Reviews of The Invisible Man (1897) and related work

The Invisible Man (1897Text)

H. G. Wells (writer).

Read in 2022.

In the winter, an irascible man conducts chemical experiments at a West Sussex inn, while keeping his entire body covered up.

This is good science fiction, dressing up stories like “What Was It? A Mystery” (1859) in an extra layer of Todorovian-marvelous mimesis. It is also a good character study of an already unstable man going insane under stressful circumstances. Griffin is not a stereotypical mad scientist but a relatively plausible one, closer to “Von Kempelen and His Discovery” (1849) than to the villains of 1890s children’s books. The novel’s weakness is its other roots in those children’s books. Wells is witty, but there is a prominent thriller aspect, with blow-by-blow action scenes, betrayals and a gradual reveal of what is already apparent in the title and on the first-edition cover.

The thriller material overshadows the thought experiment based on Plato’s “Ring of Gyges”, but not the metaphors. Griffin, who wants to be a dictator in England, is literally naked. This is in line with The War of the Worlds (1897) as a negative image of British colonialism, casting the megalomaniacal colonizer himself, not his victims, as a naked savage.

References here: The Scarlet Pimpernel (1905).

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The Invisible Man (2020Moving picture, 124 minutes)

Seen in 2021.

The science-fiction premise is teased in the first scene of the main character going down into the basement and seeing the “empty” suit rack. This is surprising to me, because the metaphor inherent in that premise is the stuff of The Turn of the Screw (1898) and Candyman (1992), but only a child would read any part of the film as the Todorovian fantastic. Without The Fantastic (1970) it’s just a locally high-tech slasher with some watered-down feminist and anti-tech-industry themes like Ex Machina (2014).

Before we even hit the halfway point, the main character and the invisible man are simply wrestling on the floor. This is somewhat faithful to Wells’s novel, though the hypertechnology works differently to permit extra deceit. It is followed by a couple of murders that make throat-cutting too easy—a mistake Wells avoided—and one bathetic fight scene where two or three security guards at a time arrive too late and behave too strangely. I expected the main character to at least figure out a decent method of detection, like a child’s disco ball, a spray can, an IR camera or a closed door, but no, it never happens, and the “plot twist” revealing the villain’s identity was obvious. I conclude it was made for the early-teen crowd.

moving picture adaptation fiction