H.G. Wells’s 1897 novella The Invisible Man is a work of science fiction. Jack Griffin’s invisibility derives from calculations pertaining to the properties of air, the speed of light, and the eliminated absorption and reflection of light. James Whale’s film of Wells’s tale, written by R.C. Sherriff, Preston Sturges and Philip Wylie, provides no other explanation for Griffin’s invisibility than that he found the correct “chemical formula,” the principal element of which “drains color”—which would make Jack black, not transparent. To accept Whale’s film, then, one has to accept its failure to account for its protagonist’s strange (non-)appearance.
This we willingly do because the film is absolutely brilliant, a stunning black comedy which reflects its own time rather than a time forty years earlier. It “spoke” to American audiences with especial and piercing clarity.
Griffin’s description of himself as a “poor, struggling chemist” provides the key for understanding his quest for scientific fame and, as madness eats away at his mind as a side effect of the chemical he has taken, his quest for power. Griffin is economically disadvantaged. By contrast, we know from their lavish homes that Jack’s employer, Dr. Cranley, and Jack’s co-worker, Dr. Kemp, are wealthy and probably aristocratic. (Jack is in love with Cranley’s daughter.) Depression audiences doubtless identified with Jack, feeling themselves imaginatively empowered by Jack’s invisible flights of power, even his rampages of murder. Kemp, sympathetic in Wells’s book, is cowardly and villainous here; this takes some of the onus off Jack. Wells lets Kemp live; audiences even today are happy that Jack makes good on his threat to kill Kemp.
Whale sometimes expresses Jack’s poignant aspiration by shooting him from below. Jack is as terrifying as many audience members, feeling impotent, could dream themselves to be.
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