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Film / The Incredible Shrinking Man

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"Easy enough to talk of soul and spirit and existential worth, but not when you're three feet tall."

The Incredible Shrinking Man is a 1957 Sci-Fi Horror film directed by Jack Arnold, based on the novel The Shrinking Man by Richard Matheson (who also co-wrote the screenplay adaptation).

Grant Williams stars as Scott Carey, an ordinary man who is exposed to some type of dust cloud (generally assumed to be radioactive) and subsequently begins to slowly but inexorably shrink, eventually growing so miniscule that his wife Louise (Randy Stuart) is unable to see or hear him. Scott soon finds himself battling for his life against his pet cat and a spider, and confronts the possibility of eventually shrinking away to nothing.

This is considered to be one of the better sci-fi movies of The '50s, thanks to an intelligent script and above-average special effects which lift it above the standard B-Movie fare of the era.

The 1981 comedy film The Incredible Shrinking Woman, directed by Joel Schumacher and starring Lily Tomlin in the title role, is both a remake and spoof of the original story. In 2015, there was a comic book adaptation from IDW Publishing, which was distributed in a four-issue miniseries between July and October. It shares the novel's title (though the variant cover to Issue 3 uses the movie title) and is closer to it in terms of story detail.

Trope Namer for Incredible Shrinking Man.

The movie provides examples of:

  • 15 Minutes of Fame: When word of his condition gets out Scott becomes famous. Camera crews and onlookers camp out on his front lawn hoping to get a look at him and he and Louise need to get an unlisted number to protect their privacy.
  • Adaptation Distillation: In the novel the Careys have a daughter, but they're childless in the film. Some other omissions in the movie:
    • At 42 inches, Scott has some trouble with his car and hitches a ride with a guy. Problem is that the guy believes Scott is a preteen kid and tries to hit on him.
    • Scott has shrunk to about three feet tall when he encounters a group of teenage bullies. When they realize he's the famous "Shrinking Man", they threaten to take his pants off to see if every part of him has shrunk.
    • Scott's sexual frustration is addressed in a more straightforward fashion. When he has grown smaller than his daughter Beth, Louise hires a 15-year-old girl to babysit while she's away at work. Scott, while not making any direct moves, lusts over her (unbeknown to her, as she isn't aware of his presence). Incidentally, he vividly repeats a phrase he'd heard from a pedophile who had earlier mistaken him for a little boy.
    • Though he's upfront with Louise about his intentions, Scott's relationship with Clarice is a one-night stand, as he knows he will soon shrink to the point where intimacy will be impossible altogether. (Unlike in the film, there are no successful attempts to prevent the shrinking even temporarily.)
  • Adaptational Location Change: In the novel the Careys are living in the New York City area, while the film has them residing in California.
  • Adaptational Species Change: Because black widows were too small — and too dangerous — to be used for filming, a tarantula from Panama (named Tamara in the press book) played the role of the spider.
  • Adults Dressed as Children: Justified in-universe; Scott is forced to don little boys' clothing as he gets smaller. The novel has him deliberately playing the part of a child on a couple occasions.
  • Alas, Poor Villain: During his monologue at the end of the film, Scott says that he understands that the spider was also just trying to survive.
  • The Caretaker: Louise Carey. She cares for her husband as he shrinks smaller and smaller, even when he isn't appreciative of it.
  • Cats Are Mean: Beloved pet or no, you just know that Butch will try to eat poor Scott once he gets small enough.
  • Chekhov's Skill: A rather subtle example, but during an early conversation with his doctor Scott mentions in passing that he served in the Navy, and some of the survival techniques he employs while in the basement are likely skills he picked up as part of his military training.
  • Classical Anti-Hero: Scott Carey is an average man who begins to shrink. He increasingly needs to overcome his weaknesses in order to survive.
  • Contrived Coincidence: Scott just happens to be outside on the boat when the radioactive mist passes by, and this only after he just happened to have been accidentally sprayed with insecticide (which the radiation catalyzes to kick off the shrinking process) some time earlier. In the novel it's lampshaded just how long the odds are of somebody falling victim to that exact sequence.
  • Cope by Creating: Scott works on his memoirs as a way of dealing with his situation.
  • Failed a Spot Check: Louise briefly leaves the door open before going out to run an errand and she doesn't notice their cat enter the house. A fatal situation when you have a mouse-sized husband!
  • Flashback: The novel jumps back and forth between Scott's experiences in the basement and flashbacks to episodes from earlier stages of his diminution as he recollects them.
  • Giant Spider: Technically, the spider is normal-sized, but from Scott's POV it is giant.
  • Giant Wall of Watery Doom: This happens to Scott when the water heater he's living under bursts and his new home gets flooded.
  • Hollywood Science: Due to the Square-Cube Law but may have been mildly averted; see below. Of course, as he gets smaller and smaller there are other issues not related to the Square/Cube law that would become very problematic and eventually kill him, but like most films of this nature these issues are ignored. As he gets extremely small he'd freeze to death because his body would lose heat faster than it produces it (this is why birds have feathers and small mammals have fur), his lungs would not work properly when he is insect-sized (insects don't have lungs and rely on air pressure to force oxygen into their bodies through special openings), food would become impossible to find or digest, and once he shrinks small enough the air molecules would be too big for him to breathe.
  • Hope Spot: An antidote is found that halts Scott's shrinking at three feet, and although there's no immediate prospect of reversing it, a friendship with a female dwarf helps him to realize that it's possible to live happily even at that size. Then the antidote stops working.
  • House Wife: Louise Carey starts the film as this, but she has to take on more and more responsibility as Scott shrinks further and further.
  • How We Got Here: After a brief prologue of Scott getting sprayed with the mist on the boat, the novel jumps right into him fleeing from the spider in the basement. Subsequent chapters feature flashbacks showing how he ended up in this situation. (Matheson's initial screenplay treatment for the film employed a similar structure before it was taken out of his hands and rewritten.)
  • Improvised Clothes: When Scott shrinks out of the doll clothes he was wearing he tears them up and makes them into makeshift clothing that fits him better.
  • Improvised Weapon: Scott uses a sewing pin as a spear in his fight against a spider.
  • Incredible Shrinking Man: The trope namer of course.
  • Losing a Shoe in the Struggle: Scott loses his shirt when his cat attacks him. Louise finds it and believes that Scott has been killed.
  • Macgyvering: After he's reduced to insect size Scott uses a bent sewing pin as a grappling hook and a length of thread as a rope when he needs to climb a crate in an effort to escape the cellar.
  • Magic Pants: Completely averted. Scott's physical body gets smaller while his clothes don't. As a result, he is successively forced to wear children's clothes, doll clothes, and the rags from the doll clothes.
  • Manchild: Downplayed. Even before he begins shrinking, Scott Carey relies largely on others. His well-to-do brother provides him with a boat for his vacation as well as with a job that affords him a comfortable lifestyle. Meanwhile his wife handles all the housework and domestic chores. It isn't until he's reduced to the size of an insect and trapped in the basement that he finally starts having to rely on himself.
  • Middle Name Basis: The protagonists full name is Robert Scott Carey, but he goes by Scott.
  • Mouse World: From the scenes in the dollhouse to being chased by the cat, and finally being trapped in the cellar. In the cellar, this is the epitome of the Mouse World. Scott is forced to drink the condensation from a water heater, eat crumbs from a stale cake, live inside a matchbox, and fight off a spider.
  • Narrating the Present: Interestingly enough, Scott's voice remains in the same pitch despite his getting smaller as the film progresses, unless we're hearing his thoughts...
  • The Napoleon: The smaller Scott gets the more ill-tempered and tyrannical he becomes.
  • Never Found the Body: Louise comes home to find Scott's dollhouse smashed and a bloody scrap of his shirt in their cats mouth. This causes her to believe that the cat ate him. Little does she know, he survived the attack but ended up trapped in the cellar.
  • Oh, Crap!:
    • Scott when he realizes the antidote is no longer working and that he's continuing to shrink.
    • When Scott opens the door to his dollhouse and sees the cat looking in at him.
  • Perma-Shave: Scott remains clean shaven throughout his experience of shrinking even when he's too small to use a razor or when he's trapped in the cellar where shaving would be impractical, if not impossible.
  • "Ray of Hope" Ending:
    • Scott's voice-over monologue at the end has him accepting the inevitable and reaffirming that no matter how small he is, he will still matter in this universe. However, that doesn't change the fact that he will eventually shrink to atomic size or worse, and that his wife assumes that their cat has eaten him. Matheson wrote a sequel — unfortunately never filmed — in which it turns out the antidote has long-delayed effects which will eventually return him to normal. Scott's wife catches on as she begins to shrink herself. She sets off to find Scott, and then they have more adventures trying to get back to the house.
    • In the novel, his family packs up and moves out of the house the day before he finally shrinks for what he thinks is the final time. But it turns out much happier for Scott, as he finds he's now in a new microscopic world, still existing but smaller than anything any normal-sized person could possibly perceive. Excited by the implications of all this, he happily runs off to explore his new surroundings.
  • Recycled Soundtrack: Apart from the opening title theme (composed by Irving Gertz and featuring a melancholy trumpet solo by Ray Anthony), the film's score consists of pre-existing music cues from Universal's production library.
  • Shapeshifting Excludes Clothing: Scott first realizes something is wrong when he puts on his business suit one morning and discovers that it's a little too big for him. Going forward he has to wear clothing in smaller and smaller sizes until he has to start wearing dolls clothing. By the end of the film he's wearing Improvised Clothes made from the scraps of the dolls clothing.
  • Square-Cube Law: Quite possibly averted in that Scott slowly shrinks, thereby giving his body a chance to adapt.
  • Tiny Guy, Huge Girl. Exaggerated. In their final scene together, Louise is a woman of average height while her husband is the size of a mouse!
  • Your Size May Vary: Scott's size and his relation to the world around him doesn't always remain consistent throughout the film.

"All this vast majesty of creation, it had to mean something. And then I meant something, too. Yes, smaller than the smallest, I meant something, too. To God, there is no zero. I still exist!"