In 1957 I was enrolled as a boarding student in a Jewish high school on the edge of Harlem in New York City. The father of a fellow student, visiting from out-of-town, invited me to join him and his son for dinner at a downtown restaurant. The dorm counselor was nowhere to be found, so I could not ask anyone for permission to leave campus.
I decided to join them anyway and began to think of an excuse to give the dorm counselor in case he rebuked me. The Incredible Shrinking Man had just opened and the perfect excuse came to mind. I will tell him that I went to the local movie theater to see this film about a man who shrunk in size. It seemed like an easy plot to summarize and so I would not be penalized for traveling outside of the local neighborhood. And that is what transpired. The excuse, weak as it was, worked.
Little did I realize when I actually saw the movie several months later that it was much more than a film about a man who shrinks in size; rather it was a profound meditation on the ultimate meaning of life. Watching this black and white science fiction movie 57 years after it first appeared, I genuinely admired not only its special effects, which were progressive for its time, but also its thoughtful commentary about man’s place in the universe. Let me elaborate.
Scott Carey, on vacation with his wife Louise on his brother’s boat, sees a strange fog, which is really a radioactive mist, glide over the boat leaving a wet sheen on his body. Six months later, Scott senses that his clothes are becoming loose on him and that he is losing weight. The sudden weight loss prompts him to visit his physician, who assures him that nothing is wrong. However, a subsequent examination does confirm that Scott is, in fact, losing vital chemical elements and is actually shrinking in size. In an unsettling scene, husband and wife discuss the implications of this malady for their marriage. At the end of the conversation, Scott’s wedding ring falls off because of his shrinking finger size.
As time passes, Scott continues to shrink to the size of a child. Since Scott is no longer able to work, they have mounting bills. As a result, Scott sells his story to the press, who treat Scott as freakish pop phenomenon. Louise tries her best to be optimistic and encourages Scott not to lose hope. However, after many tests, the doctors conclude that there is no remedy and Scott runs out of the house in despair.
In his wanderings, he meets a dwarf, Clarice Bruce, who tells him that being small does not mean life is over and devoid of happiness. The message is uplifting for Scott, who embraces her perspective on life until one day he sees that he is shrinking again and is even shorter than Clarice.
We next see Scott, only a few inches tall, living in a doll’s house. When his wife Louise leaves to go shopping, she inadvertently leaves the door open allowing a cat to enter the house. This creates a life or death situation for Scott, who runs for his life to avoid the clutches of the cat. He accidently falls into the basement after the cat scratches him. Louise, finding a piece of Scott’s clothing with blood, presumes that Scott is now dead.
Scott slowly regains consciousness, and begins to search for food in a hostile environment where a common spider becomes his arch-adversary. The life and death fight between them is intense, and Scott emerges from it wiser and more accepting of his place in the cosmos as he gazes at the stars above. His final words are both haunting and uplifting: “To God, there is no zero. I still exist.”
Scott’s malady can be viewed as a metaphor for any life-altering illness. News of such an event is often frightening and potentially depressing. Therefore, it is noteworthy that Scott, now a speck in the infinite universe, draws comfort from the knowledge that in God’s eyes he still counts. In Jewish tradition, man is composed of body and spirit. While the body is subject to the vicissitudes of nature, the spirit is not. The Incredible Shrinking Man is a clarion call reminding men of their infinite value, even when faced with imminent mortality.