Abstract adaptation: Jonathan Glazer gives Michel Faber’s novel a second skin

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Author Michel Faber’s magnum opus ‘The Crimson Petal and the White’, about a Victorian era London prostitute who drags herself up from the gutter and into the higher echelons of society, (not too long ago adapted into an engrossing BBC drama starring Romola Garai, Gillian Anderson and Chris O’Dowd) has sold over 325, 000 copies, with many of those readers still to discover his extraordinary debut novel ‘Under the Skin’, about an alien visitor in human skin, abducting hitchhikers in the Scottish Highlands to harvest human flesh, that’s intergalactically  exported and sold as the most desirable delicacy to the prosperous peoples of her home world.

Extraterrestrial serial killers and Victorian ill-virtues might seem galaxies apart, but both novels deal with familiar worlds seen through unacquainted eyes, and places we think we know are given a disconcertingly alien and alienating perspective. In the first paragraph of ‘Petal’, its protagonist and narrator, Sugar, tells the reader to forget what they’ve imaged from other Dickensian stories of her era that flattered them and treated them as if they belonged there. “The truth”, says Sugar, “is that you are an alien from another time and place altogether.”

This is literally the case for Isserley, who having recently arrived on earth, spends her days canvassing country roads for unaccompanied, well-built male hitchhikers. Told from her point of view, the book fitfully switches perspective to that of her unsuspecting roadside pick-ups; the humans she calls  ‘Vodsels’. For the film adaptation, the viewpoint remains impersonally abstract and inscrutable. Spending nine years obsessively refining the story he wanted to tell, the earliest drafts of Jonathan Glazer’s adaptation were faithful recreations of the source material until it became clear he wanted to do much more than just illustratively stage Faber’s text (and thank God – it’s hard to imagine interactions between Isserley and members of her own species in their natural form not looking ridiculous). In the last three years of writing and after going through just as many co-writers, Glazer began collaborating with his old friend Walter Campbell (the advertising genius who conceptualized Glazer’s famous Guinness: “Surfer”ad), convincing him to all but abandon the novel’s narrative, stripping away its more obvious sci-fi embellishments to a bare bones molten core and using the book only as a distant starting point.

Capturing the repulsive yet alluring essence of the novel, the film has an incredibly powerful and unsettling signature all of its own. Like all great adaptations, whichever order you read or watch in, each enhances and enriches your experience of the other. The points of departure are fascinating in part for being so many, contradictorily suggesting that the further a screenwriter runs away from what they’re adapting, the closer they come to truly understanding what they’re working with.

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In the film the alien named Laura (whose name is never spoken aloud) is a vision of sinister sexuality in the guise of Scarlett Johansson. Glazer makes his A-lister feel all the more alien by taking her away from movie sets and photographing her in a vérité style on the real world streets of Glasgow. Using newly developed surveillance cameras and putting Johansson in a disguise which gives her celebrity a somewhat dowdy anonymity, he’s able to capture conversations with unwitting members of the general public who signed wavers at the end of their scenes to appear in the film (not everyone agreed and some supposedly great scenes were unusable).

But even dressing her down and putting on a few pounds, as soon as Johansson sheds her clothes, her victims cease to realise the danger they’re in, just as straight males in the audience are sent into a vegetative trance, sounded out by Mica Levi’s unnervingly hypnotic score. Taking them back to a black, dimensionless room where’s there’s nothing to focus on but shapely Johansson in a bra and panties, there’s no denying the movie star bod which has topped FHM polls and that face, topped off with a page 3 girl pout.

Whereas Laura has no obvious external indicators of her alien origin, Isserley, originally a fur-covered, four-legged creature has had her tail amputated and teats removed to achieve human resemblance, with evident scarring all over her body from her transformation. Surgically Frankensteined into a perpendicular, hairless, humanoid, she’s the freak result of primitive plastic surgery that’s given her skin a peculiarly abnormal texture, “downy like the hide of a cat recently splayed just beginning to grow back fur.” Suffering severe spinal pain from sitting upright in the car she cruises around in, Isserley is disgusted by her new appearance whenever she catches sight of herself in the review mirror, particularly her magnificent breasts which she likens to artificial tumours, but which act as the necessary bait she needs to lure horny hitchhikers otherwise turned off by her.

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Described by one of her passengers as “half Baywatch babe, half little old lady”, Isserley wears huge granny glasses, the lenses distorting her obviously alien eyes that no operations have been able to alter. Glazer’s first middle finger to source fidelity happens as early as the opening shot, in which a perfectly human eye is constructed for Laura (though almost by way of apology, he stunningly visualises the final page of the book in the last shot). Johansson’s eyes are used to disarming effect and unlike Isserley, turning away from her passengers to avoid suspicion, Laura combines purposefully banal talk with intense eye contact, as forcefully arousing as her prominently displayed chest.

No such luck for Isserley, less she-wolf than shrinking violet and just as unnerved by new people as she is her new body. In every encounter with the Vodsels, she finds herself covered in a panicked sweat which sends “cold chills running down her back like electric currents.” Being unable to use one of the most seductive parts of her body and at a loss of knowing how, Isserley loses many of her prey. Sat close together in her tiny car, as the growing intimacy between Isserley and her travel companions hardens into mutual unease, these conversations in the book are more about cross examination than come-ons. Faber employs small talk as an interrogatory tool, while Glazer’s film operates entirely on the language of seduction, with disturbing moments and images so mystifyingly, they become as tantalising as the beguiling alien the men in the film can’t take their eyes off.

Isserley’s eyes are too busy concentrating on the job at hand to offer much enticement beyond what’s spilling out of a low cut top. Before offering anyone a lift, she does a few U-turns, driving by potential game as many times as necessary to try and weigh up “the steely density of their neck and the width of their shoulders, determined not to disqualify on the grounds of age.” She’s looking for big muscles, and puny scrawny specimens being of no use to her, the detective work continues the moment they’ve buckled their seatbelts. With the heating up at maximum to give her passengers incentive to remove as many articles of clothing as possible, Isserley proceeds to ask a series of leading questions in order to assess the risks of killing the man sat next to her. If the men are local to the farm where the bodies are harvested there’s a greater danger of it leading back to her, and employed men with families are riskier still, due to the increased number of people asking questions after they go missing. If you’re unemployed, unattached or just passing through, you’re more likely to fit the bill and then it’s simply a matter of Isserley finding the opportune moment to flick a switch which darkens her windows and sends needles jabbing up through the passenger seat and into the skin of whoever’s unfortunate enough to have accepted a ride from her, injecting them with a knockout drug named Icpathua.

Taken to a human slaughterhouse, the men’s genitals are removed before being tightly constrained in the same kind of tiny, wire battery cages that KFC’s meat suppliers keep their chickens in, and given chemical feed which removes all the toxins from their bodies and pumps up their existing musculature, literally turning them into beefcakes.

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None of this happens of course without Isserley, sent out day after day, driving up and down the A9 and further afield. This is hard, grueling, monotonous and occasionally dangerous work. For all the long hours, it’s not unusual for her to return home empty-handed (pickings are slimmer in the Highlands than the film’s Glasgow city center) and throughout it all she’s always under pressure to bring back more bodies and in agonising physical pain.

Like a guided missile Laura is always on target and indiscriminate in her choice of meat. Comfortable in her new skin and sitting up high in her much more spacious and ominous looking black van, she’s supremely confident in her chit chat, taking only minutes to get men to agree to go home with her. With her knockout bod no drugs are required, and given that she looks like Scarlett Johansson, Laura never goes home alone.

From the outside it looks like crumbling, cheap student accommodation, but on the inside, Laura’s lair is anything but homely. So entranced are they by their alien hostess, the men don’t even hesitate upon entering a fixtureless black void seemingly infinite on all sides. Strutting down a catwalk of death, Scarlett sheds her clothes in the manner of a perfume ad directed by David Lynch and the naked, erect men blindly follow after her in long, controlled strides, staring straight ahead with the focus of male models, as if invisible flashbulbs are going off all around them. Their eyes remain fixed on Laura without breaking step, even as they sink into a black liquid that swallows them up and deposits them in a tank where they float weightlessly. Though there’s no water they move in slow motion as if submerged and now, suddenly snapped back into consciousness, their desperate screams are creepily dulled to a numb, aquatic murmur.

Whatever is being ingested in the tank has the same effect as the feed given them in the book, swelling them up grotesquely and pounding their facial features into a pulpy mass of muscle. When Laura’s most recent victim encounters the horrifying vision of the guy who came before him, only discernably human from eyes which have shrunk back into his skull and are now “the size of a porcupine’s twinkling among the muscled up cells of his fully crammed physiognomy”, it’s one of those indelible images you’re not thankful to Glazer for putting in your head. When the body swells to bursting point and is vaporised, leaving only some skin behind, Glazer goes into an abstract, full-on Kubrickian departure that readers of the book could never have imagined; a mind-blowing, deep space sound and light show that would fry brains if the film were ever screened on IMAX (though contemplating the horrors of this film on a screen that size doesn’t bear thinking about). The glamorous grotesquery of what happens to these men in the void they’ve slipped into is an incomprehensible process, but better to be baffled than bored, and Under the Skin is far too frightening to ever be accused of that.

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As Glazer’s tripping the light fantastic, one particular image in this spaced odyssey montage potently recalls the novel. A conveyer belt carrying square packages of what is likely human meat, moves them towards some kind of fiery incinerator. How that works is anyone’s guess, but the intense heat, sparks and fire puts readers of the book in mind of the sweltering unpleasantness of the factory where Isserley’s co-workers are confined, working themselves to the bone without rest for the Vess Corporation. Forbidden from going outside, they may as well be living underground as they do back home. It’s in these sections of Isserley interacting with her own kind, (non-existent in the film) that the book reads like an especially cruel satire on cooperate exploitation of the workforce.

Amazingly with just one fleeing image, the film is able to evoke all this without ever directly referencing it. Indeed, the film has a habit of summoning the book more through sense memory than recreation, irremovably absorbed, as it must have been in Glazer’s subconscious after spending almost a decade adapting it.

For this reason even the smallest differences seem pointed. For practical reasons, Scarlett Johansson drives around in a van big enough to house a skeleton crew and all the surveillance gear required to get the candid camera scenes on film, and for the purposes of the narrative, we’ve all seen enough films where black vans pull up in broad daylight and government operatives leap out and abduct somebody off the street, that we feel immediately wary whenever we see one on-screen. Why then, aside from the obvious, did Faber choose to have Isserley drive around in a much more inconspicuous, battered red Toyota Corolla?

The car is often described as a very hemmed in space that adds to Isserley’s discomfort. Later we learn that the industrial slag heap from which she hails is neatly divided into the prosperous and the poor; the Elite living above ground and beneath them, the underground Estates with nothing in-between. Living underground, Isserley is unfortunate enough to suffer from claustrophobia, so coming to Earth, particularly the natural, vast expanses and wide-open spaces of the Scottish Highlands is a blessed relief. In some way, the cramped car where she spends most of her day is an ironic form of torture, viewing all that freedom out her windshield while trapped in a steel box, an ever-present reminder of her traumatic upbringing that she can’t travel enough light years to forget. Still, she considers herself fortunate, knowing that one tiny cut of the human meat she’s procuring on behalf of Vess Corporation is worth a whole month’s wage of water and oxygen that citizens of the Estates are paid in, and here on earth, she gets an unlimited supply of both for free.

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Unsure about Vodsels, hates her new body but relishes her environment, while Laura knows exactly how to handle humans in their more natural urban habitat, even pausing in one of the film’s most memorable scenes to admire the perfection of her new skin  yet she comes unstuck in the film’s third act, finding herself out in nature where she is raped, then killed.

Much earlier in the film, Laura is dragged by some ladettes on the lash into the shoulder-to-shoulder, boom-boom bedlam of a nightclub, a situation Isserley would have been utterly unable to handle, but Laura’s detachment to the human experience is so total that the intensity of the place does nothing to distract her from the task at hand, looking for an exit just as quickly as she entered so that she can resume the hunt. In the book, the precious few hours Isserley gets alone are spent in a dilapidated cottage on the beach, where every morning before setting off, she walks along the same verge of rock, viewing this unfamiliar planet with wide-eyed wonder and awestruck curiosity:

“The variety of shapes, colours and textures under her feet was, she believed, literally infinite. It must be. Each shell, each pebble, each stone had been made what it was by aeons of submarine or subglacial massage. The indiscriminate, eternal devotion of nature to its numberless particles had an emotional importance to Isserley, it put the unfairness of human life into perspective.”

There’s a recognisably human and spiritual dimension to such reflective passages, and in the oasis of this calm environment where Isserley relates most to our planet, we find ourselves relating to her. In exactly the opposite way, the film’s most chaotic scene occurs during a family day out at the beach; Laura’s icy lack of connection allowing her to passively observe a wife going into rough seas after her drowning dog, where she dies along with her husband after he attempts a rescue. Their small child is left alone on the shore; parentless, defenseless and screaming into the dead of night. These are cries that will put hearts in mouths and shake the soul of anyone watching but Laura  – at least at this point in the film – appears to have neither, or any remotely human instinct to want to help the howling toddler. We look for a glimmer of sentience in her eyes, but how could there be? We know from the title sequence that these eyes have been constructed.

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In no other scene of the film does Laura feel more alien. And while I’m not sure if Johansson ever read the book, it’s as if she’s internalized one of the lines Isserley uses to describe a hitchhiker she can’t wait to get rid of as the guiding principle of her own performance. Like the hitchhiker who instantly makes Isserley feel unsafe, “the very laws of physics” are unsettled by Laura’s presence; “as if the electrons in the air were suddenly spinning faster.” At the screening I attended, there was a palpable feeling whenever Johansson looked down the lens and out into the audience, of the electrons between unsettled members of the press vibrating faster, until they were ricocheting around the confines of the cinema like crazed invisible insects. Quite possibly the most uncomfortable film I’ve ever seen, what made it all the more unbearable was a packed auditorium of people feeling the same way. One woman in front of me got up and left way before the beach scene, declaring to her companion that she “couldn’t handle it anymore.”

That’s not to say as readers we aren’t equally horrified by Isserley’s own actions as a scheming serial killer, but her developing conscience and sentimentality in trying to understand the people she kidnaps as she gradually becomes more disillusioned with her work and it slowly dawns on her that she’s being abused by her employers, gives her a subtly sympathetic arc. By contrast, Glazer’s film has the spinal structure of a jellyfish; a progression whose movement isn’t a narrative arc with a peak and a finish, simply the slowly encroaching sense that things are largely hopeless for both alien and human life alike.

Faber italicises this idea in the book through an upsetting set of contrasting circumstances. During one of her only visits to the human holding cells, a pleading prisoner scrawls “Mercy” in the dirt, a concept Isserley is unfamiliar with and a word she doesn’t recognise, standing the other side of it and viewing it upside down. The blubbering distress on the man’s face is harder to confuse and it’s an image she recalls when she is later raped by one of her pick-ups and prey becomes predator. Isserley cries the word aloud, but isn’t understood, having misremembered it as “Murky.” Rape butchers her psychologically, and brings her to an animal state physically, and as she’s being violated Isserley endures not only her own pain and suffering, but recognises that misery which Vess Corporation is inflicting on their captives.

The first mistake Isserley makes in trying to understand humans is watching television. Not being able to tell the difference between soaps and real life, her amusing, half-grasped notions of our society lack any understanding of its complexities. Laura doesn’t even make it that far, utterly dumbfound when her short-term lover has her watch comedian Tommy Cooper. As Isserley encounters more and more unemployed males she comes to the following conclusion: “All the thick-knitted-jumper Vodsels she’d ever met were unemployed and lived the life of pariahs. Some authority must actually force them to wear these garments she thought as a stigma of rank.” In hearing her thoughts on our race we learn more about hers and her than she would ever volunteer herself. Isserley’s incorrect observations (that are not without a grain of truth) offer an absurdist slant of her own experience as a member of a repressed majority population.

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Beyond simply calling the aliens ‘humans’, drawing a clear parallel between the cruel animal welfare practices of fast food chain meat suppliers and what the aliens are doing to us, is another of the ways in which Faber anthropomorphises their behaviour so that we might better understand them, and more crucially, Isserley. Even her relationships in the workplace seem to closely resemble the passive aggressive politics of our own offices. If the film goes so far in its third act as to suggest that we’re all the same under the skin, it’s actually a thought that’s spoken aloud at a later point in the book.

During her time on Earth, it’s certainly arguable that Laura doesn’t begin to recognise herself in us (as Sam Wigley muses in his Sight & Sound review, that’s more likely wishful projection on our part), but she does eventually encounter a conscious that perturbs and unsettles her. Where Isserley is awoken to a new way of thinking by a series of seismic inciting incidents which includes her being raped, the nature of specific occurrences (including an encounter with a disfigured man quite unlike the others) which cause Laura to abandon her mission remain unknown to the viewer and Laura too, her own rape happening long after she decides to go it alone.

In the book nascent emotions crystalize into remorseful guilt and disgust, but in the film, these nagging feelings only ever come close ambivalence. None the wiser about what kind of being we’re looking at when the credits roll, Johansson admirably inhabits the role of a creature not of our world whose emotions remain under the skin and impenetrable through to the end.

Though as evidenced by the scene in which Laura pleasingly admires herself in the mirror, wearing a new skin is also stirring significant changes beneath it. Laura’s failed attempts to acquire a taste for human food and entering into a relationship with a man she doesn’t kill, marks her story as one of self-discovery and self-expression for the formally expressionless, remorseless killer. But it’s a process Laura remains unaware of, and one that perplexes the viewer in much the same way as the obscured fates of the men vaporized and zapped into space.

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Beyond simply calling the aliens ‘humans’, drawing a clear parallel between the cruel animal welfare practices of fast food chain meat suppliers and what the aliens are doing to us, is another of the ways in which Faber anthropomorphises their behaviour so that we might better understand them, and more crucially, Isserley. Even her relationships in the workplace seem to closely resemble the passive aggressive politics of our own offices. If the film goes so far in its third act as to suggest that we’re all the same under the skin, it’s actually a thought that’s spoken aloud at a later point in the book.

During her time on Earth, it’s certainly arguable that Laura doesn’t begin to recognise herself in us (as Sam Wigley muses in his Sight & Sound review, that’s more likely wishful projection on our part), but she does eventually encounter a conscious that perturbs and unsettles her. Where Isserley is awoken to a new way of thinking by a series of seismic inciting incidents which includes her being raped, the nature of specific occurrences (including an encounter with a disfigured man quite unlike the others) which cause Laura to abandon her mission remain unknown to the viewer and Laura too, her own rape happening long after she decides to go it alone.

In the book nascent emotions crystalize into remorseful guilt and disgust, but in the film, these nagging feelings only ever come close ambivalence. None the wiser about what kind of being we’re looking at when the credits roll, Johansson admirably inhabits the role of a creature not of our world whose emotions remain under the skin and impenetrable through to the end.

Though as evidenced by the scene in which Laura pleasingly admires herself in the mirror, wearing a new skin is also stirring significant changes beneath it. Laura’s failed attempts to acquire a taste for human food and entering into a relationship with a man she doesn’t kill, marks her story as one of self-discovery and self-expression for the formally expressionless, remorseless killer. But it’s a process Laura remains unaware of, and one that perplexes the viewer in much the same way as the obscured fates of the men vaporized and zapped into space.

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The film lingers on the idea of Laura’s subconscious self-exploration simply by leaving so many questions unanswered. This enigmatic subtext is on the surface of the book, Isserely’s much more conventionally plotted arc of growing human empathy sending the reader to look for deeper meaning elsewhere. If what the film is ultimately about is an unreadable process of finding oneself in a new body and foreign climes, what the book seems to really want to explore are the feelings of class resentment and self-loathing that Isserley’s new world dredges up for the old one.

Despite being born in the Estates, we come to learn that on her home world, Isserley was a vision as beautiful as Scarlett Johansson, a female of the species that the rich males of the Elite took into their own and took turns with, each offering hollow promises of a better life by their side. Now she’s had a taste of the high life, Isserley would rather die than go back to living underground and boldly volunteers to be the first test subject of a new experiment to put one of their own kind amongst the Vodsels and stalk them for food. As a character born in one world, raised in another and now living in a third, Isserley is a classic outsider with no home who’ll never fit in anywhere. Considered a freak after what’s done to her body, she’ll never be welcome back on her own planet and barely convinces as a human on our own. Her life is a “battleground of bitter experience”, full of existential loneliness and unfathomable despair. For Laura, this slide into tragic introspection, and that sense of having nowhere in the cosmos to call your own is only just beginning when she’s burned alive by a rapist in the forest. In the film there is no time or place for such self-pity, just a potent cocktail of confusion when she inexplicably goes off mission.

When a ship arrives to make a pick-up of the meat and transport it back home, it brings with it a stowaway, none other than Amliss Vess, the silver-spooned rebellious son of the owner of Vess Corporation, who is sickened that his father’s trade is based on terrible cruelty that’s overshadowed by the simple facts of supply and demand. He’s come to try and convince Isserley of the wrong of what she’s doing, but listening to his “velvety diction groomed by wealth and privilege”, she can only think of people who made her this way for their own purposes. It’s a petulant anger amplified and confused by the fact that she can’t help but be turned on by his luxurious pelt. She hates him for where he comes from but also what he reminds her of. He is truly beautiful example of their race, much the same way Isserley was before she went under the knife. More than Amliss’ sermons on the virtues of vegetarianism, what causes her to sever ties with the company is the horrifying news that thousands of the impoverished back home are desperate enough to beg for the same ‘chance’ she was given. It’s clear then that the company doesn’t care about her. If she can’t up her quota then she’s easily replaceable.

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Scarlett Johansson recently revealed in an interview that the script was originally a two-hander of aliens assimilating themselves into society and not being found out until the townspeople starts to notice all the abductions. No such thing happens in the book either, but I’m assuming Glazer was spinning off the characters of Isserley and Amliss, between whom Faber develops something of an ‘other side of the tracks’ romance which is never acted upon.

In the end Glazer spins off further than even he probably ever thought possible. An exceedingly rare type of psychological horror, Under the Skin proves it is possible to have the images bear the whole weight and meaning of a film (many critics have already drawn comparisons with Nicolas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth, but in this respect, what about his film Walkabout?). Externalising the demons of Isserley’s personal struggle in abstract spaces, Glazer’s film haunts viewers with scenes of human and in-human horror, that burn themselves on the brain and will stay with you to the grave.

Faber’s novel got under the skin of an alien by delving into her psychology. In Glazer’s transcendentally terrifying film, it is the alien who gets under ours and once she gets her hooks in, she burrows down deep and stays there. It’s an insinuating performance by Johansson that winds its way into you tweaks every nerve and leaves one feeling violated on a molecular level. In the comfort of your own home, the easy option is to just close the book, but in the blackness of a cinema that feels like an extension of Laura’s lair, just like the men on-screen, we’re biped flies in her spider’s web who can’t look away and nobody can hear us when we scream.

First published by Vérité Film Magazine on March 28, 2014

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