In Ghost in the Shell, the Major (Scarlett Johansson) is a traumatized human brain transplanted into a superpowered robot body. Though the film itself feels like it’s a Japanese manga and anime series trapped in the body of a mainstream American film, there is another way to look at it. Aesthetically, Ghost in the Shell obviously attempts to mimic the 1995 anime of the same name, but if you can leave that imagery aside, there’s a different thematic juxtaposition going on.
Ghost in the Shell is an old science fiction story: a question of what it means to be alive when life itself is extended through artificial means. For this reason, Major and Section 9 have some literary cousins worth checking out.
If you were into the themes of Ghost in the Shell, here are four classic books to hit up as soon as you leave the movie theater:
Casino Royale by Ian Fleming
In a lot of ways, Ghost in the Shell tells the origin story of a super agent, one who learns to compartmentalize their emotions to be more effective at getting the job done. In this way, the Major is like a descendent of James Bond. Bond’s origin is found in the pages of author Ian Fleming’s first 007 thriller: Casino Royale. Like Ghost in the Shell, this book has double-crosses and secrets being kept from the main character that changes the nature of how to perceive the basic narrative. The textbook for the birth of a special agent is here.
Burning Chrome by William Gibson
William Gibson is often credited with creating the entire literally genre of cyberpunk, a genre which Ghost in the Shell certainly belongs to. His 1986 short story collection contains his 1981 short story “Johnny Mnemonic,” which was, in turn, adapted to the 1995 films of the same name. The original anime Ghost in the Shell and the movie version of Johnny Mnemonic came out the same year. Weird coincidence or cyber conspiracy?
The Demolished Man by Alfred Bester
The first book to ever win the coveted science fiction Hugo award, this novel mixed a police procedural framework into a sci-fi vision of big ideas. How would someone commit a crime in a world of telepaths? The Demolished Man isn’t exactly like the world of Ghost in the Shell, but the easy way in which it drops the reader into this world feels like the first few minutes of the new film.
Frankenstein by Mary Wolstonecraft Shelley
The original story of artificial life, it’s impossible not to watch Ghost in the Shell without thinking about Mary Shelley’s classic science fiction masterpiece. Like Frankenstein, Ghost in the Shell is similarly sympathetic to the artificial lifeforms created in labs. If Shelley’s novel had been a little more action-packed, then it would have been thematically identical to Ghost in the Shell. You could say, the film version of Ghost in the Shell is just Mary Shelley’s brain inside of Ian Fleming’s body.
Ghost in the Shell is out in wide release now. All four books mentioned above are in print and available from major book retailers.