Posted by Richard Harland Smith on January 9, 2009
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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