With the ever-increasing popularity of book-to-movie adaptations, more and more I’m seeing the question: How to adapt a book with a first-person narrator? Eight months out from The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, my friends are already questioning if movie audiences will be able to follow along with Katniss when the majority of the book’s action occurs outside of her sphere of influence.
It’s a keen question, as many books employ first-person narrative to make the character more immediately accessible to the reader. In a film, however, that move can be alienating. And, with that quasi-pun, let me introduce you to a movie that somewhat successfully sells an experience conducted solely from the first-person point of view: Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin, based on Michel Faber‘s novel by the same name, which stars Scarlett Johansson as a man-eating alien.
The plot is pretty straightforward: Laura (Johansson) drives through the mists of Scotland in her innocuous, beat-up truck, slowing to chat up attractive male hitchhikers and determining that they’re unattached and wouldn’t be missed before she basically devours them. Cloaked in the form of an Earthling hottie, Laura nevertheless makes an awkward human. She’s lucky for her looks: Combined with her odd English accent, they help her swiftly bring down men’s barriers. But she’s just barely passing as human: She lacks the ability to interact naturally outside of the confines of her truck; and we later discover that her human form is, by some standards, incomplete.
But even as small slip-ups put Laura in the uncanny valley, we have the opportunity to witness every step of her plan through her eyes. Now, there’s no internal monologue narrating as she stalks each man like a piece of prey; in fact, the movie is largely nonverbal. But because Johansson is the sole main player and we spend 98% of the movie with her (the other 2% being watching the other aliens, disguised as motorcycle riders, who clean up after her), it’s like being in her head.
What’s interesting is that in Faber’s novel, Laura is Isserley; the action takes place in tight-focus third-person; and you don’t discover that she’s an alien farming these human bodies for her starving homeworld until more than halfway through. Whereas the film opens with this premise—we watch Laura strip a human and put on each piece of her clothing—giving us the necessary context to read into her actions.
While the majority of the book is from Isserley’s POV, whenever she picks up a hitchhiker, the perspective shifts to his—at least, for as long as it takes before she knocks him out. In the movie, we the viewers actually replace the hitchhikers: We’re the ones sizing up Laura, from her voluptuous features to the flickers in her expression that betray her predatory thoughts.
Interestingly, the original intent was to cast two main actors: Their alien characters would be posing as a couple to pick up prey. However, in pre-production the concept shifted to just one hunter, as in the book, which is where Johansson got involved. The movie does work better looking through one set of eyes, though at times not knowing everything Laura is thinking is frustrating.
This kind of movie is not for everyone. I found myself squirming uncomfortably at the lack of dialogue; and co-writer/director Glazer went super-existential with the scenes where Laura’s prey get captured in an inky darkness that slowly leeches their essential meats and nutrients. But as a character study, it’s fascinating—especially when an interaction with a deformed man leads Laura to go rogue.
I won’t spoil anything more than these broad strokes. But if you like existential sci-fi/thriller crossovers, then you’ll appreciate how Glazer treats Faber’s novel. I’d suggest that others adapting first-person narratives take note of what does and doesn’t work here: Focus on the physical interior, as with the great opening sequence showing the creation of Laura’s human eye as she practiced speaking with a human tongue; perhaps ground it a bit more, since drawing from an interior monologue for plot can get really existential really fast; occasionally show us how others regard the main protagonist.
In fact, Under the Skin had me thinking of another “body snatcher” story I’d like to see adapted: Matt Haig‘s The Humans, which follows an extraterrestrial who goes from an incorporeal, hive-mind kind of planet to a human fleshbag and all the nasty emotional attachments involved in infiltrating the family of a brilliant mathematician whose theorem will change mankind’s position in the universe. But I’d want to see it with a lot more dialogue.