The Invisible Man, originally an 1897 novel by HG Wells, has seen many adaptations in film (first way back in 1933!), television, and other literature, with the most recent film adaptation being THE INVISIBLE MAN (2020, Whannell et al) starring Elisabeth Moss and Oliver Jackson-Cohen as the narrative’s lead characters, Cecilia and Griffin. Even outside of direct adaptations, the power of invisibility has been all over the superhero, fantasy, and sci-fi genres for generations now, and for so long has been a tool used by heroes and player characters to take advantage of a situation and win the day.
What is with this long obsession with being invisible that’s been bound up in the collective cultural consciousness, and what does it mean? The Invisible Woman, of the Fantastic Four, is able to become invisible to sneak around and create invisible barriers to save the world for science (aside from that one time when she became evil), and Harry Potter heroically (?) uses his invisibility cloak to eavesdrop on suspicious professors and have schooltime shenanigans on field trips to the local pub, and every rogue and hunter in every game ever uses invisibility to backstab and sneak attack. Surely invisibility couldn’t be some kinda creeper horror thing, right?
Most adaptations of The Invisible Man are thrillers, suggesting that the science/technology/magic that imbues the title character with incurable invisibility also causes such a significant psychological change that it drives him mad. Part of this madness often has to do with the scientist becoming so cut off from the world around them that they become unhinged. Occasionally, the scientist often tries to develop a temporary fix to allow others to see them — whether by make-up, body paint, or the classic trenchcoat and bandages (side note: invisible Kevin Bacon in a flesh-colored latex mask in the 2000 adaptation Hollow Man (Verhoeven, et al.) is its own brand of nightmare fuel). But when even these fixes don’t work to allow the scientist to become included in social circles once more, a paranoid murderous rampage tends to follow. It’s like FOMO to the extreme.
The old adage “out of sight, out of mind” tends to be a recurrent theme in the development of paranoia in these thriller adaptations. When one cannot be seen, that person tends to become excluded — conversations relating to the person are necessarily about the person rather than to the person, and there is a tendency for a lot of conversations to happen about a person who has so much hubris as to invent a way to become invisible and then test it on themselves. Invisible Kevin Bacon, for example, has a lot of feelings about his scientist ex-girlfriend having a relationship with another male scientist, as well as their feeling that he needs to be turned over to the government to figure out a cure. Like a similar supernatural power of air symbolism, telekinesis, invisibility is a force that separates and divides, but does so in a more metaphorical way than simply moving objects with unseen force, as becoming invisible cuts one away from one’s peers.
2020’s The Invisible Man turns this thriller trope on its head by centering the perspective on the non-invisible Cecilia, who is dealing with the ramifications of the titular unseen threat. This film opens with Cecilia taking the opportunity in the middle of the night to flee her abusive and controlling tech-genius boyfriend and the remote and highly secure glass-walled mansion he lives in, and enacting an elaborate plot to hide in the home of her sister’s friend, James (Aldis Hodge), and his daughter, with the hope being that her boyfriend Adrian Griffin would have no knowledge or reason to find her there. However, after two weeks of agoraphobic hiding, Cecilia is informed that Griffin has committed suicide. While this news initially helps her to feel safe enough to step into the outside world without threat of being kidnapped or attacked by her ex, she soon begins to feel as though she is being watched when no one else is present. She becomes convinced that Griffin is haunting her somehow, and that he must have survived and managed to become invisible. As a billionaire who raised his fortune on developing some kind of optical technology, it surely seems within his grasp to her, but to everyone else around her this theory is downright ridiculous. The film doubles down on this feeling for the audience — making use of long shots of empty backgrounds in James’ home, having the camera move through the home as though following a character walking through the halls. It feels voyeuristic and uncomfortable (and, honestly, raises some excellent questions about if there is an invisible man, or a ghost, or if the title character is just a feeling of paranoia).
While most adaptations of this story are about the negative impact of invisibility upon the title character — being visually cut off from the rest of society by becoming invisible — this adaptation imagines the title character as a presence that has cut Cecilia off from the rest of the world. Even as she tries to rejoin society and heal from the abuse, Griffin hangs over her like a ghost, making her fearful and irrational in a way that cuts her off from her friends and family once more.
Cecilia is sure Griffin is present, though neither she nor anyone around her can see any such threat — it’s a theme often seen among thrillers. Hush, Bird Box, even slashers like Scream or Halloween make use of theme to make things seem hopeless for the protagonist. If others can’t see it and don’t believe it’s happening, then you lose hope of help. For it to be made real and visceral through the magical realism of invisibility makes for something truly terrifying. With this adaptation of The Invisible Man connecting the dots of invisibility with a story of surviving domestic abuse gives the narrative a lot more emotional weight — rather than being a story about the hubris of science driving one mad, this adaptation now adds to the cultural mythos a very important detail about invisibility: the importance of being seen and believed.