Directed by Jonathan Glazer (2013)
by Melissa Strong
“The best adaptations riff a little,” asserts TV writer Alessandra Stanley, reimagining not just minor details but also sensibility. Stanley points to the show Homeland as an example: it reinvents Prisoners of War by moving to the U.S. from Israel with a female C.I.A. operative at its center rather than three male soldiers. She may be right about that, but books often suffer when they are adapted to film.
So few novels become passable films that solid adaptations are notable and terrific ones are rare exceptions. Genuine riffing is limited. Rather, movie adaptations often make changes - such as setting and how characters should look - serving the bottom line (more star power! cheaper location!) rather than artistry. For this reason, rumors about movie versions of beloved books produce untold weltschmerz. Many adaptations leave me convinced I could have done a better job.
Thus, word of the adaptation of Under the Skin, a gripping and haunting novel published in 2000, set off alarm bells that only rang louder upon the announcement of ScarJo’s involvement. Her career has matched every Lost in Translation with a double shot of catsuited explosion fest plus sappy rom-com.
Yet the 2013 adaptation masterfully riffs on the book by Michel Faber, reinterpreting its themes into something related to, yet separate from, the original. As a film, it holds its own. This may be due in part to the novel being seemingly unfilmable: a faithful adaptation of the plot surely would need CGI, which then would be unfaithful to the aesthetics. The novel is a creepy scifi mystery addressing factory farming and other weighty issues. It makes the reader work to determine what is going on, with whom, and why. There are aliens with alien technology. Unspeakable things are done to humans, and to Isserly, the alien protagonist.
The movie, written by Jonathan Glazer and Walter Campbell and directed by Glazer, only hints at these things. The film adaptation is even more ambiguous than the book, which may make it inscrutable or even frustrating for those who have not read it, let alone mainstream viewers accustomed to forceful plots, scores, and acting.
This is where Scarlett Johansson comes through, delivering a performance of fitting restraint that still manages to generate empathy. Johansson won an EDA Special Mention Award from the Alliance of Women Film Journalists for “Best Depiction of Nudity, Sexuality, or Seduction.” The award is well deserved: the movie, like the film, incorporates these elements not for attention or titillation, but as a means of accessing their relationship to commerce and exploitation.
The movie may be ambiguous, but it artfully uses images and sound to mirror the unsettling tone Faber’s plot and characters convey. Under the Skin is visually arresting. Using surveillance cameras cultivates a documentary feel and allows viewers to see our world through alien eyes. These cameras also capture real people who become unwitting extras in the film, just as the humans become unwitting objects of examination, and the hitchhikers become unwitting victims. A terrific score enriches aesthetics and promotes understanding, rather than telling us what to think or feel about what we’re seeing.
Pivotal scenes with the actor Adam Pearson are unique to the film; they may even improve upon climactic events in the novel. Pearson, who has tumors on his face, plays a character called the Deformed Man. But Johansson’s alien may not see him as deformed. Equally important, her interaction with the Deformed Man appears to change her. Maybe she develops a conscience, or finally acts on the misgivings she always had about the things she is coerced into doing. In any case, the Deformed Man escapes the fate of the others she picks up.
The scenes with Pearson and Johansson reinterpret Faber’s novel, contributing to a successful riff on the source material. Under the Skin riffs on cinematic sources as well: Nicolas Rapold traced it to The Man Who Fell to Earth, with Johansson’s character a parallel to David Bowie’s as “a stranger in a strange land.” Under the Skin leaves viewers wondering and thinking about its cinematic treatment of the book’s themes.