Invisible Men: How H. G. Wells’ Famous Novel Has Been Adapted with the Times

In Featured, Joe Campbell, Reviews by Amanda Valdovinos

– By Joe Campbell –

(The following article contains spoilers).

As a Universal monster, the Invisible Man has always fascinated me.  Unlike Dracula, the Wolf Man, or The Mummy, there isn’t anything seemingly monstrous about him from the outset.  He’s just a regular man who disappears. Yet he continues to hold a steady place alongside Universal’s other monsters.

One would think that his ability would place him in the realm of superheroes instead of monsters, yet from the very beginning he’s been portrayed as a threat more than a champion for justice.

Even other works that don’t directly adapt H.G. Wells’ 1897 novel portray him as, at the very least, a man of mischief.  At his least threatening, he’s a mischievous anti-hero in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (the 2003 movie), and at his worst he’s a sadistic narcissist such as in Amazon’s nihilistic superhero show The Boys.

I think this is partially because it’s almost impossible to think of invisibility as a concept without acknowledging its built-in possibilities for invading privacy.  It’s perceived less as an agent for justice and more an invitation to temptation. “What would you get away with if nobody could see you?”

It’s a concept that allows storytellers to explore temptation, vice, and conscience on a very human level.  It’s an ability that gives the user social power, as opposed to global power. Superman can move mountains, but the Invisible Man can go wherever he wants to go, do whatever he wants to do, or see whatever he wants to see.  The question is: does he?

This is why, even from his origins in print, he’s been an agent of danger, a Thing That Goes Bump in the Night.  This year a new iteration of the story came to life with director Leigh Whannell’s movie The Invisible Man, and I’m going to look at how Whannell’s version compares with two other famous cinematic adaptations of H.G. Wells’ novel (The Invisible Man from 1933 and Hollow Man from 2000), and how all three movies look at similar social and domestic issues in different ways.

The Invisible Man (1933)

Directed by James Whale

This is the closest adaptation of the book to date, and it’s also the one I think most people associate visually with the look of the titular Invisible Man.  His ominous wrappings and dark glasses from this movie make for a striking image, and they perfectly communicate that this is a man of mystery and foreboding.

In this version, a scientist (Dr, Jack Griffin, played by Claude Rains) injects himself with a formula that turns him invisible, and he spends the first half of the movie attempting to find the formula that will make him visible again.  As he grows more frustrated with his futile experiments, the townsfolk in the local village grow increasingly suspicious of him. Things come to a head when, finding out his true nature, the villagers turn against him and he, in turn, lashes back against them, turning his frustration into a self-proclaimed reign of terror.

Out of all the versions of The Invisible Man, this is the one that most directly follows a fall from grace.  Although we don’t get to see the Griffin before his transformation, we’re given the impression that he was generally a good man.  He was a respected scientist and he was loved by a woman who still cares for him. His descent into darkness appears to be born out of his failure, combined with the constant invasions by the pestering townsfolk, but as the movie goes on, it becomes more apparent that Griffin is becoming comfortable with his invisible form, enthralled by what it allows him to do.  Eventually he gives up trying to become visible at all, and the third act revolves around him trying to recruit a fellow scientist to his goal of ruling the country through terror.

Much like how the Ring seduced kind-hearted Frodo in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, the power of invisibility seduced Griffin.  He was a good man given access to a power that could be used for many great purposes, but more obviously it gave access to advantages that are too great for weak men to turn down.  Satan tests us with our advantages; the rich will be tempted to misuse their wealth for personal gain, politicians are placed in positions to disrupt public interest for themselves, even Jesus was tempted to abuse his Godly abilities in the desert.

“It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of Heaven.” – Mark 10:25

When Griffin had fewer temptations as just a promising scientist, but when given access to a power he hadn’t even considered, it destroyed him.

 Hollow Man (2000)

Directed by Paul Verhoeven

But what about when the individual given power already had an ill-formed conscience?  What can our personalities tell us about our private inclinations? That is the question director Paul Verhoeven poses with his Invisible Man story in Hollow Man.

This time, Kevin Bacon plays the scientist Sebastian Caine who is trying to achieve invisibility, but unlike Jack Griffin, Caine is a problematic character from the beginning.  We see more of him pre-invisibility than we did Griffin, and we’re given plenty of time to see him in his natural element, bantering with his fellow scientists.

He’s quick to lie to his advantage, he is responsible for destroying the one relationship we knew him to be in (and we’re given the impression that he harbors an unhealthy obsession for his ex when she tries to hide her current relationship with a co-worker from him), and he has a sense of humor that goes beyond “off-color” to the degree that it’s outright offensive.

But people seem to like him.  He jokes and hangs out with his co-workers, and they seem to enjoy his company, laughing along at his antics.  Caine is insidious because he’s so likeable. One is seduced into a comfortable demeanor without realizing just how toxic he actually is.

But there are red flags, and they’re red flags we should take more seriously when considering friendships in the real world.  Early in the movie, we see Caine spying on his shapely neighbor undressing in front of a mirror across the street. Just before he undergoes the invisibility procedure, he makes an uncomfortable, and extraordinarily vulgar, rape joke that his co-workers awkwardly giggle at, not sure if they find it funny or offensive.

Needless to say, when Caine is unhindered by societal constraints, the only thing holding him back is his personal constraints, which he turns out not to have at all.  The invisibility is simply a doorway to evil fantasies Caine had already played through time and again in his head.

“It’s amazing what you can do,” he says, “when you don’t have to look at yourself in the mirror anymore.”

Caine is frightening because he’s so real.  We all know somebody like that: somebody we should call out on their inappropriate behavior or conversation— and all too often many of us let behavior like that slide.  Caine is the sort of person where if you did call him out on his words, he’d laugh it off as being “Just a joke”. One can’t help but wonder, especially in a post-“MeToo” world, just what someone like that would be capable of if nothing held him back.

The first step to a well-informed conscience is personal accountability.  If you convince yourself that one joke isn’t that bad…then another…and another, it becomes too easy to convince yourself that destructive opinions aren’t that bad either, and thus destructive actions follow.    When we can think and say anything, it’s important that we hold ourselves accountable for our own thoughts and words, and hold others to a higher standard as well.

The Invisible Man (2020)

Directed by Leigh Whannell

This newest incarnation of the Invisible Man is the most clearly destructive.  He’s a fully formed monster before his invisibility, and he’s the only one where his ability is used as an agent of his already pre-planned destructive designs, as opposed to being a temptation to an easily swayed mind.

In fact he’s barely a character here, and more of a force coming after our hero, Cecilia Kass (played by Elisabeth Moss).  Cecilia is a frightened woman who runs away from an abusive relationship with Adrian Griffin, a man who wants to control every aspect of her life down to her very thoughts.

When Adrian is pronounced dead from suicide, Elisabeth breathes a sigh of relief, thinking she is free from the man, only to find that he has come back to manipulate her, seemingly from the grave, to make her life a living hell as the Invisible Man.

This is the story of a woman fighting a toxic presence that has sought to form her in his own mental image.  It’s a tale of gaslighting and abuse, and so it feels much more real and frightening. Whannell is telling us a story of victimhood and courage, and has relegated the Invisible Man himself to the background as the force our heroine must find a way to defeat.  The Invisible Man wants to overwhelm the movie much as how Adrian wants to overwhelm Elisabeth, but Adrian isn’t Elisabeth’s keeper, and this is not the Invisible Man’s story.

If Hollow Man taught us to hold ourselves and others to a higher standard, The Invisible Man (2020) wants us to face our fears head-on, and not to be complacent in the face of real human cruelty.  Adrian uses his invisibility to play out designs he already had in place. He, himself, is a very real danger from the beginning, and he’s a danger we see all too often in the real world today.  Hollow Man shows us how to stop ourselves from becoming him, The Invisible Man (2020) shows us the importance combatting such men, and taking seriously those who try to warn us of them.

Over the decades, H.G. Wells’ story has inspired reflections of human nature and social responsibility.  I don’t think he realized just how far reaching his concept would be more than a hundred years after he wrote it, but I think it’s fascinating just how relevant it is today more than ever.  Here’s hoping that in another twenty years, somebody else takes Wells’ framework and finds yet another way to tell a timely tale, forcing us to take a long hard look at ourselves in the mirror.


*Editor’s Note: Due to the closure of many theaters in the wake of COVID-19, Universal has announced that they will make The Invisible Man (2020) available for online rental starting Friday, March 20th. 


About the Author

Joe Campbell graduated from JPCatholic in 2012. He now works as a production manager for, in addition to being a stay-at-home dad to two kids.  He was born, raised, and currently lives just outside Seattle, Washington.  Some of his favorite filmmakers include Andrei Tarkovsky, Sam Raimi, and Joe Dante.  Besides film, his other interests include hiking, the board game Dominion, and coffee.

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