For the little people who make it all happen

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Jack Arnold’s THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN (1957) can be read and appreciated on a number of different levels – as a straight-ahead fantasy, as a relic of Cold War paranoia, as a warning about the dehumanization of existence coincident with advances in science and technology, as a “surreal Outward Bound program for little people” (as Stephen King put it) or as an affirmation of a  God-centered universe – but the more I watch and re-watch it these days the more it strikes me as an answer to the dilemma of trying to live a modest life in a world increasingly obsessed with fame, celebrity and hyperbolic notions of importance and greatness. 

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THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN was adapted for the screen from Richard Matheson’s 1956 novel The Shrinking Man by Matheson himself.  The New Jersey-born writer, who came to screenwriting from the study of journalism, got the idea for his smaller-than-life story from a gag in LET’S DO IT AGAIN (1953, a remake of THE AWFUL TRUTH), in which cuckolded composer Ray Milland accidentally puts on a too-large hat owned in the film by his estranged wife’s new lover, Aldo Ray.  As the brim of Ray’s hat settled buffoonishly atop Milland’s ears, Matheson wondered what might happen if the hat really did belong to Milland.  Matheson had been in Los Angeles since 1951 but by 1955 was considering giving up his dream of writing for the movies.  With prospects few and success no closer at hand than it had been before he trucked his family west, Matheson returned to the east coast and rented a house on Long Island.  Retreating to the cellar each day to write, he completed the book in two and a half months.  Fame and (a bit slower to arrive) fortune came at last to Richard Matheson (he was soon writing features for Roger Corman and penning teleplays for such weekly series as CHEYENNE, THE LAWMAN, ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS and THE TWILIGHT ZONE) but The Shrinking Man and his big screen adaptation are both informed by the shadows of failure and discouragement and the fear of insignificance.

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Anyone who has friends who have crossed in some way over the threshold to some kind of success can relate to the plight of Robert Scott Carey (played in THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN by Grant Williams).  It’s happened in my life; several friends have gone on to acclaim as writers or stars of hit TV shows or movies and my friendships with these people have suffered in direct proportion.  Where once I could lay their pictures in my own photo albums, gradually the only shots of them I was likely to see were in magazines, snapped by paparazzi at movie openings and charity events.  In most cases, there was some interstitial contact – drinks in celebration of early achievement, cards at the holidays – but eventually even these interactions thinned to a trickle as the distance between us widened.  I never really understood why this separation, this severing of ties has to happen… but it almost always does.  Once famous, people just get used to a certain way of living, to a certain way of spending money, and they’re embarrassed by those who have to wait, to save, to sacrifice, to bide their time in cramped quarters.  In time, they grow weary of your misfortune and find it easier to move on and not look back.  They shrink from you but they make you feel small.

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I thought of these absent friends when I watched THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN again yesterday and I really wondered if Richard Matheson had felt some of the things I have while trying to piece together a living in Hollywood.  Notice the first symptom of his “diminution” is reflected in how his clothes fit.  What he at first takes to be a mistake on the part of his drycleaner reveals itself to be an insufficiency on his own part.  He is growing smaller and out of fashion.  “I’m getting smaller, Lou,” he tells his wife Louise.  “Every day.”  Louise’s sympathy turns to pity as he shrinks to the size of a child, as Scott goes from being a lover and a companion to a charge, a dependent, something less than a man.  “I felt puny and absurd,” Scott confesses in a voiceover.  “Easy enough to talk of soul and spirit and essential worth, but not when you’re three feet tall.”  Scott’s tragedy seems greater to me now than it did when I was a kid, and a worse fate than those movie heroes who turn into werewolves or zombies, relegated as he is by his nonconformity to a “gray, friendless area of space and time.”

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The genius of THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN is that it puts aside Scott Carey’s diminishing place in society around its halfway mark to focus exclusively on his adventures in a new world.  (Richard Matheson’s book is structured differently, jumping back and forth from past to present, which the author did get to “the good stuff” quicker.)  By the time he’s going mano a mano with a housecat the size of a T-Rex (a former housepet turned predator), Scott stops obsessing about keeping up with the Joneses and his life becomes a full-on struggle for survival.  Driven out of his dollhouse sanctuary (whose cardboard construction is a cruel mockery of all he once owned), Scott is relegated to the basement, where he barracks himself in a matchbox, makes weapons out of straight pins and vies with a (to him) giant spider for possession of a forgotten slice of birthday cake.  And it is in this elemental struggle, this refocusing on the meaning of life to first principles, this rejection of conventional measures and comparisons, this working with what’s available, that Robert Scott Carey, The Incredible Shrinking Man, regains his humanity and endures, undiminished.  “The unbelievably small and the unbelievably vast eventually meet like the closing of a gigantic circle,” he reasons, as he steps through a the microscopic square of a mesh window screen to a new life and an existence that has yet to be calibrated.

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I was incredibly touched by this movie on what must have been my seventh or eighth viewing of it, and not just because it held up a mirror to my dissatisfaction, allowing me to identify with its beleaguered hero and grumble “Been there, done that.”  On the contrary, I was pleased to see that it affirms the choices I’ve made in middle age and which point me to a life not smaller than or diminished from the one I’d aspired to when young… just different.  At the end of the day, when I’ve put my children to bed and turn out the lights to settle down alongside my wife in my own, I’m comforted by the fact that, though I may never see my name in a movie credit crawl or on a cinema marquee or as the payee on a six figure paycheck, I remain the same.  You may have to squint to notice me but  I still exist.

0 Response For the little people who make it all happen
Posted By Medusa : January 10, 2009 8:33 am

Lovely appreciation of one of the finest science fiction movies ever made. One of my all-time favorites, you are so right that it resonates on many levels, and Grant Williams is a hero for all of us.

It’s a moving film that also has fascinating reflections on male/female relationships — the marriage, as it changes to adjust to his stature, is de-sexed, naturally, but still loving — and I always loved Randy Stuart as his wife. (I always hated how the cat was framed as the bad guy, though!)

I need to watch this one again soon. I’ve seen it countless times and I loved reading your tribute.

And no matter what happens to us in our lives, at least we won’t have to fight a giant spider with a hatpin — let’s hope!

Posted By Medusa : January 10, 2009 8:33 am

Lovely appreciation of one of the finest science fiction movies ever made. One of my all-time favorites, you are so right that it resonates on many levels, and Grant Williams is a hero for all of us.

It’s a moving film that also has fascinating reflections on male/female relationships — the marriage, as it changes to adjust to his stature, is de-sexed, naturally, but still loving — and I always loved Randy Stuart as his wife. (I always hated how the cat was framed as the bad guy, though!)

I need to watch this one again soon. I’ve seen it countless times and I loved reading your tribute.

And no matter what happens to us in our lives, at least we won’t have to fight a giant spider with a hatpin — let’s hope!

Posted By Vincent : January 11, 2009 4:05 pm

It’s unfortunate that any potential remake (the on-and-off Eddie Murphy project) will be strictly comedic…an angle we’ve already seen explored in the Lily Tomlin satire “The Incredible Shrinking Woman.”

I would love to see a remake based strictly upon the book, which as stated earlier is considerably different than the film — not just in structure, but mood. There’s a young daughter in the novel, for one; for another, Scott’s sexual frustration with his wife is more expressly illustrated. (I am guessing Matheson largely removed this element from the screenplay he adapted because producers wanted to make the story accessible to younger audiences, a significant audience for sci-fi in those days.)

Finally, I should also note that Matheson wrote a followup script, “The Fantastic Little Girl,” in which Louise herself begins to shrink (was this transmitted through earlier sexual contact with her husband?), somehow finds Scott after they’ve both reduced to a miniscule size (one assumes Scott’s shrinking had eventually stopped for some reason), and they fight off someone challenges before they discover they are beginning to grow again. Matheson has admitted he wrote this script, which was never produced, strictly for the money. It was reprinted in some compilation of his a few years ago.

Posted By Vincent : January 11, 2009 4:05 pm

It’s unfortunate that any potential remake (the on-and-off Eddie Murphy project) will be strictly comedic…an angle we’ve already seen explored in the Lily Tomlin satire “The Incredible Shrinking Woman.”

I would love to see a remake based strictly upon the book, which as stated earlier is considerably different than the film — not just in structure, but mood. There’s a young daughter in the novel, for one; for another, Scott’s sexual frustration with his wife is more expressly illustrated. (I am guessing Matheson largely removed this element from the screenplay he adapted because producers wanted to make the story accessible to younger audiences, a significant audience for sci-fi in those days.)

Finally, I should also note that Matheson wrote a followup script, “The Fantastic Little Girl,” in which Louise herself begins to shrink (was this transmitted through earlier sexual contact with her husband?), somehow finds Scott after they’ve both reduced to a miniscule size (one assumes Scott’s shrinking had eventually stopped for some reason), and they fight off someone challenges before they discover they are beginning to grow again. Matheson has admitted he wrote this script, which was never produced, strictly for the money. It was reprinted in some compilation of his a few years ago.

Posted By Peter Nellhaus : January 12, 2009 10:27 am

I recently read Matheson’s novel and was also struck by what was left out in the film. One might also interpret the novel as being an examination of the loss of white male privilege and dominion.

Posted By Peter Nellhaus : January 12, 2009 10:27 am

I recently read Matheson’s novel and was also struck by what was left out in the film. One might also interpret the novel as being an examination of the loss of white male privilege and dominion.

Posted By Jack Pendarvis : January 12, 2009 5:15 pm

Hey, there was a longish clip from this on MONK the other night – the spider scene in particular, with a lot of narration intact. Not sure how purposeful it was, but interesting to consider, given your interpretation, and the psychological state of MONK’s title character…

Posted By Jack Pendarvis : January 12, 2009 5:15 pm

Hey, there was a longish clip from this on MONK the other night – the spider scene in particular, with a lot of narration intact. Not sure how purposeful it was, but interesting to consider, given your interpretation, and the psychological state of MONK’s title character…

Posted By Jonathan Lapper : January 16, 2009 10:07 am

Once famous, people just get used to a certain way of living, to a certain way of spending money, and they’re embarrassed by those who have to wait, to save, to sacrifice, to bide their time in cramped quarters. In time, they grow weary of your misfortune and find it easier to move on and not look back.

So basically, I will never be befriended by a famous person. Hell, I’ve grown weary of my misfortune, why shouldn’t they? But you know what, I didn’t want to be friends with Johnny Depp anyway.

Posted By Jonathan Lapper : January 16, 2009 10:07 am

Once famous, people just get used to a certain way of living, to a certain way of spending money, and they’re embarrassed by those who have to wait, to save, to sacrifice, to bide their time in cramped quarters. In time, they grow weary of your misfortune and find it easier to move on and not look back.

So basically, I will never be befriended by a famous person. Hell, I’ve grown weary of my misfortune, why shouldn’t they? But you know what, I didn’t want to be friends with Johnny Depp anyway.

Posted By Richard Harland Smith : January 21, 2009 2:55 am

So basically, I will never be befriended by a famous person

You know me. That’s as good as it’s likely to get.

Posted By Richard Harland Smith : January 21, 2009 2:55 am

So basically, I will never be befriended by a famous person

You know me. That’s as good as it’s likely to get.

Posted By Jerry Lehane III : March 16, 2009 6:22 pm

I designed the Mars rovers which found life on Mars,People,animals,fossils 2004.I’m a huge fan of ISM and gave up on tracking Richard Matheson.I wanted to show him pics of life on Mars jpl123@inbox.com http://www.photobucket.com accounts “jlehane3″ “j3lehane” “jlehane” password “JJJJJJ”(6 j’s). I ghostwrote for Star trek 1987 and sent Roddenberry the plans for Mars rovers and Predator movie.I ghostwrite for mass media and work behind the scenes,live in Delaware,male ,age 51. This is my all time favorite movie,and it’s a sickess how much I love it.

Posted By Jerry Lehane III : March 16, 2009 6:22 pm

I designed the Mars rovers which found life on Mars,People,animals,fossils 2004.I’m a huge fan of ISM and gave up on tracking Richard Matheson.I wanted to show him pics of life on Mars jpl123@inbox.com http://www.photobucket.com accounts “jlehane3″ “j3lehane” “jlehane” password “JJJJJJ”(6 j’s). I ghostwrote for Star trek 1987 and sent Roddenberry the plans for Mars rovers and Predator movie.I ghostwrite for mass media and work behind the scenes,live in Delaware,male ,age 51. This is my all time favorite movie,and it’s a sickess how much I love it.

Posted By Susan : May 2, 2009 8:18 am

wow lover of richard matheson.all his books my fav bieng the shrinking man.i am legand was great olso but the shrinking man lol when i first saw it as a 12 yr old i fell in love with grant williams lol.now at 23 yrs old i understand what a incredible book it was and the movie.amd grant lol who could have played a more handsome 3 inch tall man??? mathesons book was the best and the movie was good .but the movie had grant as our dwindling hero who m im in love with lol but the book was better.i am legand is another great.i started reading mathesons books after watching the shrinking man and hese one of the best ive ever known and read.sorry its so long i feel like im the one writing a book but cant say enough about richard matheson.the shrinking man since this day will always have a place in my heart and so will geant weilliams .a sexy tiny man lol yea they even showed the movie in japan.love all his books.

Posted By Susan : May 2, 2009 8:18 am

wow lover of richard matheson.all his books my fav bieng the shrinking man.i am legand was great olso but the shrinking man lol when i first saw it as a 12 yr old i fell in love with grant williams lol.now at 23 yrs old i understand what a incredible book it was and the movie.amd grant lol who could have played a more handsome 3 inch tall man??? mathesons book was the best and the movie was good .but the movie had grant as our dwindling hero who m im in love with lol but the book was better.i am legand is another great.i started reading mathesons books after watching the shrinking man and hese one of the best ive ever known and read.sorry its so long i feel like im the one writing a book but cant say enough about richard matheson.the shrinking man since this day will always have a place in my heart and so will geant weilliams .a sexy tiny man lol yea they even showed the movie in japan.love all his books.

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