The Incredible Shrinking Man: A Classic Sci-Fi Book to Film Story

Richard Matheson’s novel was adapted into The Incredible Shrinking Man in 1957. We look at its journey from page to screen.

For some writers, the most outlandish story ideas often come from unexpectedly mundane sources. Stephen King was inspired to write his claustrophobic short tale The Mist during a trip to his local supermarket. John Wyndham came up with the killer plant concept at the heart of The Day Of The Triffids when he spotted some vegetation shaking menacingly in the breeze.

Author Richard Matheson, meanwhile, was inspired to write his 1956 novel, The Shrinking Man, while watching an apparently incidental scene in the 1953 musical, Let’s Do It Again. A moment where actor Ray Milland puts on a hat belonging to someone else, which then flops down over his ears, made Matheson ask the question: what would happen if a man began to shrink in stature, so that his own clothes ceased to fit him?

That simple what-if question formed the basis of one of the finest sci-fi novels of the ’50s – one that managed to capture the shifting gender politics of the post-war era, and wind the subtext into a brief, beautifully told story about a character’s ever-dwindling size. That character, Scott Carey, is one of the most compelling in SF literature. Following a brief yet devastating exposure to an atomic cloud (the culprit of just about every disaster in ’50s sci-fi), Carey’s body begins to shrink at the rate of one-seventh of an inch per day.

Its premise may be the stuff of B-movies (The Devil-Doll and Dr. Cyclops got there first), but Richard Matheson invests his story with such detail, tragedy and drama that it remains convincing from start to finish. His tactic of repeatedly cutting back and forth in time, from the start of Carey’s sorry tale, to his twilight days, where he’s mere inches tall and still shrinking, gives the book a narrative drive that would have been absent in a linear telling. 

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To Carey, the most mundane activities gradually take on a nightmarish quality. Once standing proud at a little over six-feet tall, he first has to cope with his changing relationships with those around him. He becomes bitter and angry at his wife as she begins to tower over him, and accuses her of treating him like a child. At the same time, the outside world reacts with a mixture of fascination and hostility; he briefly becomes a media celebrity as his story is published in newspapers. He’s jeered at and bullied by youths who would once have been intimidated by him. In one disturbing moment, Carey’s accosted by an unseemly man who mistakes him for a child.

As Carey’s condition worsens, he becomes unnervingly predatory himself. Estranged from his wife, he has a brief fling with a dwarf at a carnival, and later, begins to spy on his daughter’s babysitter. Much of the book is concerned with Carey’s day-to-day survival – the search for food in the basement that later becomes his prison, and his occasional battles with a terrifyingly depicted black widow spider. It’s the changing landscape of Carey’s relationships, though, which is the most compelling aspect of the story.

Few sci-fi authors before or since have attempted to examine masculinity in quite such painful detail as Matheson manages here, or use a simple story to pluck at our fears about illness, loss of control, and death. In The Shrinking Manmen are defined by their ability to dominate those around them – whether it’s their wife, their daughter, or their neighbors. As Carey dwindles in size, so too does sense of power and self-esteem, until he becomes an embittered, deviant character who comes to hate the people he once loved.

The adaptation

It’s unsurprising, given the barely-veiled subtexts in Matheson’s novel, that the film adaptation would tone many of them down. With a screenplay written by Matheson himself (with uncredited help from Richard Alan Simmons), The Incredible Shrinking Man excised some of the more troubling elements of the original story.

Carey’s daughter is conspicuously absent, as is his encounter with a sexual predator, or his spying on a babysitter. The structure, too has been significantly altered – the constant intercutting of the book between time frames is replaced by a linear narrative, which follows Carey from his initial chemical exposure aboard a boat to his final epiphany in a lonely basement. The result is a film with less intrigue and a more doom-laden tone than the book – without the distraction of multiple timelines, there’s no escape from the inevitability of Carey’s fate.

Interestingly, Matheson was against the chronological telling of the story seen in the finished film. In an interview on Sci-fi Station, he described how the concept of jumping back and forth in time simply wasn’t a common storytelling technique in American films of the 1950s.

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“I wanted, at the time, to have the story structure follow the book, in which you would go to flashbacks, but they didn’t want to do that, and accordingly, I think the first part of the film is the dullest,” Matheson said. “I tried to write my novel that way originally, interestingly enough, and it didn’t work at all. I didn’t think it had any interest, so I had to jump right into the main body of the story, and then tell the back story through flashbacks, which is the way I think the film should have been done, but nobody did films that way in those days.”

In spite of all this, The Incredible Shrinking Man is still faithful to the book in individual scenes, even though those scenes are arranged in a different order. The subtext of Matheson’s novel remains in a more disguised form, and the result is one of the very best sci-fi movies of the decade. 

The Incredible Shrinking Man was directed by Jack Arnold, who’d already directed two of the most memorable films in the ’50s sci-fi boom, It Came From Outer Space and Creature From The Black Lagoon.

For its time, the film’s effects were remarkably ambitious, and in many cases, still stand up. Arnold’s team spent eight month on bringing the effects to the screen, while Arnold himself came up with some ingenious, low-tech solutions to some of the full-scale props – including the use of condoms filled with water to stand in for raindrops.

The use of rear projection, split screen and model effects all convey Carey’s dwindling size, and there’s a great fight between our diminutive hero and a squealing house cat. The technical limitations of the period mean that Carey has to do battle with a tarantula rather than a black widow (the former was presumably easier to prod into action), but such things are easy to overlook in the context of the film.

(On a side note, actress Randy Stuart recalls that the studio lights were so hot during the spider scenes that about “two dozen” of the creatures died during filming.)

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As in the book, the film’s most compelling scenes come from Carey’s (played by Grant Williams) changing relationship with his wife Louise (Stuart). Their typical suburban ’50s husband-and-wife relationship convincingly changes as Carey dwindles – the latter responds with anger, constantly pushing his spouse away until an accident leaves him trapped in the basement.

Williams and Stewart are great in these scenes, ably assisted by Jack Arnold’s capacity to illustrate the heightening drama through purely visual moments – the scene where Carey’s wedding ring slides off his finger is but one example.

Carey’s concluding soliloquy (“All this vast majesty of creation, it had to mean something”), as he shrinks to microcosmic size, was also Arnold’s idea – and it’s easy to see why the director felt it necessary to add this in. Even with this hint of redemption at the end, where Carey accepts his fate, The Incredible Shrinking Man remains one of the most bravely downbeat movies of the ’50s. Indeed, the conclusion was something Matheson and Arnold had to fight to keep in place; Universal executives were wary of it, and pressed for an ending where doctors found a serum to reverse Carey’s condition.

Even the MPAA were wary of the ending as originally conceived by Matheson; Tom Weaver’s book Science Fiction And Fantasy Film Flashbacks records that one Mrs. Dawson of the Motion Picture Association felt that the Shrinking Man had to have a happy ending. “The fate of diminishing into an infinitesimal part of the cosmos is an idea difficult for most people to grasp, impossible to explain to children […] and incompatible with certain religious beliefs held in this country and abroad.”

Thankfully, Jack Arnold’s previous hits had given him enough clout to push the ending through as originally conceived – religious incompatibiltiy be damned. 

“The only fight I had with [the studio] on The Incredible Shrinking Man, I won it,” Arnold told Cinefantastique years later. “They wanted a happy ending. They wanted him to suddenly start to grow again, and I said “Over my dead body.” So they said, “Well, let’s test your ending.” And at the previews it went over so well, they agreed it was best to keep it. But I had something of a to-do with them at first, and I had to explain that this was not a film suited to a happy ending.” 

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It’s the film’s sombre tone that makes The Incredible Shrinking Man feel so timeless nearly 60 years after it was made. The flag-waving excesses and mad scientists of lesser genre ’50s fare are absent, and both Matheson and Arnold handle a pulpy concept with intelligence and integrity.

The word “incredible” was added to the title to make it fit with the sensational names of other sci-fi pictures of its era (how else could it compete with stuff like Attack Of The Crab Monsters, The Night The World Exploded, or From Hell It Came, all released the same year?), but make no mistake; The Incredible Shrinking Man is anything but a standard B-picture, and deals with weighty themes – mortality, exploitation, gender politics – with both seriousness and a lightness of touch.

Unlike Matheson’s earlier novel, I Am Legend, which has so far been the subject of three flawed big-screen adaptations, The Shrinking Man got the respectful treatment it deserved in Arnold’s movie. The result is a rare thing in modern culture: a classic novel complemented by a genuinely great cinema adaptation.

This is an updated version of an article originally published on Den Of Geek UK in October 2011.