Book Review: The Man Who Fell To Earth Drops Clarity On Roeg’s Sci-Fi Drama

by Rachel Bellwoar

The Man Who Fell to Earth is one of those films where you wait for the perfect conditions to view it, but that day never comes. The DVD goes untouched and it takes a book (this book) to be the kick in the pants you needed to sit down and turn it on.
While watching the film, I was glad this book was coming out for another reason. The Man Who Fell to Earth is a movie I wouldn’t have sought out without David Bowie. That’s been enough reason to pick up films in the past (Tony Scott’s luscious The Hunger; Jim Henson’s classic Labyrinth), but with this one, Bowie feels more necessary. With him, there were parts of The Man Who Fell to Earth I enjoyed. Without him, I wouldn’t have stuck around to the end.

That’s the cold truth that I haven’t been completely honest with myself about, but that’s what’s great about books like Samuel J. Umland’s, The Man Who Fell to Earth: Novel to Film, being released by Arrow Films. Sometimes you read a book about a movie because it’s one you deeply enjoyed, but other times it’s because you’re not quite sure what you just saw. At 101 pages (including photos), it’s feasible, purse sized, so extremely portable, and you come out knowing more about a film that isn’t inherently easy, but certainly has deeper meanings to unroll.
True to the book’s title, Umland jumps right into a discussion of The Man Who Fell to Earth’s source text. No out-and-out summary of the film is included, so it’s probably best to have seen it before reading. Written in 1963 (thirteen years before the film), Walter Tevis’ novel of the same name features the alien, Thomas Jerome Newton, that Bowie plays, but provides a different explanation for why he came to Earth. Tevis himself has said the book is about, “alcoholism,” and the movie frequently draws attention to what Newton is drinking.
While you would never know it from how he’s credited – “initial development by” – David Cammell was the one who found Tevis’ novel and brought it to director, Nicolas Roeg’s, attention. There’s a lot that goes unacknowledged by that vague credit and Cammell’s e-mail correspondence with Umland (who dedicates the book to him) provides many of the book’s sparkling production stories, including Crammell’s original thinking for how to adapt Tevis’ text.
While not a book for gossip, it looks like Candy Clark, who played Newton’s love interest, Mary-Lou, and Bowie didn’t get along, though they managed in public. There’s some discussion as to why Bowie didn’t end up doing the soundtrack, and a look at the novel’s connections to the Icarus myth and how it matches up with Robinson Crusoe.
Some questions the film isn’t built to answer, but Umland doesn’t force anything. Instead he provides concrete data through listing these questions, and considering why they didn’t need resolving.
If I could change one thing about the book, it would be to include captions under the photos, which don’t appear to be in any order. Bowie needs no introduction but towards the end, Umland mentions a picture of Bowie and Tevis that can be found in the University of Kentucky Libraries archives. I don’t believe it’s included in this text, but captions would answer that swiftly.
With tips on which sources provided the most information, Umland doesn’t waste a page, even pushing the film’s cult status (and critic Umberto Eco’s, definition of “cult”) towards better understanding Roeg’s sci-fi drama. If you came away from The Man Who Fell to Earth thinking there was more to understand, Umland can help.
The Man Who Fell to Earth: Novel to Film goes on sale May 25th from Arrow Films.

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