I’d always assumed that the “Are you Lithuanian” scene in Nicolas Roeg’s film of Walter Tevis’s The Man Who Fell to Earth was an episode of Roeg-ishness, a dialog equivalent of some of the odd visuals in the film.
And then I read Walter Tevis’s novel. And, yes indeed, Bryce, the chemical engineer, does ask Thomas Jerome Newton just that question. The two men have been drinking through lunch, and Bryce had long wondered about Newton. Bryce
“looked at him again, and Newton smiled gravely. From Mars? He was probably a Lithuanian, or from Massachusetts . . . he peered inquisitively at Newton and said ‘Are you from Lithuania?’
It’s easy to imagine how excited Roeg must have been when he saw Bowie in Cracked Actor. Except that Tevis’s Newton is 6½ feet tall, the character could have been modeled on mid-70s Bowie. He needed to be very pale and very light, light enough to be carried by a woman. He needed delicate hands and to walk “slowly, his tall body erect, but with a light gracefulness to the movement.”
Why Newton is on earth is very clear in the novel. Only 400 or so of his life form remain on planet Anthea, the rest dead and the planet dying from a series of nuclear wars. There isn’t fuel remaining to evacuate, so Newton is selected to come in a life-boat type craft, simple and rudimentary, then use the Antheans’ technology to amass a fortune, build a craft, develop a means to conserve fuel, and return and bring the rest of his people to earth. They will be saved, but through their leadership and technological powers, the Antheans will also save humanity from blowing itself up. The novel was first published in 1963 at the height of the Cold War and Cuban Missile Crisis. (However, a reference to Watergate means Tevis or his executors made some later revisions.)
Nothing Has Changed — Everything Has Changed
1. The biggest difference is that there is a lot of sex in Roeg’s film, and none in Tevis’s book. This meant that Roeg had to change a good deal about Betty Jo/Mary Lou and Nathan Bryce. Betty Jo does not visit Newton during his imprisonment. Bryce and Betty Jo do, however, get together at the end.
Tevis’s Betty Jo and Roeg’s Mary Lou don’t have a lot in common other than their social status and alcoholism. I guess the name change was to make the song “Hello Mary Lou” work with the gun sex scene. Tevis’s Betty Jo is fat and forty. She is more housekeeper than mistress. But she does comfort and truly cares for her Tommy. Tevis’s Bryce is a widower and not a swinger.
2. Tevis’s Newton falls to Earth in a remote region of Kentucky; Roeg’s, New Mexico. Their first encounter with a human is selling gold rings. What the Antheans know of humans is what they have gathered from TV, and they realize they cannot get a clear enough image of currency to forge bills. But they have plenty of gold.
3. In the novel Newton arrives in 1985; the last scene is in 1990, so Tevis was projecting 25 years or so into the future. Political turmoil, both within the US and internationally, is extreme. Within the US, the CIA and FBI are out of control and competitors. (Tevis gets the party in the White House wrong, but it’s clear that both parties are essentially the same.) Roeg’s film is set in the present day, that is, c. 1975.
4. Brueghel’s Fall of Icarus, which gets a little screen time in the movie, is frequently viewed and discussed in the novel. The first and third sections of the novel are “Icarus Descending” and “Icarus Drowning.” The middle one, “Rumplestiltskin,” an allusion to the fairy tale, doesn’t get a mention in the movie and frankly doesn’t work well in the novel.
5. In the novel, Newton is described removing his nipples and ears and contacts, but he does so alone. He doesn’t out himself to Betty Jo.
6. The music spheres Newton has in the movie are Tevis’s idea.
7. Remember the cat in the New Mexico hotel room and later at Bryce’s and Mary Lou’s? Tevis’s Newton was fond of cats. and he and Betty Jo had several. Tevis’s Newton’s eyes without the disguising contact are described as like a cat’s, as are Roeg’s Newton.
8. In the novel, the x-raying of Newton’s eyes blinds him.
9. The Visitor album Bryce sees on Christmas Eve in a record store in the film is also the means by which Tevis’s Bryce tracks down Newton once the Anthean has abandoned his project. It’s not vinyl in the book, but a little metal sphere like Newton had in his home. The spheres are marketed with big tags taking the place of vinyl covers. The Visitor’s reads “poems from outer space. . . .we guarantee you won’t know the language, but you’ll wish you did! seven out-of-this-world poems by a man we call the ‘visitor’.” Newton tells Bryce it is his farewell letter to his wife and people.
10. In book and movie both, Newton ends up drunk, but in the novel, the fedora falls off as Newton weeps. Tevis’s bartender says, “‘I’m afraid that the fellow needs help.’ ‘Yes,’ Bryce said. ‘Yes, I guess he does.'”