Michel Faber’s debut novel Under the Skin is a thing of alien beauty, and a masterpiece of the uncanny. It should be on the reading list for any course dealing with the literature of the fantastic (T. Todorov FTW!).
Although I came to it only after seeing Glazer’s film adaptation, the book still shocked me with its unique perspective, probably because the movie and the book actually share very little in common other than the main female protagonist and the basic premise of the story. In fact, the experience for me was much the same as first watching Kubrick’s The Shining, and then reading Stephen King’s novel.
In both cases, the directors took the original stories and made them their own by altering a few key points, and of course bringing in their own intepretation, first as readers, then as artists. What this means for me as a reader and a viewer, however, is that comparing the two versions with a view of declaring one better than the other would be misguided and futile. When Glazer and Kubrick decided to put a different spin on a pre-existing twist in the original stories, they created a new, fundamentally different story that needs to be evaluated in its own right, and not just simply compared to the original.
So, back to Faber’s book. The story unfolds in the Scottish Highlands, a stark, cold backdrop that somehow seems fitting for the inhuman(e) activities described in the book. To the author’s undying credit, he doesn’t answer any questions your baffled self might have until the very end, by which point you have become so inured to the strangeness of the story that you really only care about the fate of the (anti-)heroine, Isserly. Faber’s talent lies in convincing you to cross over to her side just as she changes her mind about what she’s been doing with her life. The metaphysics of the ending only further endorses Isserley’s altered point of view.
Faber’s dark sense of humor and satire, so reminiscent of Orwell’s in Animal Farm, is further reflected and refracted through Isserley’s observations of the exploits of the human race. As the embodiment of a fully alien creature, she offers a foreign perspective, speaking from the position of the “other.” Under the Skin can thus be read as a harsh critique of today’s food industry, factory farming, and big business, which is yet another element of surprise in this outlandish book. This story moves you in places where you least expect it to, which, after reading The Book of Strange New Things, I dare say is Faber’s writing trademark.
Going back to the book vs. film issue, I’d say it doesn’t matter at all which one you do first, as they are completely different works of art, and both merit iconic status. Glazer really made the story his own, and like I said, kept only the basic premise intact, but he afforded Isserley the same treatment as Faber, allowing her to change, and allowing the viewer to sympathize with her story. I warmly recommend both the book and the film.