From Novel to Film pt. 9: The Man Who Fell to Earth


I am sometimes taken aback by the sheer number of novels that, bells and whistles removed, are really just about drinking. 

Says writer and critic James Sallis: "The Man Who Fell to Earth, on its surface, is the tale of an alien who comes to earth to save his own civilization and, through adversity, through inaction (and through) loss of faith, fails. Just beneath the surface it might be read as a parable of the Fifties and of the Cold War. Beneath that as an evocation of existential loneliness, a Christian fable, a parable of the artist. Above all, perhaps, as the wisest, truest representation of alcoholism ever written."

I mean, not that I think it's all that esoteric of a theme in the book, just was happy to see him explicitly stating it so.

"The second martini did not burn his throat so much. He ordered a third. After all, the chemical warfare man was paying. Or was it the taxpayers? It depended on how you looked at it. He shrugged. Everybody would pay for all of it anyway - Massachusetts and Mars; everybody everywhere would pay."

Novel (1963) Film (1976)
The Plot: Set in the near-future, Newton is an alien from the planet Anthea, which is the native term for an unidentified planet in our solar system. (Probably Mars.) He arrives on Earth with the secret mission to establish himself and construct a space vehicle to ferry the rest of his people (whose numbers have dwindled to 300) to Earth. With his alien aptitude for science, he enlists the aid of a patent lawyer (Farnsworth) and (eventually) a disgruntled science professor (Bryce) and amasses a great fortune. 

This attracts the attention of the feds.
Newton meets a young woman named Betty Jo.
Their relationship is never romantic, but she ends up becoming his constant companion.
along with:
She also introduces him to church, which he doesn't take to quite as enthusiastically. He is at first more sympathetic to religious belief - which "Antheans, in their ancient visits to the planet, were probably to blame for" - than he is to gin:

"The humans seemed to be building loose constructions of half-belief and sentiment to replace their religion, and he did not know what to make of it. He could not really fathom why Betty Jo was so much concerned over the supposed strength she received in weekly doses from her synthetic church, a form of strength that seemed less certain and more troublesome than what she received from her gin."

But that changes the more time he spends amongst the company of humans. ("A man surrounded by animals who takes on their nature; shares their madness and confusion and isolation, but felt even more acutely.")

Eventually, the CIA captures Newton. Newton endures his captivity with indifference, as he has become increasingly convinced his mission is ultimately futile. By the time he can get all Antheans to Earth, humans will likely have made the planet uninhabitable through their own savagery.

"'(At times) you seem to us like apes loose in a museum, carrying knives, slashing the canvasses, breaking the statuary with hammers.'
'But it was human beings who painted the pictures, made the statues.'
'Only a few human beings,' Newton said. 'Only a few.'"

Just before discharging him, the FBI (who bristled at the CIA's taking control of the interrogation of Newton) takes an x-ray of his skull and, disbelieving of his protestations that his eyes are different than other people's, blinds him. 

"Nobody's eyes can see X-rays." The man pursed his lips, obviously in irritation. "Nobody sees at those frequencies."

Some time later, at novel's end, Bryce discovers an album in a record shop called 'The Visitor' and recognizes his old friend's voice, reading poetry over strange music.

He tracks Newton down and pleads with him to continue his mission; maybe the Antheans can prevent humanity from destroying itself. Newton refuses, not without pity. (And not without writing him a check for a million dollars.) Bryce - who has taken up with Betty Jo - leaves Newton to drink by himself in the bar. The end.

Walter Tevis, as might be surmised from some of these plot details, was no stranger to alcoholic despair. Two of his other books (The Hustler and its sequel The Color of Money) were made into films. TMWFTE is the only work of his I've read, but I will happily read more based on my enjoyment of it.

If I've made it sound like a complete buzzkill, it's not, I apologize - while it certainly is a somewhat pessimistic outlook, the characters are easy to care about, the writing and atmosphere are crisp, and the alien-in-human-body theme is explored exceptionally well.


I first saw this in the 90s while studying film at Wright State University. The friends I'd made there had taken a Nicolas Roeg / John Carpenter course the semester prior to my own matriculation, and The Man Who Fell to Earth had a certain conversational currency at the parties I went to. 

I've seen the film many times since then but only once since reading the novel a couple of months ago. What struck me on this last re-watch was how closely the film follows the novel's structure and themes. It embellishes certain things, sure, and wholly invents others, but for the most part, the story and characters of the novel are faithfully transposed to screen.

Newton's captivity.
The stereo of the near-future. You drop your ball in the (Newton-created) crockpot-looking thing, and beautiful sounds emanate from the walls.
From the Criterion film essay by Graham Fuller:

"With its fragmented narrative, its genre hopping, its strategic crosscutting, and its dense tapestry of disassociative visual and musical allusions, the film was an enigma for many of the British critics who warily reviewed it in April 1976, and no less so for their American counterparts when it was released in the United States, minus twenty crucial minutes, two months later.
Prompted by an effort to sanitize the movie, Rugoff cut the sequences of Bryce fooling around in bed with his students; the shot of Mary-Lou urinating from the shock of seeing Newton in his alien state; the crucial sex-and-guns sequence in which Newton, in captivity, destroys his relationship with Mary-Lou * ; and the scene of Bryce dressed absurdly as Santa Claus."

* I'm convinced this is the only reason why the character's name was changed from Betty Jo to Mary-Lou, so David Bowie could sing "Hello, Mary-Lou" over this sequence. (EDIT: Apparently it's John Phillips who performs this, not Bowie.)

I've only ever seen the restored version, so I never had to view the film with the cuts mentioned above. All the sequences mentioned are inventions of the film rather than the novel. Bryce in this regard is the opposite of how he's portrayed in the movie. When he's introduced in the book, he skips grading papers to go see a film and thinks of the frolicking women onscreen as "painful as well as absurd distraction for a middle-aged widower."

When he's introduced in the movie, on the other hand, he's having aggressive and kinky sex with one of his students, who films it all for post-performance review, while the soundtrack is filled with animal roars and other weirdness.
And it's all cross-cut with Newton hearing them (it seems) in his distorted extrasensory perception while trying to eat at a restaurant showing this angry kabuki theater.

These inventions and expansions make sense and enhance the disorientation of the novel.

i.e. this, among the first things Newton sees upon falling to Earth.

The eye-as-window-to-the-soul motif of the novel is likewise enhanced. In some unexpected ways. Farnsworth (the patent lawyer) is given comically exaggerated near-sightedness:

And Newton's expanded range of vision is relayed in a brief (and - wonderfully, from where I'm sitting - random) sequence when he and Betty Jo Mary-Lou are driving through the countryside.

He is disturbed by events beyond the frame -
- and sees through some kind of mutual rift in time to frontier Americana days.

and these folks staring back at him, speeding along.

Close to the end, Mary-Lou removes a splinter from her eye:


And so on. The recurring eye motif helps to anchor some of the film's wilder leaps.

Bernie Casey plays Peters, a character not in the book, but who is a compartmentalization of the various State Department officials who question Newton. 

In a somewhat indulgent sequence, we get a glimpse not just into Peters' wealthy home life but also scenes from his and his family's future. Whether or not we see this as another demonstration of Newton's time-bending vision is not clear to me. It comes across, though, as if Nic Roeg just had this other storyline in mind and left it in the movie.

The film (quite unlike the novel) lives or dies with David Bowie and Candy Clark as Mary-Lou.

Their chemistry is quite good on-screen; both seem to latch on to the other's vulnerability. Bowie's first reaction to the script (and his perspective throughout filming) was that the film was a love story. (Candy speaks a bit about her time filming here, for those who are interested.)

And when it turns gin-soaked and self-destructive -

- it remains interesting, never cliched.
Candy Clark deserves special kudos for her performance.

Newton's mission is kept vague in the film, but we get some intriguing glimpses of life on Anthea.

Here, when Newton is looking out the limousine window at green fields, he recalls life with his family.
and slowly the green (his projection) disappears.
Anthean trains. Homes? Train-homes?

Again, from the Criterion film essay: "One of the first things he sees on Earth is a decrepit locomotive that triggers a memory of the futuristic little engine he boarded as he set out on his journey to the “present.” It’s a train to now but ultimately to nowhere—the one, Roeg’s glittering film implies, we’re all on. And it’s already left the station."


"Stuck on Earth, unable to save his people, unable even to age, Newton becomes a passive receptacle for everything that everyone in the film, and everyone watching, wants to bring to him—as well as a vehicle for the Englishman Roeg’s scathing critic of America’s materialistic culture.  (...) when Bryce apologizes to Newton for the way he has been betrayed and corrupted on Earth, Newton says a visitor to his planet could have expected the same treatment. The idea that human nature is the same the universe over, even when it’s nonhuman, is a bitter cosmic joke. But the joke doubles back on itself, because Newton’s planet is our own."

"I think Mr. Newton has had enough, don't you?"

Sheesh - I'm really making both film and novel seem like depressing experiences, aren't I? And while there's certainly more than an element of tragedy to both, there's much to admire in terms of artful construction. I'm hit or miss (and mostly miss) with Nic Roeg's catalog, but The Man Who Fell to Earth is definitely a rewarding experience, especially if you're not opposed to doing a little of the work yourself.

FINAL VERDICT: Great movie, great book, intelligent and creative (and pretty out there) adaptation.


  1. David Bowie is fricken talented! I never watched this movie or read the book though I knew about both. It does seem though from your post that it is depressing which turns me off a little from watching it.

    1. It shares some of the pessimism of the era in which it was filmed, certainly, but I think it's definitely worth seeing/ reading.

    2. And that's a hell yeah on Bowie!

  2. Stop me if you've heard this before...

    I've had this movie on my radar for literally decades but still have yet to get around to watching it. I have never had any specific ideas as to what the movie was about; all I've ever known is that it was about an alien (David Bowie) who comes to Earth.

    I suspect I could have guessed at the plot for a solid year before getting close to what it seems actually to be about. Sounds pretty cool to me, though, especially if Candy Clark is involved.

    I had no idea it was based on a novel, much less by the guy who wrote "The Hustler" and "The Color of Money." Then again, I didn't know THOSE were based on books, either.

    A persistent theme in my comments is emerging: I don't know much!

    1. I'm sure somewhere along the way I paid attention to the credits in at least The Color of Money and registered that it was based on a book, but I'd completely forgotten, myself. Discovering Tevis was the author of it and The Hustler was a shock to me. He had kind of a sad life, I guess, from the little reading I did around this post, but he left behind some good books. And some memorable films made from them. Cheers to that.

    2. Bryant, can I pretty much borrow your comments for my own?

      In short, heard of this film, never have got around to seeing it. Then again, seeing as how I'm the guy who didn't get around to Die Hard until after high school, do the math.

      What's interesting about learning Tevis also wrote both Hustler movies is that even if you've seen The Hustler (classic by the way) you wouldn't know (or believe) the guy who wrote one also penned the other.

      In my mind, I think there might have been this image of a Mickey Spillane type who penned the Hustler. The truth is a lot more complex and interesting, however.

      No sadly, I have not got around to Scorsese's Color of Money yet either (hangs head in shame).


    3. The Color of Money is pretty good. Worth seeing. Paul Newman is cool. That Clapton song will be in your head for a few weeks afterward, so be forewarned.

  3. Hi, I found this after Bernie Casey died and there he is in that nice picture you grabbed.

    This film fascinated me when it first came out and I saw it 4 times when it came out (the cut US version). Each viewing makes it less weird, more sad, but never less audacious.

    I remember reading the book and thinking it was quite different in approach. It seems to pre-doom humanity as we watch Newton "prove" it through his inability to get his mission "off the ground," only partly through fault of his own. The film seems much more interested in Newton's role as blank slate, a vessel for everyone else's flaws, needs, and paranoia and is slowly destroyed in the process.

    Similar but two different subtexts to approach this story. I long wished the original US cut would be available as I thought the more salacious, shocking, nudity-tinged scenes restored tended to startle and distract from what's a more measured mediation on a kind of post-imperialism existential dread.

    Which was pure manna to us teenagers at the time.

    Now it's hard to get past "hey, look, Bowie's weiner!"

    Keep up the good work.


    1. Thanks for the great comment, Roger. That's a good point on the US-cut emphasizing that part of the story.

      RIP to Bernie. His passing was unfortunately overshadowed by other headlines (mostly NK/hurricane related).