The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957)

*. Richard Matheson’s novel was just titled The Shrinking Man. Hollywood added the “Incredible.”
*. They wanted to add some other stuff too. Most obviously a happy ending where the doctors find a cure and Scott Carey becomes a big person again. But, remarkably, the test audiences went well and they stuck to what Matheson (who had insisted on doing the screenplay) had written. Which, despite its note of spiritual uplift, is pretty darn bleak. Scott is disappearing into solitary nothingness. This may lead to his finally becoming one with the universe but only in the sense that we all do when we dissolve into our irreducible atoms. As Stephen King remarked, he’s just reached the acceptance stage of finding out that his condition is terminal.

*. To be sure, there are significant changes made to the novel. The curse of Scott’s sexual frustration, most notably, is gently elided. Scott and Louise don’t have a kid, so there is no babysitter for him to ogle. And the theme of humiliation — as Scott is progressively infantilized and feminized — barely registers. In the initial stages of his shrinking, when they just think it’s weight loss, Louise teases Scott that he can live a child’s dream world and eat nothing but ice cream and cake, but this is dramatic irony, not mockery. And the scenes in the novel where Scott is beaten up by a gang of kids and molested by a dirty old man are both dropped. There was a fairly large page-to-screen gap in the 1950s.

*. I don’t imagine Matheson was at all bothered by any of these changes. He was a commercial writer and he wanted a hit to get him started in the film biz. For example: in the story Scott’s basement nemesis is a black widow spider. Matheson knew a black widow spider doesn’t spin a web but he wanted that type of spider anyway for thematic reasons, and the black widow has a resonant name. In the movie the spider is changed into the even more improbable tarantula, which also doesn’t spin a web. But so what? Would anyone care? Not a chance.
*. Mostly it’s an effects movie, and I thought these were pretty good considering the time and the fact that this wasn’t a big-budget picture. Some of the process shots look a bit cut-and-paste, and at one point Scott’s body turns transparent, but for the most part it works well. Scott’s playing with the oversize props (pencil, mousetrap, scissors) was a lot of fun. I was a bit upset though that Clarice, the circus midget, wasn’t a midget at all but a beautiful actress given the same treatment as Scott.
*. The one effect that had me wondering was the giant waterdrops falling from the water heater. I assumed these must have been balloons. In fact they were condoms filled with water.

*. They got a good performance out of that cat. Cats are notoriously hard to coach, but “Butch” seems to have come through. The scene where Louise is sure Butch has eaten Scott, and then we see Butch coughing as though on a hairball, is wickedly funny, though audiences at the time might have found it upsetting.
*. It’s a great novel, predictably popularized by Hollywood. But they didn’t change as much as I thought they would have, and the ending in particular maintains a kind of bleak dignity. Other movies would make use of the same conceit, shrinking a woman, shrinking the kids, shrinking a submarine, but they wouldn’t have the same weight as this one. Which is why we still remember it, when all the other tiny people have shrunk away to nothing and disappeared.

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