Is ‘The Invisible Man’ HG Wells’s Most Important Title?

Leigh Singer
Movies Horror
Movies Horror Sci-Fi

Don’t look now, but a radical new reinvention of The Invisible Man is upon us. And though this unseen foe doesn’t sport the trademark bandaged face and hat (a more detailed report is below), any discussion of the character inevitably brings up – once again – the name of his original creator, HG Wells.

HG Wells
HG Wells was once called the Shakespeare of Science Fiction.

The title of “the father of science fiction” is commonly thought to apply to one of three men: Jules Verne, the esteemed French author of, among others, Journey to the Center of the Earth (1864) and Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (1870); Hugo Gernsback, publisher of the prominent 1920s American magazine Amazing Stories, and in whose honour the annual World Science Fiction Convention awards are named the “Hugos”; and Herbert George Wells, the four-time Nobel Prize-nominated, prolific British writer and social commentator.

In a long and varied career, Wells produced an astonishing burst of science fiction in a first decade of writing overlapping the 19th and 20th centuries, that still forms the basis for much of the genre’s influences and inspirations.

A former biologist and formidable intellect, Wells wrote much more than science fiction, or “scientific romances” as they were then called. He garnered great acclaim for later social realist books such as Kipps (1905) and his own favourite, Tongo-Bungay (1909), as well as a series of futuristic Utopian novels. One of these, The Shape of Things to Come (1933) even became the basis for an early British science-fiction film classic, Things to Come (1936).

But if we’re to find Wells’s most important title, it’s clear that lies among that early burst of sci-fi classics. Runners-up would include his dystopian ‘Rip Van Winkle’-esque fable When the Sleeper Wakes (1910); military tale The War in the Air (1907); The Food of the Gods, where he seems to anticipate genetically-modified nutrition; or In the Days of the Comet (1906), in which a comet spreads “green vapours” that promote peace and contentment among mankind. All have much to commend, but none can crack our Top Five…

5) The First Men in the Moon (1901)

Jules Verne may have beaten him to a lunar landing in print with 1865’s From the Earth to the Moon, but Wells’s own mission is perhaps one of his more underrated stories. It centres on two wannabe astronauts, businessman/narrator Bedford and physicist Cavor, whose invention of the gravity-defying material cavorite initiates their trip.

Discovering an environment with plentiful gold, where you can get drunk on giant fungal growths, they also encounter the moon’s intelligent insect-like natives the Selenites — surely the inspiration for sci-fi’s countless “space bugs” (see Dune, Starship Troopers, John Carter of Mars, et al). And with its astute descriptions of interstellar weightlessness and a late chapter entitled “Mr. Bedford in Infinite Space”, in which our narrator undergoes a near-breakdown of the self — and space and time — that looks forward to Stanley Kubrick’s “ultimate trip” ending to 2001: A Space Odyssey, there’s much here that finds Wells at his scientific and imaginative best.

4) The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896)

Wells and other early science-fiction writers loved their noble hero-scientists. One of many seditious elements, then, in this body-horror classic, is how, in only his second novel, Wells flipped this archetype to find the beast within. Doctor Moreau is a man-turned-monster, operating beyond civilization in the Pacific, splicing hybrid creatures into animal-men. It’s Wells’s own Heart of Darkness three years before Joseph Conrad even published his novel. And Moreau stands behind only Victor Frankenstein and Henry Jekyll in the Mad Scientist Infamy stakes.

It’s also Wells the scientist extrapolating recent Darwinian ideas that turned biology (and religion) on its head. If humans are just animals mutated by evolution, what if science (well, a mad scientist at least) gave an extra helping scalpel? Wells never shirks from the violence, and the pain inflicted in these vivisections that produce the Leopard-Man, Hyena-Swine and Moreau’s other misbegotten Beast Folk. It’s bold, brutal stuff that Wells himself called “an exercise in youthful blasphemy.”

Unsurprisingly given the graphic possibilities Wells unleashed, the story has been adapted multiple times with, let’s say, mixed results. Perhaps the best, if not the most celebrated, is 1932’s Island of Lost Souls, a gleefully sensationalist, pre-Hays Code shocker with the great Charles Laughton on splendidly sinister form as Moreau. It also features Bela Lugosi, fresh from his Dracula success, as chief hybrid creature Sayer of the Law.

A 1977 version starring Burt Lancaster and Michael York was forgettable, but very much once-seen-never-forgotten is 1996’s infamous train wreck of a film, starring Marlon Brando. The behind-the-scenes stories (and astonishing documentary) of the disastrous shoot in Australia are as crazy and entertaining as anything from the fictional on-screen world, including Val Kilmer’s hissy fits, Brando being caked in white make-up by the then official Smallest Man in the World, two-and-a-half-foot tall Nelson de la Rosa, or the Hollywood legend wearing an ice bucket on his head in character as Dr. Moreau for no apparent reason.

Original director Richard Stanley was fired days into shooting, destroyed all his notes and then hid out on set disguised as one of the creatures, to observe tough-talking veteran John Frankenheimer attempt to manage the madness. A legendary fiasco, the film actually made back most of its $40 million budget over time. But if anything, it kept the name of Wells’s most subversive work alive better than any decent but uninspired adaptation would have. And given the advances in modern CGI, this is arguably the novel that would benefit the most from a fresh screen take.

3) The Invisible Man (1897)

It’s hard not to envisage Wells being inspired by Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1886 The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde for his own third novel. In both cases we have a scientist who comes up with a formula that transforms them physically, this new alter-ego giving them licence to indulge their most forbidden desires. Griffin’s experiments with optical-changing chemicals leads to treachery and murder and, as such, he’s become a totemic figure in horror fiction alongside Dracula, Frankenstein and the Wolf Man.

The Invisible Man is one of those simple, irresistible concepts that seems as if it’s been around forever: who wouldn’t want to roam the world unseen for a time? That’s certainly the take of Jason Blum, doyen of modern horror and producer of the latest screen version of The Invisible Man, on the character’s enduring appeal.

“It’s a real wish-fulfillment idea,” Blum told Fandom. “Everyone wants to be invisible … And so the next best thing to not being invisible yourself is seeing a story about someone who actually can be invisible. I think it’s a very universal idea. It fits right into the voyeur in all of us. So, I think that makes it very ripe for updating every generation or so.”

And, in the wake of Wells’s book, it’s an omnipresent trope in fantasy and pop culture. Versions have appeared in everything from Batman (Batman: Unseen) to Tom and Jerry (“The Invisible Mouse”), or in songs from punk band Generation X to stadium rockers Queen. And one ‘Hawley Griffin’ appeared (or, rather, often didn’t) in Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill’s acclaimed graphic novel series on iconic Victorian literature characters, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.

“The Invisible Man might be [Wells’s] most iconically recognized character,” suggests Leigh Whannell, writer-director of the latest movie incarnation. “If you show anyone out there on the street… right now a picture of a guy wrapped in bandages with the sunglasses and the hat, they’re going to say Invisible Man.”

There’s also that classic sense of rules to the concept. “You can’t see him unless you throw something at him,” continues Whannell. ‘Or if you put some clothes on him, or if you were to throw paint on him. So, I just think the concept is really easy to lock into.”

Maybe perhaps because you need to imagine what isn’t actually there, the Invisible Man concept has proved to be incredibly malleable onscreen. The first film attempt was a largely faithful Gothic tragedy directed by Frankenstein helmer James Whale and introducing consummate scene-stealing actor Claude Rains to Hollywood. Their The Invisible Man became a 1933 top ten box-office hit and led to a series of knock-off sequels and spin-offs with different actors (including Vincent Price).

Over the years, several television shows have played with the idea too, using it as everything from a 1958 spy series to a 1970s Six Million Dollar Man-style show starring The Man from UNCLE’s David McCallum. Movie versions have been similarly varied, from light comedy (Chevy Chase in 1992’s Memoirs of an Invisible Man) to nasty horror (Paul Verhoeven’s seedy Hollow Man from 2000).

Leigh Whannell’s 2020 version is arguably the canniest update yet, repurposing the concept as a gaslighting thriller for the #MeToo era. An abused woman Cecilia (known as “C” – geddit?) escapes her controlling scientific genius boyfriend Adrian Griffin, who then fakes his death and uses his optical technology to covertly stalk her. It’s a smart use of Wells’s idea, to portray how toxic masculinity can ruin a woman’s life almost unchallenged, and how difficult it can be for the victims to be believed. With the great Elisabeth Moss in the lead, who famously plays the lead in the small-screen adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale about the subjugation of women, it’s also a powerful statement to make, in the wake of Harvey Weinstein and Hollywood finally starting to address its own abusive patriarchal history.

2) The Time Machine (1895)

HG Wells wasn’t the first author to play around with time travel. Big hitters from Charles Dickens (A Christmas Carol in 1843) to Mark Twain (A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court in 1889) had already jumped forward to the future or returned to the past.

Wells himself had even dabbled with the concept in his 1888 short story The Chronic Argonauts. But it’s his debut novel, expanding on Argonauts, that made Wells’s name and cemented the name of the apparatus/vehicle to travel across “the fourth dimension”, as he calls it, in popular culture forever. It’s impossible to list every sci-fi writer inspired by this novel (Bradbury, Asimov, Vonnegut…), or even every iteration of the titular device. But whether it’s a DeLorean car (Back to the Future), or even a, er, hot tub (Hot Tub Time Machine), everyone is now familiar with the machine that can answer what is arguably mankind’s greatest ‘What If…?”

Wells’s Time Traveller recounts his experiences venturing to the distant future of the year 802,701. Here he encounters two distinct species, the childlike, happy but ineffectual surface-dwelling Eloi and the subterranean, troglodyte-like Morlocks, who prey on them. Wells is sending up some of his era’s more controversial sociological theories here, the Eloi a parody of Communist utopias, and the Morlocks embodying fears of the working (under-)class. But there’s a lot more here than just historical caricature. And the climactic chapter where the Traveller goes even further into the future, to find a forsaken land patrolled by giant crabs is a terrifying glimpse of the annihilation of our species.

Strangely for such an influential work, the direct adaptations of Wells’s Time Machine – and what prevents it from taking the Number One spot here – are not the greatest adverts for its source. The first version, a live teleplay from 1949, has rarely been seen. 1960 US film directed by George Pal may have won an Oscar for visual effects but wasn’t a huge hit at the time and is rarely revisited. The 1978 TV movie, updated to its era, is a dud. And even the last $80 million version from 2002 starring Guy Pearce (and Jeremy Irons as the “Über-Morlock”!) was a commercial and critical flop. A “witless recycling of the H.G. Wells story from 1895,” opined über-critic Roger Ebert, “with the absurdity intact but the wonderment missing.”

By far the most fun, and original movie inspiration is 1979’s Time After Time, in which HG Wells himself (Malcolm McDowell) is transported to then-modern-day San Francisco on the tail of Jack the Ripper (David Warner)!

Ultimately, then, The Time Machine’s importance in popular culture is more for what it represents and subsequently inspired, than for its very specific socio-political critique and, frankly, fairly basic storyline. So it’s only right that HG Wells’s most important creation is one that achieves lasting influence both outside and in and of itself…

1) The War of the Worlds (1898)

This is the Big One. The Daddy of Hostile Extra-Terrestrial sagas. The Ur-Text of what would become sci-fi Martian lore. It anticipates both physically repulsive aliens (the creatures are basically giant beaked eyeball-heads with tentacles) and gleaming futuristic tech (the Tripods that carry them). It even predicts, through the Martians’ “Heat Ray”, the idea of lasers, some six decades ahead of practical invention and usage. Even the team behind the new The Invisible Man can’t disagree.

“… across the gulf of space, minds that are to our minds as ours are to those of the beasts that perish, intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic, regarded this earth with envious eyes, and slowly and surely drew their plans against us.” — excerpt from HG Wells’s The War of the Worlds

“I think War of the Worlds might be the one that seems to have impacted pop culture in the biggest way in terms of its influence,” says Leigh Whannell. “It’s got to be War of the Worlds,” agrees producer Jason Blum. “That’s the biggest selling one, right?”

It’s certainly the one with the greatest cultural reach. Wells took the then-contemporary trope of the invasion novel – usually presaged on fears of the “dirty foreigner” – and blows it up to galactic scale. But it’s more daring than even that. Wells’s War cunningly flips the picture, so that here it’s the mighty British Empire helpless against a more advanced foe, receiving the treatment that they themselves inflicted around the globe. It’s the colonizer colonized. And none too happy about it. Artistic invaders of the original, however, rubbed their hands with glee…

From Wells to Welles. Off the page, the existential terror that an alien invasion might provoke was brilliantly exploited long before the first War of the Worlds screen version ever appeared. In 1938, maverick artist Orson Welles broadcast a live Halloween radio show for his The Mercury Theatre on the Air production. Treated as if it were a news broadcast, listeners across the United States were tricked into believing that the Martians really were attacking.

Reports of the ensuing mass panic have doubtless been exaggerated over time, but it’s absolutely true that Welles and co’s cunning “reality radio” presentation tapped into one of civilization’s greatest fears and showed how effective Wells’s idea remained. And given Welles’s burgeoning notoriety, it’s entirely possible too, that Herbert George’s literary imagination played a huge part in Orson’s indelible imprint on cinema.

And on a similar audio-inspired note, in 1978 Jeff Wayne released his Musical Version of the War of the Worlds, a prog-rock extravaganza that became a 15 million-selling double-disc album, and, later a theatrical experience, video games, and in 2019, even an immersive experience. Throughout these iterations, Wayne has cannily co-opted the iconography of the looming Tripods, as well as the best of cinema in his original album, getting star actor Richard Burton as the piece’s narrator (replaced in later versions by Liam Neeson).

With Wayne almost monopolising Wells’s War, it’s good to remember the screen versions that exist separately, and often highly successfully. Byron Haskin’s 1953 Hollywood film, also relocated from Victorian England to present-day America, was pure entertainment. Other fairly big departures from the novel include the substitution of hovering spaceships for the Tripods, and scant evidence of the aliens feeding on human beings. But the end results were impressive nonetheless, the film’s $2 million gross making it the highest-earning sci-fi movie of the year.

Wells’s story was clearly being tapped in numerous entries in the 1950s big-screen sci-fi boom – see also The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) and Invaders from Mars (1953) – and post-atomic/Cold War paranoia. And Mars itself continues to be the planet of choice for hostile aliens (see Ghosts of Mars from 2001, Mars Attacks! from 1996, John Carter from 2012, or even whatever is going on in Brian DePalma’s Mission to Mars from 2000). Yet in terms of another Wells adaptation, you had to wait for Steven Spielberg and Tom Cruise teaming up for 2005’s War of the Worlds. It was worth it.

Another update to modern America, in other aspects the film was far more faithful than the 1953 version, while connecting (or to some, exploiting) the fear and even the imagery of invasion post-9/11 terror attacks. Here the aliens and their Tripods are effectively “sleeper cells” that rise out of the ground to launch total destruction against the helpless civilian population.

Heat rays disintegrate people, coating others in a thick ash reminiscent of September 2001. The large-scale action, convincing VFX and Spielberg’s innate sense for intimate family survival make this one of his best; and the film was a smash, ranking fourth in the annual international box-office, behind only a Star Wars, a Harry Potter and a Narnia chronicle.

2019 saw two separate TV versions, a BBC period adaptation starring Rafe Spall, and a much looser, modernised European edition with Gabriel Byrne. Basically, you can’t keep a good Martian down. And the themes, story and imagery that Wells pioneered at the end of the 1800s still resonates into the twenty-first century. As life on Earth looks ever more fragile, more vulnerable, surely we need to keep watching the skies, for any signs of far-off assistance. Or future threat…

The Invisible Man hits screens on February 28.

Leigh Singer
UK-based film journalist, programmer and video essayist. VR avatar probably a combination of Roger Rabbit and Llewyn Davis. But hey, enough of my yakkin'; whaddaya say? Let's boogie!