How far would a man go to achieve great power over others? Would he risk losing friends, as well as the woman he loves? Dr. Jack Griffin would and certainly did. H. G. Wells’ classic novel, The Invisible Man, has served as an inspiration for countless stories and films that probe the depths of man’s search for power, rather than meaning. James Whale’s 1933 eponymous film adaptation brings Wells’ novel to a visibly invisible life. In addition, it is a feast for the eyes when it comes to special effects. Whale was ahead of his time in rendering such an incredibly fantastical subject matter onto the screen, and making it rather believable.
One cold winter day, a man named Jack Griffin (Claude Rains), wanders into the English village of Iping. He is covered in bandages, wearing a hat, an overcoat, and dark glasses. He demands a room at the local inn despite the fact that the innkeepers tell him that there are no rooms available. Griffin immediately begins to bully everyone who stands in his way, and orders the innkeepers as well as the other villagers around. He is belligerent and narcissistic about the strange preferences he has.
He wants to be left alone, and pretty soon he turns the room into a science laboratory. The innkeepers are losing their patience, and this completely normal reaction to Griffin’s awful behavior leads them to call the police. Their strange tenant is unwilling to leave, but the police aren’t able to do much about it.
As the innkeepers and villagers line up at Griffin’s door, he begins to reveal the secret of his existence. As he begins to unravel the bandages that are “holding” his body together, it becomes clear that Griffin is an invisible man. Paradoxically, he has no regard for anyone but himself, despite the fact that it’s not certain whether he can really see himself at all.
Reluctantly accepting the fact that the villagers will continue to be a nuisance to him, Griffin realizes that he needs an accomplice in his ridiculous plan to dominate the world. After he destroys the room at the inn and terrorizes the people of Iping, he seeks the help of a fellow scientist, Dr. Arthur Kemp. Just as he did at the inn, Griffin terrorizes and forces Kemp into helping him. Kemp asks him to reconsider what he’s doing but Griffin won’t hear any of it.
It’s clear that Griffin didn’t used to be like this. He was a successful and respected scientist, a good colleague, and a man in love with Flora Cranley. She thinks that she can still save him but Griffin’s madness and the potent drug cocktail that he has injected into himself has taken hold of his entire being. He’s unable to see the possibility of human goodness clearly, and the only thing that matters to him is dominion over others. He is, indeed, playing God.
What makes Whale’s adaptation of Wells’ novel so terrifying and powerful is not so much the superb special effects but the very idea of a human being’s hunger to control others. Whale blends humor with horror rather well, especially in the scenes where Griffin pushes down various objects in front of people’s noses. But the real horror remains in Griffin’s vision of humanity, or rather, his complete disregard for the welfare of the others.
Despite the fact that Claude Rains remains invisible in the film until the very end, his presence, especially in his voice, is menacing. He brings fear and anxiety into the folds of the village, and everyone is nervously anticipating what Griffin will do next. They are powerless in the face of Griffin’s monstrous terrorizing, and this is the fear that is most palpable in the film.
Griffin looks ludicrous and inhuman in his bandaged pseudo-costume. He is wholly distant from the rest of the people, yet he doesn’t really care. He is not just a happy recluse, however, but rather a man that uses others and carelessly leaves them in the dust when they have served their purpose to him. You could say that one doesn’t have to be invisible to become such a man, but a question emerges: How does a man become that kind of a monster?
Griffin’s lack of embodiment is not merely physical. Because others cannot see him, he is not, in the most human sense, accountable for his actions. He has no morality because he cannot be recognized. Once a human face is erased, so is the moral imperative to be good. Such a being is not responsible for the well-being of others, nor is he interested in relating to others in any meaningful way.
The tragedy of Griffin’s life is not so much the madness that he willingly injected into his body or even the visions of evil grandeur and world domination. The sadness and emptiness of his life is in the fact that he has rejected the love of the woman who was willing to do anything in order for him to come back to her. Flora was incredibly devoted to Griffin but his failed humanity and a rejection of the dignity of being human brought him to a sad end.
As he lay dying, as his life was expiring, and his body returning to full enfleshment and visibility, Griffin looks at Flora and utters his final words: “I meddled in things that man must leave alone.” It is only in death that Jack Griffin finally became human.