When life throws you lemons, thank it for the snack

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

The Invisible Man Has a Few Loose Ends

Note: I try to be spoiler-lite in my book reviews. It's hard to talk about a story without letting some details slip, but I also don't want to reveal too much so that you can read the book for yourself and make your own judgements.

In my continuing quest to read the source material for Universal Studios' "classic" horror/suspense films of the 1930s-1940s, I picked up H.G. Wells' The Invisible Man. I was a little reluctant at first because I found it very difficult to keep my focus through War of the Worlds. I anticipated a similar difficulty with The Invisible Man, but I was pleasantly surprised. It helps that each chapter is relatively short and the writing is in "cleaner" language, without too much overt description. My surprise ended, however, as I progressed through the story because it left me feeling like I had just watched an air-headed sitcom rather than a moving drama.

Like Dracula, I came into this book with some knowledge of the story, as I vaguely remember bits from the movie and other versions of the story. Interestingly, this original version seemed much simpler than the cinematic translations. Although it takes place over a four-month time span (I'm not counting the exposition of Griffin's back story, which is covered in a chapter or two), it feels as if it covers only a few days. Most of the action also occurs in two different villages, yet it reads like it all happens in the same place.

Though he is the subject of the story, Griffin (the Invisible Man) is not really the main character per se. That distinction does not really seem to fall to any particular character. True, we end up learning the most about Griffin. Yet, even his character is not completely fleshed out. Perhaps it is do to his manic nature--I use this expression in the strict psychological sense, as he does exhibit many behaviors of someone suffering from the mood disorder Mania--that it is hard to grasp his motivations for his behaviors. Just when I felt I understood what he was trying to accomplish through his invisibility, Wells throws in a curve ball and Griffin changes his purposes. This is probably where the movies diverge the most. They tend to portray him as a "mad scientist" bent on discovering something for the sake of pure science and stumbling upon consequences he didn't think about. The literary Griffin doesn't seem to have a real straightforward purpose for his actions. Yes, he wants to make a name for himself. Yes, he wants "revenge" against an "unfair" world. But he comes across as a child playing with a chemistry set (Ooh! What do these chemicals do?) instead of a true researcher.

None of the other characters are described beyond some basic physical and minute personality characteristics. When things go wrong and people are hurt or abused or robbed, etc., I really didn't feel anything beyond the basic "that's not right" sensation. There was no one in the book to sympathize with. There were no real heroes. Even Griffin was not much of a villain. Honestly, what he needed was a good psychiatrist. True, he became homicidal towards the end, but I'm sure with some therapy he could have controlled most of his outbursts. Money seemed to be part of his problem, but at first you believe he's well-to-do, and it isn't until the second half of the book that you find out that he never had any money to begin with. Could this be why he went on a rampage? Not really. This plot point was left hanging wide open.

Other plot points were left as loose ends as well. We do find out what happened to Griffin's elusive notebooks, leaving the story open for a potential sequel. But, it was left open, meaning that  we can only guess whether or not their present owner ever deciphers them. We never find out enough of Kemp's back story to see his complete connection to Griffin. If they were just at university for two years together (Kemp was older) and they weren't roommates or in the same classes, then why would Griffin think he could confide in the brushing acquaintance? There is also the question of who is telling the story. It's written almost as if a reporter were putting together an expose for a magazine. Yet, if that were the case then there ought to have been some mention of said reporter somewhere in the text. Also, if it were a report or article, then you would not get the kind of details we did in the book. The voice of the narrative just didn't fit with any method I've experienced before. The biggest plot hole, to me, was the cause of the Invisible Man's manic behavior. Movie versions state that the transformation into invisibility, mainly the chemical reaction with his brain, is what drives him mad. Yet, Wells never really implies this. There are hints of mania before Griffin's transformation in his back story. Maybe he becomes crazier after becoming invisible. Maybe it doesn't really change him that much. There's really no way to tell the way it was written. Perhaps Wells wants the reader to believe the pursuit of invisibility itself is madness.

As far as monsters go, Griffin is definitely scary because of his unpredictability. He is a pure monster in that there is really nothing about him that makes him sympathetic to the reader. His mania makes him a frightening foe. He is one of the most selfish characters I've ever read and he doesn't even seem to care as much about his survival so long as he gets what he wants. He throws juvenile temper tantrums that would be funny if they weren't so damaging to others. Sometimes I just wanted to grab him by the scruff and slap some sense into him. At least the other characters' reactions to his terrorizing are human, even if they themselves are cardboard versions of people. The panic and fear of the villagers does successfully come across in Wells' writing. But since there's no one to really care for, I ended up with the "at least I'm not as bad off as those poor schmucks" feeling.

This is one time that I would recommend the movie over the book if you're looking for character depth. If you're looking for a series of chaotic fights and unsubstantiated anger galore, then read the book.

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