Movies

How the New Invisible Man Movie Departs From the Novel by H.G. Wells

Left: a copy of H.G. Wells' The Invisible Man. Right: Elisabeth Moss in a shower with a handprint visible in the fogged glass. In the corner, a logo reads "Page to Screen."
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Universal Pictures and Loyal Books.

Puffs of breath, appearing out of nowhere in the chilly night! Burners turning on by themselves! Slight depressions in the chair cushions, though there’s nary a butt to be seen! It’s time for another adaptation of The Invisible Man, a novel about a scientist who becomes transparent and runs around causing trouble. Since H.G. Wells’ story was first serialized in the British periodical Pearson’s Weekly in 1897, there have been dozens of adaptations. The latest is Leigh Whannell’s very suspenseful film starring Elisabeth Moss as the terrorized wife of a sociopathic tech genius who uses his invisibility to torment her. (Seriously, it’s not for scaredy cats.)

The movie shares its central gimmick with Wells’ book, but little else, since Whannell’s Invisible Man directs all of his attention toward one person in particular, while Wells’ is more of a general mischief-maker. The result is a film that’s more like a remake of Sleeping with the Enemy than of Invisible Man. We broke down the departures from the novel below.

The Invisible Man’s motivation

In the novel, Wells’ antihero is Griffin, an “experimental investigator” and graduate teaching assistant at a provincial college. He describes himself as “almost an albino,” with white skin and red eyes. Wells characterizes Griffin as “aggressive and explosive,” constantly “under a chronic irritation of the greatest intensity.” Griffin tries to make himself invisible just for the power of it. “To do such a thing would be to transcend magic,” he tells his former classmate, Kemp, describing his thought process when he realized the transformation might be possible. “I beheld, unclouded by doubt, a magnificent vision of all that invisibility might meant to a man, the mystery, the power, the freedom.”

The tragedy of Wells’ Invisible Man is that Griffin soon figures out that being invisible is sort of terrible. He can’t eat in public, because his food is visible until it’s “assimilated” into his body. He can’t go out without wearing clothes—which defeats the whole point of being invisible—because even a transparent body gets cold in winter. A reader could almost feel sorry for the man, except for the fact that he goes about robbing and assaulting people with zero remorse. At one point, Griffin tells Kemp of a man he “knocked on the head,” to which Kemp exclaims “But, I say! The common conventions of humanity!” Griffin replies, “Are all very well for common people.”

In Whannell’s movie, Adrian Griffin (played by Oliver Jackson-Cohen) also considers himself to be above the morals of “common people,” but his motivation for becoming invisible is much less ambiguous and his actions less random. He wants to use his invisibility to control his wife, Cecilia (Moss), who has finally left him. He’s not a poor grad student, and not “almost an albino,” either—he’s a rich, conventionally handsome tech wunderkind with all of the “power and freedom” he could desire. Any additional money he might make, or people he might hurt, are all second to his central project: making Cecilia do what he wants .

Achieving invisibility

In Wells’ novel, achieving invisibility is a matter of chemistry, and it’s a messy process. Wells’ story begins with Griffin moving into an inn and unpacking a bunch of crates to set up his lab, pulling out “fat bottles containing powders, small and slender bottles containing colored and white fluids, fluted blue bottles labeled Poison, bottles with round bodies and slender necks, large green-glass bottles, large white-glass bottles…” Wells goes on for a full paragraph.

When Wells wrote this book, scientists weren’t highly regarded in British culture. Griffin, an awkward person without many social graces, makes people around him nervous even before his transformation into the Invisible Man. At one point, a neighbor accuses him of performing vivisection on a cat—a nod to the controversy in public conversations around science at the turn of the twentieth century over using live animals in experimentation. (In the book, Griffin is not actually vivisecting the cat in question, though he is subjecting it to painful chemical treatments.)

In contrast, we don’t really get to see how Adrian built his very cool, camera-covered invisibility suit. The technology at work is just as impenetrable as the stark modernist house where Adrian and Cecilia live as an unhappy couple before she escapes. These two methods for becoming invisible fit the respective characters well: The chemical process Wells’ Griffin uses is painful and irreversible, and it’s the finality of that predicament that makes Wells’ Invisible Man such a pathetic figure. There’s no such pathos for Whannell’s purely villainous Adrian, who can become un-invisible whenever he wants, exercising the same kind of perfect control he has over everything in his life.

The outfit

When we first encounter Griffin in the book, he’s covered in bandages and wearing a brown velvet jacket with a turned-up collar. Poking out from between the strips is a “pink, peaked nose” that turns out to be artificial. His hair, “escaping as it could below and between the cross bandages,” is a wig that gives him “the strangest appearance conceivable.” Wells’ descriptions of Griffin are disturbing yet goofy, as if a mummy rolled around in glue and walked through a yard sale.

Whannell’s Man, on the other hand, is completely Invisible until the midpoint of the movie, when Cecilia manages to land a hit on him that damages his suit. The suit itself is smooth and high-tech, and the sounds it makes when winking in and out of visibility are metallic, menacing, and otherworldly, like the alien armor in The Predator. In other words, it’s nothing like the scarecrow effect of the “monster” of Wells’ novel and the famous 1933 movie starring Claude Rains.

Michael Dorman, wearing a suit.
Michael Dorman as Tom.
Universal Pictures

The sidekick

An invisible man sometimes needs a visible accomplice. In Wells’ book, Griffin tries to force a “tramp,” Marvel, into servitude. It doesn’t work, and Marvel ends up with Griffin’s money and notebooks at the end of the story. In Whannell’s film, Adrian has more luck with his lawyer brother Tom, who seems sympathetic for the briefest of moments when he commiserates with Cecilia about the trials of being close to such a narcissist. However, he turns out to be a total pawn of his sociopathic sibling, even wearing the invisibility suit and committing murder at Adrian’s behest.

The dog 

In Wells’ book, Griffin says that dogs are the Invisible Man’s greatest enemy, because “the nose is to the mind of a dog what the eye is to the mind of a seeing man.” In Whannell’s film, the couple’s dog can sniff out the Invisible Man with ease, because even a high-tech suit is no match for the snout of a very good boy.