Books

02.09.14

‘The Man Who Fell to Earth’ Is a Classic Twice over—as a Movie and a Novel

Having David Bowie play your space alien would make any sci fi movie a classic, but ‘The Man Who Fell to Earth’ works even without him—just check out the great novel that inspired the film.

“The novel on the cutting room floor”

They are literature’s cold cases, the Missing and Presumed Dead. They are the unlucky novels and stories that inspired movies so successful that they eclipsed the originals almost completely.  Some books weather a subsequent movie’s success. Gone With the Wind survives as a classic film and a classic novel. But how many people know that before it was a movie, The Birds was a very good novella by Daphne Du Maurier, or that Forrest Gump is based on the novel Forrest Gump?

Good fiction deserves a better fate. By way of a modest corrective, this series seeks out and showcases those obscured, forgotten novels and stories that gave their lives that movies might live, stories that were always at least as good as the well-known films they inspired and in more than a few instances, a lot better.

Decadence, paranoia, nihilism, polyester—ah, the ’70s. For me, the film that sums all that up is The Man Who Fell to Earth, starring David Bowie, directed by Nicolas Roeg, and released in 1976. Bleak, despairing, often beautiful, and ultimately rather incoherent, this would be one of the last big idiosyncratic movies to get into theaters before the mainstream successes of Jaws, Star Wars, and Indiana Jones elbowed personal vision to the periphery of filmmaking for a nearly a generation. (Want to know what happened to American cinema after the late ’70s? Watch this movie and E.T. back to back.)

The Man Who Fell to Earth is a strange movie, and it never apologizes for that. And however much it tries your patience, it never insults your intelligence. Almost 40 years later, that’s all still true. Time and fashion can’t touch it.

The general outline of the plot is simple enough: A space alien disguised as a human comes to earth in search of water (or perhaps a new home) for his drought-stricken kin on a planet far, far away. Using his superior spaceman technology, he makes a fortune off of new technology (film that develops itself, etc.). He uses that fortune to create and build a spaceship. But in the course of his visit, he becomes corrupted, i.e., more human, by alcohol and too much television. Just before he can blast off, the government—or corporate America, take your pick or choose both—breaks up his attempt to return home, imprisons him, and then runs tests on him to see what kind of creature he is. At some point, and a rather arbitrary point it is, he’s cut loose, and when we last see him, he’s drinking himself into oblivion.

Even this brief summary is probably debatable. Roeg and his scriptwriter, Paul Mayersberg, don’t have much interest in logic, motive, or continuity, at least not the kind that we find in novels—or most films, which routinely take their narrative logic from literature. So while you’re watching, you may find yourself spending lots of time trying to piece the plot together or merely wondering what the hell is going on. My best guess is that Roeg wanted to see how far he could get telling a story in purely filmic terms, through photography and editing.

There’s a passage early in the film that cross cuts Bowie watching a Kabuki performance with a scene of a college professor in bed with a coed. Each performance grows more frenzied, and the sounds from each scene bleed into the other, until ultimately what we think of as stylized and symbolic is completely enmeshed with our ideas of what it is natural, albeit creepy, given the age difference and roles of the professor and his student lover. In the end, it’s all unsettling, and alienating, and I think that’s the point. But it’s only a point that could be made by combining those two events. This is film narrative, not literary narrative.

With Bowie as their star, the filmmakers were halfway to weird before they got out of bed.

Ironically, The Man Who Fell to Earth is based on a novel of the same name written by Walter Tevis, who also wrote The Hustler and The Color of Money. The movies based on those books are reasonably faithful to the originals. But the book and movie versions of The Man Who Fell to Earth (weirdly, “fell” is not capitalized in the film’s opening credits) contrast sharply. Each succeeds, but completely on its own terms.

All of Tevis’s protagonists are undone by their own weaknesses, usually involving alcohol. Some of them, such as the pool shark Eddie Felson, find ways to redeem themselves. Thomas Jerome Newton, the space alien, never recovers. But even the Tevis novels that have happier endings are all almost unbearably sad. Sad but not depressing, and I’m not quite sure how Tevis pulls that off, though I know it has something to do with the quiet, even tone of his prose. There is a rocking, hypnotic peacefulness in the way he puts words together.

Here is the opening paragraph of The Man Who Fell to Earth:

“After two miles of walking he came to a town. At the town’s edge was a sign that read HANEYVILLE: Pop. 1400. That was good, a good size. It was still early in the morning—he had chosen morning for the two-mile walk, because it was cooler then—and there was no one yet in the streets. He walked for several blocks in the weak light, confused at the strangeness—tense and somewhat frightened. He tried not to think of what he was going to do. He had thought about it enough already.”

This anonymous man could be a traveling salesman, a bank robber, or a space alien. All we know at this point is that he is a stranger, an outsider. A few pages in, and we will recognize the clues Tevis has provided in that opening passage—the need for coolness, the confusion and fear created by the “strangeness” of what otherwise seems banal.

The stranger finds a jewelry store, where he sells a gold wedding band. “He got sixty dollars for it and knew that he had been cheated. But what he had now was worth more to him than the ring, more than the hundreds of rings just like it that he had with him. Now he has the first beginnings of confidence, and he had money.”

The “hundreds of rings just like it”—this is the first explicit acknowledgment that there is something quite strange about Newton. Within another couple of pages, we learn that he “was not a man; yet he was very much like a man,” that he has trouble with heat, bright light, and the force of gravity, has four toes on each foot and no fingernails or appendix. “Yet he did have eyelashes, opposed thumbs, binocular vision, and a thousand of the physiological features of a normal human … Also, man-like, he was susceptible to love, to fear, to intense physical pain and to self-pity.”

Extreme sensitivity to heat, light, gravity, and sound—these things the movie barely addresses, but they are crucial to the novel. Merely drawing breath and putting one foot in front of the other so exhaust Newton that it’s all he can do to get down the street. Everything about his behavior—his lassitude, his habitual indifference—makes more sense when you know his circumstances.

In both book and movie, his sense of alienation is almost palpable, but only the novel supplies explanations. Both versions, for example, have Newton collapsing in an elevator. The film never explains that the elevator ride puts even more pressure on his already trebled weight and breaks his leg. All we know is what we see: a man writhing in pain. It’s a strange scene in the book, too, but it makes sense because we know why he’s howling.

In the movie, Newton takes up drinking for no good reason, and the apparently arbitrary nature of his dissipation makes us impatient with him after a while. Tevis’s Newton, in contrast, is never annoying but rather pitiable and even tragic, because the book tells us up front that he binges on alcohol and TV to inoculate himself from a world that is too much with him but of which he can never be part. And here again it’s the quotidian circumstances underlying his lethargy that make us identify with his suffering. After all, who doesn’t know what it’s like to try to think straight in oppressive heat or when you’re exhausted?

Maybe the filmmakers figured that they didn’t need to fuss over the backstory when they had David Bowie as the center of attention (his hair should get its own screen credit). With him as their star, they were halfway to weird before they got out of bed—although, to be fair, the film contains plenty of attributes that have nothing to do with Bowie, including photography that bears comparison with the work of William Eggleston and Stephen Shore and some original Mayersberg dialogue as touching as anything in the book—at one point Newton is asked, “What are they like, your children?” And he murmurs, “They’re like children. Exactly like children …”

The big difference between book and movie, though, is sex. The novel, which was published in 1963 as a mass market paperback, has none. The movie is loaded with it. In the novel, Newton takes up with a frumpy, unlettered Kentucky woman well into middle age. Their relationship is companionable—and enabling: she is an alcoholic and he’s on the way. Roeg’s version keeps the alcoholism, but the woman has been transformed into the lovely Candy Clark, who becomes screechier as the story progresses, but still, frumpy she’s not. The sex in the movie is sometimes repellant, sometimes erotic, and sometimes close to violence—altogether human, in other words, and nothing like the obligatory 30-60 seconds of template lovemaking to which we’re accustomed in contemporary film (talk about Kabuki!).

I don’t understand a lot of the changes made to the book (why does Newton make $60 for that ring in the novel but only $20 in the movie?). But it’s easy to see why Roeg made sex so central to his film: it’s the ultimate visual marker of his central character’s alienation. Moreover, sex and full nudity were still relatively new to the screen in 1976. If it didn’t make viewers uncomfortable, it must have made them self-conscious, certainly when confronted with a scene where two nude people in bed take turns firing a gun loaded with blanks at each other again and again and again. This is a film that takes apart your complacency as surely as this alien world destroys Thomas Newton.

I like the way the movie jumps around and leaves it to the viewer to fill in the missing pieces, but towards the end of the film things get so murky that it’s hard to make much sense of the story. You’re not sure who the bad guys are or what they’re up to, why they so melodramatically murder Newton’s attorney, or why they turn Newton loose in the end. The film is always a visual feast, but you exit feeling hungry.

Tevis’s version is more explicit, and its climax is certainly more heartwrenching. Without divulging the ending, I’ll just say that Newton’s fate in the novel is far more horrific. But that’s not why you care. You care because Tevis created real people on the page. Newton, his companion, Betty Jo, and especially Bryce, the nerdy chemist Newton hires and the first to penetrate the alien’s secret—all are drawn with the same fine-tipped pen. They may be lost souls, but at least they have souls. That explains as well as anything can why I admire the movie but why, if forced to choose, I would grab the novel more eagerly.