.

Credits: Universal Pictures

How the invisible man is discovered marks another difference. In the book, Wells shows Griffin hiding his invisibility by wearing clothes and covering his face. He unveils his true self in a fit of rage, people recognise what is happening. In the movie, people simply do not believe Cecilia and instead, start to question her sanity. When Adrian begins to abuse and kill people, Celia is blamed for it, then taken to an asylum.

People only begin to believe her after she attacks Adrian and damages his suit.

A Major Change

Thus, the invisibility depicted in the film is really a metaphor for what victims of domestic abuse go through. Adrian is invisible and hence, no one believes Cecilia. Even as she spins out of control because of Adrian’s antics, everyone just shuts her out. He goes as far as tampering with her birth control pills in order to make sure that she does not leave him. The Invisible Man showcases horror not only through its jump scares but also through the trauma that abuse victims go through.

The book, on the other hand, revolved around an asocial man ability to gain power through science; power that is ultimately destructive. At the end, the invisible man’s death is also tragic, and the people around him see him as a victim of his circumstances. His invisibility had driven and controlled him. It was not something that he desired. This is not reflected in the movie, as Whannell makes sure that Adrian has no redeeming arc. When Cecilia kills him in the end, it can only be seen as triumphant.

Whannell’s explanation for this shift is simple. Speaking to the Sydney Movie Herald, he says the idea came from a small conversation, ‘These movies can be hard to write because if the monster is the hero then who’s the bad guy?’ And so I quite innocently said, ‘Well, of course he’s not the hero, he’s the bad guy.’

The Invisible Man thus successfully takes HG Well’s story and turns it into a thrilling and terrifying story that resonates with the modern audience.

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