I reviewed the film earlier in the year when it came out, but since then have read the source novel. Under the Skin is an incredible film – hypnotic and visual, nigh-incomprehensible but anchored with haunting imagery and atmosphere that resonate even if you don’t understand the film as a whole.
It tells the story of an unnamed woman perusing the streets of Scotland for male hitchhikers, who she then takes home, where they’re trapped in a strange prison, and we come to understand that she’s not exactly human. Eventually, the film shifts tone and explores this woman’s experiences of humanity and the world around her, as seen through her alien view of the world.
According to IMDb, the woman is named Laura, though this is never said anywhere in the film and the credits only list the names of the performers, not the characters.
In Michael Faber’s source novel, the very basics of the plot are similar – an alien woman cruises the streets of Scotland picking up men to entrap, only to have an awakening of sorts to humanity by the story’s end.
But let’s expand here:
Isserley is a female alien who has been sent to Earth to capture Vodsel (humans) for their skin, which is a delicacy for the ruling elite on her home planet. She has been mutilated and surgically modified to look like a human being, and is mighty resentful of this fact. She works alone, returning the carcasses of the men she picks up on the road to a rag-tag group of men from her home planet who work underneath an isolated farm, processing the flesh before it’s sent back to their home planet.
She grows anxious at the impending arrival of Amliss Vess, son of the company’s owner, as she has come to loathe her employers for everything they’ve taken from her. We also learn about her methodical and meticulous approach to her work, the limitations of her rough-hewn body, the isolation she feels not only as an alien on Earth but also as an unrecognisable member of her race stranded so far from her home, and her curiosities in the world around her.
Isserley is a head-strong, arrogant and proud, flawed character who is struggling with her lot in life. She’s not entirely uncompassionate, and by the novel’s end she has come to understand more about the world she’s in as well as the world she’s from. This doesn’t even cover the details of the class struggle on her home planet, its ecological devastation or the will-they-won’t-they romantic subplot between her and Amliss Vess when they finally meet.
Both versions of Under the Skin are great. The movie is an arthouse treat, the book is a compelling and unsettling read that covers a great swathe of themes in its 295 pages; but compare the two basic plot summaries, and they’re barely recognisable.
Which is completely fine.
In the litany of filmic adaptations of books, there’s no consensus on what makes an adaptation work. There are purists who won’t accept change, and the other end of the spectrum in viewers who complain of it being exactly the same. There are those who fall in between who accept and reject some changes or some repetitions of the material.
For what it’s worth, a direct adaptation of the book would probably have ended up a hokey mess, unable to reconcile the novel’s horrific elements with its existential wistfulness, or let down by the necessities of condensing the entire lore of a novel into a visual representation. It might not have – it could have been amazing, but in comparing a hypothetical direct adaptation of the book with what has been made in the current version, my imagination still comes up short.
Because the film is so wholly different from the book, it becomes its own entity. It has the same shadow of plot as the novel, but is an entirely different experience to comprehend. It takes many elements of the story and crafts them into an entirely different beast, which is a better way of adapting a story. If it’s so far removed from the source that they border on incomparable, it removes the need to assess the film by how close or how far it hits the mark. Clearly it can’t be derided for being too similar, and those who bemoan the amount of change appear redundant by insisting that a wildly different work hew closer to its inspiration.
It removes the need to ask if the book is better than the movie or vice-versa; neither is better at being the other because they’re not the same thing in the end. You can ask what might be more enjoyable, or what’s more effective at utilising different themes in one or the other, or what approach walks best.
For instance: the men who are captured. In the novel, Isserley drives around in a modified car which has a hidden device that injects them with a paralysing agent; they’re then taken back to the farm, castrated and their tongues cut out. They’re then fattened and bloated, before taken to a modified bulldozer where their skin is eventually shed from their bodies.
In the movie, the alien lures them into their home, where once over the threshold they seem to move into an entirely different dimension – they walk along a black reflective surface as the alien sheds her clothes and they follow suit. Eventually, they sink into and beneath the surface while she stays on top, and later we see that in their suspended state, their skin is loosened from their bodies the same way you might soak a label off a plastic bottle.
Both are different approaches to the unappealing thought of harvesting human flesh. One is protracted, visceral and gruesome, the other is (visually) poetic, haunting and elegant. Neither is pleasant, but depending on your ability to appreciate/stomach the concept, one may work better for you than the other – but the film doesn’t adapt what was in the book, so it’s not a measure of success of recreating what’s in the book. Another point of difference – the film doesn’t let you know exactly what’s happening – it’s haunting and beautifully terrifying, but you don’t understand it as a harvest, whereas in the book you’ve had all the finer points and minutiae of Isserley’s job detailed before we read how the skin is harvested. Is the thought of harvesting human flesh more or less appealing if you know exactly what’s going on, or would you prefer it as an alien act that’s not immediately apparent? Either way, the success of one over the other comes from which you prefer in what version, not as the success or failure of the movie to capture the book.
Having said all that, it’s true that you can prefer one overall version of the story over another. For me, I like the movie more – I love Jonathan Glazer’s completely unique approach to telling the story, I love the imagery, the sound design, the photography and the overall alien quality of the movie – it’s awesome. But does this diminish Michael Faber’s book? No. The novel is great, it’s complex and engaging, and full of a lot more actual plot than the film. I like its concepts, ideas, and its characters, and the whole world that Faber creates despite never taking the reader there. I prefer one version of the story over its counterpart, but in terms of successful adaptation, neither is better than the other.