Last week I promised both sex and violence, so here they are together in one package. A few weeks ago I picked up a copy of Richard Matheson’s novel “The Shrinking Man” which was later adapted into the reasonably well-regarded science fiction film, The Incredible Shrinking Man. The changes wrought to any material from one format to another frequently fascinate me, but this particular transformation may take the cake. Having seen the movie numerous times since childhood, I thought I had some idea what I might encounter in the novel, but I couldn’t have been more wrong. With the book, Matheson (whose work has also formed the basis of such films as I Am Legend, What Dreams May Come and Somewhere in Time) gives us a novel more sex-obsessed than some outright pornography.
For those not familiar with the plot, the story involves an average man, Scott Carey, who is exposed to both radiation and an insecticide in just the right amounts to cause his body to begin shrinking unstoppably. Over the course of both novel and film he grows continuously smaller, resulting (in both cases) in a philosophical epiphany to match his new circumstances.
The devil, of course, is in the details, and they could hardly differ more from medium to medium. In the written version the reader is presented with an enormously unpleasant protagonist whose chief concerns are (a) himself and (b) his waning ability to have a normal sex life. His sexual desires take the form of an awkward, final encounter with his wife, a voyeuristic obsession with the babysitter hired to watch his daughter, and a one-night stand with a circus midget. None of this makes it to the film in anything like the original treatment, nor does his disturbing encounter with a pedophile. Throughout all of this the character is a nasty individual who treats his wife, daughter and brother with utter contempt, and the squalidness of his urges entirely matches his personality.
The film elides all of these points, thematically (and practically) neutering both the character and an important central (if sordid) theme of the book. Instead, the viewer is given a much more child (well, teenage boy) appropriate adventure tale of an increasingly tiny man fighting for his life against such common domestic threats as a housecat and a spider.
My point here is not that the film is inferior to the book, but that, as in all cases of adaptation, it effectively turns into a thing apart. When adapting his own work for the screen, Matheson re-shaped the protagonist to make him much more sympathetic. That positive view allowed for a more generous impression of his relationship with his wife, thus strengthening her characterization while eliminating any suggestion of improper sexuality. The film goes even farther by eliminating the daughter completely, mitigating even the idea of sex within marriage and making the couple ideal, near-platonic companions.
At the same time, all of the requisite violence is left in the film, with a particularly graphic portrayal of the climactic duel with the deadly spider (changed from a more plausible black widow to a presumably more wrangle-able tarantula). The bravura final sequence of the film shows Carey less as a desperate man anticipating his death than as a resourceful character trying simply to survive against suitably terrifying challenges.
Given the reputation of the film as philosophically provocative, it’s also interesting to compare the contrasting approaches to the final moments of the story. In the novel, the character realizes that he will never shrink to nothing because “to nature there was no zero.” Instead he will continually re-define his standard of measurement as he moves through ever smaller universes of existence, some of which might contain intelligent life. God doesn’t really factor into this equation. The film, on the other hand, pointedly invokes God several times in the concluding scene (specifically replacing the “nature” of the above quote with “God” in the closing narration), yet ends with the protagonist melting away as he merges into the union of the infinite and the infinitesimal. Practically speaking this is a much messier philosophical conclusion, but the invocation of the divine was clearly presumed to make it more palatable to the movie-going audience of 1957.
Again, I’m not passing judgement in either case here, as both versions of the story have their virtues and failings. The thing that struck me most on finishing my reading was how wildly different the two versions actually are, and how independently they actually function as narratives. It’s a useful lesson to keep in mind when discussing any adaptation, even when the adapting is done by the original author.