Tuesday 10 February 2015

Under The Skin

Isserley Bothers

Under The Skin
by Michel Faber
CanonGate Books Ltd
ISBN: 978-1782112112

Warning: Spoilers which could get under your skin if you let them.

Last year, when I reviewed the brilliant movie Under The Skin (read that one here) I stated that, after puzzling about certain aspects of the narrative in the movie, I wished I had actually read the novel by Michel Faber before going into that experience. Now, having read the novel, I can only echo that sentiment because, frankly, despite being a world apart from the very loose movie adaptation, there’s more of a problem, I feel, going from the movie to the novel than there possibly is the other way around.

Under The Skin is a beautiful movie and it’s a great book too. It joins, to my mind, some of the other great movie pseudo adaptations of the past that have been successful in their own right while being almost mutually exclusive from the subject material in the way in which the artists involved chose to change things. The other two I’m specifically thinking of right now are the Lynne Ramsey movie of Alan Warner’s Morvern Callar and Peter Webber’s version of Tracy Chevalier’s novel Girl With A Pearl Earring (the latter also starred Scarlett Johansson as the main protagonist in the movie version, as does the filmed version of Under The Skin). Both Morvern Callar and Girl With A Pearl Earring were more successful, in some ways, in their adapted versions because in the film versions they both stripped down the content to something less dramatically ostentatious, choosing to leave out what some directors might see as specifically cinematic elements of their stories and instead  present their drama’s in an understated manner which, honestly, seemed to work out much better for their final product than I imagine it would have done if the writers and directors of the filmed versions had aimed their end product closer to the original works.

The movie version of Under The Skin also chooses to leave bits out and takes as many liberties, it seems to me, as it can get away with. In the movie version, Scarlett Johansson’s nameless protagonist picks men up in cars where she then traps them into a clearly sinister and deadly fate. We see she has an on-screen helper who is called when needed and we can see, by the end of the film, that she is alien to this planet. A humanoid wearing a “human suit” who comes to a particularly sticky fate. The same character in the book also comes to a sticky ending to her daily routine but things transpire in a much different manner and the attitudes of the character by the end are unchanged, in practice, to the person she has been all along... whereas in the film the pangs of sympathy she holds for the humans she has been... well... harvesting, take over and lead her along a different path.

In the book, she is called Isserley and she and her fellow aliens are, to them, the human beings. They all live together in a farm complex and Isserley picks up her prey exactly as she does in the movie... but then injects them into unconsciousness, when she is sure she is relatively safe in taking them, before driving them back to the barn for processing, fattening up and then, eventually, shipping them off to her home planet as an expensive delicacy.

She is a strong but sad character because she has chosen this lifestyle to avoid a worse fate on her home world and, because her species is, unlike the ‘vodsels’ (their name for what we would call humans), she has been surgically broken and mutilated from the horse like creature she is. Tail and udders removed, spine and limbs broken to become something like a vodsel form and with a large pair of breasts grafted on to her to attract male vodsels.

The book is pure science fiction but it’s a slow burn and thus my reason for saying that I’d have preferred not to have seen the film first. With the film, from trailers and marketing, you already know Scarlet is playing an alien predator. In the books, Michel Faber peels back the layers gradually so it takes you maybe a third of the way into the book before you have all the necessary information to put that premise together for yourself. Each time Isserley picks up a vodsel she questions him to find out if it’s a good risk to inject him with the mechanism built into the passenger seat of her modified car and, though not told in first person, the whole book is told from Isserley’s viewpoint only... other than a series of brief sections ranging from a couple of pages to, in one case, a single line, which tells you what is going through the vodsel’s mind when he is in conversation with Isserley. The pattern is repeated and gets a rhythm in the mind of the reader so that the lack of information with some of the potential victims can be used for dramatic intent... which is nice.

Like some of the best science fiction, Isserley’s viewpoint, which dictates the shape of the novel, comes from a place where we are slowly spoonfed the various contents of her ‘otherness’ in such a way that we can view her as something separate from a standard human being... or should I say separate her from a vodsel, to use her language. Faber really pushes the point home in a paragraph about halfway through the novel when Isserley is reflecting on the true intellect of the vodsels and how they are in any way different from the intelligence associated with her race... basically anything on our planet which doesn’t walk on all fours is seen by her people as a dumb animal which can be happily harvested for food. Faber uses sentences like this to show her viewpoint here...

“They couldn’t siuwill, they couldn’t mesnishti, 
they had no concept of slan.”

Faber deliberately makes use of nonsense words to help the vodsels who are reading his book identify with the victims and, through the readers confusion at this point, help establish the true alien nature of the central character. Okay, this tactic is a little clumsy in some ways because he only goes this extreme with the concept once in the book, for about a paragraph, unless I missed something... but it does get the point home when he needs to emphasise the attitudes of Isserley and her colleagues, who are included in the story as major characters also... unlike in the film where they are humanoid in form and almost, but not quite, non-existent in the visual presentation on screen. This, of course, places us in a position where we can understand the main theme Faber seems to be pushing, which would be a firm position on a vegetarian lifestyle in opposition to the slaughter of another species for food. Now I’m definitely a carnivore, for my sins, but I can appreciate the sentiment and argument and it seems to be the main treatise and underlying point of the novel. I guess it’s probably a very effective one if you’re already having thoughts about going in that general direction.

Under The Skin is, for the most part, a well written piece of literature which is miles apart from the movie version but, having seen the movie first and finding it an effective piece of cinematic art, I can’t honestly say either one detracts too much from enjoyment of the other. Certainly, if you have seen the film and want to explore, lets call it an alternative viewpoint, of the motivations of the main character, then you will probably get a rewarding experience from the book. Isserley is a much different person but she is not as hardened as her ultimate actions would make her appear and, like the movie version of the character to a certain extent (which is quite subtle and which you need to work at to piece together... and that’s as valid a way to present a movie as any other), she is a fully fleshed out and rounded individual with a lot of thought gone into her... probably much more so than the version of her written for Scarlett Johansson’s portrayal, now I reflect on it. Not an important work of science fiction, to be sure, but certainly an entertaining and, sometimes, thought provoking one which I would say is definitely worth picking up. Perhaps not a major work but certainly an enjoyable one.

For a review of Michel Faber’s book The Crimson Petal and The White, written by guest reviewer Sandy Hamilton, please take a look here... http://nuts4r2.blogspot.co.uk/2012/06/crimson-petal-and-white.html

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