In this corner: the Book. A collection of words that represent ideas when filtered through the lexical systems in a human brain. From clay tablets to bound collections of wood pulp to units of stored data, the book has been around in one format or another for some 3,800 years.
Book vs. Movie: The Thing
By Russ Bickerstaff
October 19, 2011
And in this corner: the Movie. A 112-year-old kid born in France to a guy named Lumiere and raised primarily in Hollywood by his uncle Charlie "the Tramp" Chaplin. This young upstart has quickly made a huge impact on society, rapidly becoming the most financially lucrative form of storytelling in the modern world.
Both square off in the ring again as Box Office Prophets presents another round of Book vs. Movie.
John W. Campbell Jr. may not have the instant household name-recognition of sci-fi authors like Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, Arthur C. Clarke or Robert A. Heinlein, but in genre circles he is respected as one of the founders of modern American sci-fi. The highly influential editor of Astounding Science Fiction and Unknown got his start writing short stories - the single most noteworthy being the 1938 novella Who Goes There?
The story of a group of scientists encountering a shape changing, hyper-adaptive alien life form in Antarctica became the subject of the 1951 RKO film The Thing From Another World, which was remade by John Carpenter over 30 years later. A little over three decades after that, Universal Pictures releases a prequel to that film. Campbell’s reputation may have been tarnished a bit by somewhat appalling publicly espoused opinions on smoking, slavery and L. Ron Hubard’s Dianetics, among other things, but his single most widely appreciated bit of fiction continues to capture imaginations. The question is, how does the original novella compare to the three films that have been based on it?
Who Goes There? (Astounding Science Fiction, August 1938)
Campbell’s work was the first to be referred to as “hard science fiction,” but that wasn’t until roughly a couple of decades after he wrote Who Goes There? That being said, the novella is kind of a sterling example of that kind of fiction. Campbell’s father was an electrical engineer - Campbell himself had been a student at MIT. This guy had a love of the technical and it really shows through in this story.
The story opens as an Antarctic expedition’s second in command, a meteorologist named McReady, is addressing the members of an expedition about something that’s been brought into camp. McReady is described almost in mythical terms, like some kind of god cast in bronze. Evidently he and a few others on the expedition had just returned from exploring a secondary source of magnetic influence outside the magnetic south pole. When investigated, it was discovered that the source was evidently a crashed aircraft of unknown origin that had been encased in ice, evidently for many, many years. There was an organism discovered in the ice just outside it. The party had returned to camp with it to study the perfectly preserved organism.
The organism in question turns out to be a hideous-looking thing with three ruby red eyes that seemed to have been preserved in a state of anguish, judging from the look on its face. Much of the rest of the first quarter of the 22,000-word novella is spent outlining a very dramatic, very intellectually stimulating debate about the pros and cons of thawing-out a preserved alien creature of possible extraterrestrial origin. The language delves pretty far into the specifics of biology as understood in the early-to-mid 20th century. We get an understanding of the ensemble of characters here by how they interface with the argument over whether or not to let the monster unthaw, which makes for an interesting form of characterization. We even get a feel for the inner-politics of the expedition as characters square off against each other discussing the merits of doing one thing over another.
Inevitably, of course, the creature is cracked out of the block of ice for study. It promptly escapes. Thus begins a search for The Thing that finds the group trailing it to the area of camp where the dogs are kept. They find The Thing, evidently half-morphed into the shape of one of the dogs. They kill it. It’s not pretty. And it pretty quickly becomes apparent that not only can this thing change shape, each one of its individual cells is capable of acting independently.
One of the big indicators that this was a story ahead of its time is the discussion of tissue samples of The Thing. Campbell’s text talks about cell biology in an age before Watson, Crick and popular understanding of DNA. The fact that it still feels scientifically authentic on a detailed level in an earlier era of science sets it apart from most of the rest of early 20th century sci-fi.
Somewhere along the line, it is discovered that, with all of its cells acting independently, the being itself is some kind of insanely infectious disease that would’ve taken over and wiped-out al other life on the planet if it weren’t for the fact that it had crashed in one of the most unforgiving deserts on the planet. Having thawed it out, the creature is now very much in danger of escaping its fate and moving on to take over the rest of the world. They work out that one of them has probably had his body entirely taken over by Thing cells and is only pretending to be one of them. They spend a great deal of time working out exactly how to figure out who is really who they say they are. It’s fascinating stuff.
In the end, they choose a really low-tech way of figuring it out. If every cell acts independently, then the blood from a Thing will rush away from a heated wire. After a first couple of tests done on blood samples, there is no reaction and it is uncertain that the test is even going to work. With the first successful test, tension mounts. As Things are discovered, they struggle to escape the mob of human ready to crush the life out of them. Campbell doesn’t do a brilliant job of heightening the tension here, but there’s enough friction to make it kind of an iconic scene out of early 20th century sci-fi.
As the story reaches its climax, it reveals that the Things were growing to populate the expedition. Fourteen people had been infected and taken over. The story ends as the valiant leaders of the survivors go out to confront Blair, a man who had gone mad when he discovered the capabilities of The Thing. He had been sequestered in a small cabin away from the camp’s main complex. Sure enough, it turns out he was infected - by the original specimen.
The Thing doesn’t die easily. Much of the novella’s last 1,000 words are spent getting rid of it. It’s discovered that the thing had developed a device that would’ve allowed it to jump all the way to America via anti-gravity harnessed through atomic energy. (Just a little something it was working on in captivity, I guess. They figure that in killing the thing, they’d saved the world by a “margin of a half-hour.” The novella ends with kind of a sense of wonder and relief.
The Thing From Another World (RKO Pictures, 1951)
The 1951 RKO film is a product of Howard Hawks, the man who directed 1932’s Scarface and would also go on to direct huge hits like Rio Bravo and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Here he was working on an adaptation of the Campbell novella that history has also credited with a couple of other screenwriters. The product of at least three people, the script to The Thing From Another World bears little resemblance to its inspiration. As the film is established, we see an ensemble settle-in on a scientific research outpost in the North Pole.
The outpost picks-up evidence of some kind of craft having landed not far from the station and a few valiant, early ‘50s film hero-types are sent out to investigate. It turns out to be a downed spacecraft and suddenly we have a sci-fi movie. We’re 15 minutes in at this stage.
It starts to bear some sort of resemblance to the story that inspired it a little les than 20 minutes in. Instead of investigating something that’s been buried in Antarctic ice for many, many years, they’re investigating something that only recently crashed in the arctic.
In a scene right out of Campbell’s original, the group uses Thermite to try to break the craft out of ice, but it catches fire. Exploring the site, they find a humanoid encased in the ice not far from the craft and take it back to camp. Twenty-five minutes into the film, we have an adaptation.
The film wastes little time in getting to the debate which opens Who Goes There? Nearly a quarter of the story is distilled into a few lines that are spoken over the course of roughly three minutes on screen. The argument is cut short in kind of an anti-intellectual conclusion by a simple question of rank. It’s a military scientific outpost and they have to wait for orders as to whether or not to break the Thing out of the ice.
The wait for orders allows the film to stray from its source material a bit and get back to a romantic subplot involving a rather appealingly attractive Margaret Sheridan in the role of a secretary of some sort. Real nice and everything, but it’s pretty indistinguishable from most other screen romances of the era.
Rather than having the creature pulled out of the ice due to conscious decision, the block melts, evidently thanks to someone’s decision to put a blanket over the ice so that he doesn’t have to look at the beast inside. The ice melts and the creature escapes. I’m sorry, I don’t buy this for a second. Not only does it stretch scientific credibility, it robs the characters of their role in the story’s central conflict. The Thing doesn’t escape hibernation due to genuine scientific interest. It’s a product of red tape and bad luck.
On the trail of The Thing, they run into a tissue sample and find out that it’s an intelligent plant-based life form that feeds on blood. Kind of ridiculous and nowhere near as compelling as a creature that is an aggregate of independent cells that seek to survive through taking over organisms by becoming them.
The idea of a race of highly evolved plants that could take over the planet and use humans as a food supply is kind of cute, but it lacks the inventiveness of the novella that inspired it.
The Thing From Another World ended up being the most successful science fiction film of 1951, edging out The Day The Earth Stood Still for that honor. It’s quaint to note that that made it only the 46th highest-grossing film of the year. It was a different era of Hollywood films. Sci-fi wouldn’t make big money at the box office until 1954 and 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea. To find a huge sci-fi box office success prior to that, you’d have to go all the way back to Chaplin’s then-futuristic comedy Modern Times from 1936.
The Thing (Universal Pictures, 1982)
The 1982 Universal Pictures film wasn’t a straight re-make of the 1951 RKO Pictures movie. John Carpenter directed the film based on a script by actor/screenwriter Bill Lancaster. Aside from this, the only other things Lancaster had ever written were Bad News Bears films and TV episodes in the ‘70s. Lancaster based the script more closely off of Campbell’s original story.
The film is set in a US scientific research station in Antarctica. After a quick title sequence featuring a spacecraft crashing to earth, the film opens with a Swedish… er… Norwegian helicopter in hot pursuit of what appears to be an arctic dog, which is rushing towards the US station. The Norwegian lands the copter, botches an attempt to kill the dog by grenade and shoots at it a few times with a hunting rifle. The man in charge of station security kills the Norwegian and things get rolling.
The fantastic elements of the film settle-in slowly. MacReady (here a helicopter pilot played by Kurt Russell) flies out to search the station that the Norwegian came from, only to find it abandoned, with a strange-looking corpse in it that seemed to be in a state of painful structural change at the time of its death. There’s a large block of ice consistent with the chilly tomb that housed The Thing in both of the prior two incarnations of the story. Here the ice has been blown open. MacReady and company take the monstrous corpse back the US station for autopsy.
By avoiding the crash discovery scenes, the film is able to focus on the sheer horror of the story much more intensely. The first quarter of the novella is completely discarded. There’s no sense of decision-making here, which does rob the characters of their direct interaction with the source of the conflict. In this respect, the film is really no different from The Thing From Another World, but John Carpenter’s Thing quickly distances itself from a far less accomplished work through slickly stylish filmmaking that is in turns grizzly, beautiful, brutal and desolate.
In the role of soon-to-be mentally imbalanced Dr. Blair, cowboy and oatmeal spokesman Wilfred Brimley dissects the carcass of the beast with a steady, sober professionalism. As this happens, it is established that the dog that had been chasing the Swede - er… Norwegian had settled itself into the camp before attacking the rest of the dogs in a pretty grizzly scene.
Once it settles into a rhythm, John Carpenter’s The Thing comes pretty close to the source material. The fact that it can do this without getting bogged down in the kind of scientific jargon that would kill cinematic horror is kind of a huge accomplishment. It’s smart without being verbose, which is a very tricky thing to manage in a big-budget film. Carpenter manages to lock-in a sense of desolation in the film that it’s able to maintain even in casual interpersonal scenes between members of the ensemble.
Blair goes crazy. People start dropping off. There’s the feeling that some of the people here may not be who they appear. Shadows. Fire. Paranoia. And some incredibly wicked work by acclaimed make-up artist Rob Bottin. With a keen understanding of what works best on film, John Carpenter is able to frame some of the drama of the novella with a greater sense of narrative poetry than Campbell was able to manage. His greatest two accomplishments come at film’s end. The blood and heated wire tests of the story are given a stark framing here with a flame thrower, Petri dishes and a good portion of the remaining ensemble tied-up. The film manages a much darker ending than the original novella without deviating from the overall plot arc. It may not be quite as articulate as the original narrative, but it’s a far cooler presentation of it that doesn’t compromise the overall theme of the original.
The Thing (Universal Pictures, 2011)
The bulk of the action of the latest film happens just a few days before the events detailed in John Carpenter’s version. A group of Norwegians find the alien spacecraft that crashed before the opening title of Carpenter’s film. They stumble onto this vast spacecraft that’s encased in the ice. We cut over to PhD student Kate Lloyd, an American paleontologist who is contacted by the Norwegians to help them work on the site. She’s not given much information. Mary Elizabeth Winstead plays the American paleontologist with the compellingly heroic form. She may not have the bronzed look of some god like McReady in the original story, but she’s got sharp American hero written all over her.
Lloyd is brought to the site, where she promptly discovers that she is there to aid in extracting an alien from the ice near the spacecraft. Here we have a wonderful opportunity to watch the deeper psycho-intellectual ensemble work of the group of people who discover the alien. We have a really cool opportunity for a modern cinematic drama to get into the subtle arguments for and against thawing this thing out and studying it.
Sadly, this is a script written by relatively inexperienced screenwriter Eric Heisserer. He’d written the Nightmare On Elm Street remake from a couple of years back. He’d written Final Destination 5. And he wrote this film. To his credit, Heisserer knows his limits and he solidly avoids the mind-pummelingly complicated task of turning a really interesting scientific debate into compelling horror theatre. He knows what works best with his own personal style of storytelling and what works best or him is a script with very, very little dialogue.
The block of ice containing the dormant alien is brought to the base. Rather than discuss the possibility of thawing it out, they decide to drill a hole into the ice and take a tissue sample. Okay, so that sounds pretty logical and a lot more practical than trying to dissect the damned thing on a gross anatomical level, but there’s still the danger of exposing potentially nasty biohazards to a group of people very, very far from decent medical facilities. Lloyd expresses some serious concern over what taking a tissue sample might do… and she’s promptly shot down. A really interesting conversation about specifics is pretty soundly avoided and the film progresses pretty predictably from there.
The film is directed by Matthijs van Heijningen Jr. in his first major motion picture project. For a first film it isn’t bad - the style and execution feel very much like an update on Carpenter’s original, while the look and feel of the film is a perfect one-to-one match with Carpenter’s film with the added bonus of more dramatically compelling special effects. As an homage to Carpenter’s film, it does a really good (if not entirely inspired) job of celebrating it while adding-in some of the back story that makes for a perfectly solid standalone story.
The one little innovation that this latest film adds is kind of funny - simply because of how obvious it is. John W. Campbell Jr. got heavily into the specifics of the search for who may and who may NOT be an alien masquerading as a human. The science got kind of elaborate as they were discussing possible tests, but the most obvious one seems to have been overlooked until now: fillings. An alien can mimic organic matter and borrow someone’s clothes, but dental fillings would be impossible for the thing to mimic. So they’re able to eliminate a few people from consideration by a simple check of their dental work. Clever stuff in its simplicity. Aside from that, the latest film is little more than a fun addition to Carpenter’s original adaptation.
The original novella was highly influential as a hard science horror sci-fi story. Being an isolated novella in a genre that reveres long, drawn-out serials, Campbell’s original story isn’t remembered all that well. The original RKO adaptation had some sharply moody moments about it, but the film was, as a whole, a much less sophisticated package than the work it was based on. Likely it would have been largely forgotten were it not for the subsequent early ‘80s film adaptation. John Carpenter’s 1982 film was a strikingly vivid screen adaptation of the less particular horror at the heart of Campbell’s original short story. The film did little better than break even, but Carpenter’s work has a cult following that continues to have its own niche popularity, including annual screenings by researchers stationed in Antarctica, not to mention the 2011 film that shares its title.
The odd little bit about this latest Thing is that everyone in the press seems to be referring to it as a re-make when in actuality, it’s a prequel. That combined with a kind of amorphously ambiguous marketing push will likely see this latest Thing turning less of a profit than the nearly-successful original film. Much like the creature it's based on, this is a franchise that seems to survive in a kind of shadowy anonymity - making its presence known through its influence on others.