Book vs. Movie: The Thing
By Russ Bickerstaff
October 19, 2011
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.