In 1938, John W. Campbell wrote the horror sci-fi novella "Who Goes There," published in the August issue of Astounding Science Fiction (IMAGE 1). Campbell wrote the novella under the pen name Don A. Stuart. The novella was voted one of the greatest sci-fi stories ever written by the Science Fiction Writers of America.
Three films have been based on the novella and all three stray from the original story in various ways. The novella centers on a group of scientific researchers, isolated in Antarctica by the nearly-ended winter, discover an alien spaceship buried in the ice, where it crashed twenty million years before.
They try to thaw the inside of the spacecraft with a thermite charge, but end up accidentally destroying it when the ship's magnesium hull is ignited by the charge. However, they do recover the alien pilot from the ancient ice, which the researchers believe was searching for heat when it was frozen.
Thawing revives the alien, a being which can assume the shape, memories, and personality of any living thing it devours, while maintaining its original body mass for further reproduction. Unknown to them, the alien immediately kills and then imitates the crew's physicist, a man named Connant; with some 90 pounds of its matter left over it tries to become a sled dog.
The crew discovers the dog-Thing and kills it in the process of transformation. Pathologist Blair, who had lobbied for thawing the Thing, goes insane with paranoia and guilt, vowing to kill everyone at the base in order to save mankind; he is isolated within a locked cabin at their outpost.
Connant is also isolated as a precaution and a "rule-of-four" is initiated in which all personnel must remain under the close scrutiny of three others. The researchers try to figure out who may have been replaced by the alien (simply referred to as the Thing), in order to destroy the imitations before they can escape and take over the world.
Tensions mount and some men begin to go mad thinking they are already the last human or wondering if they would even know if they weren't human any longer.
Howard Hawk's The Thing From Another World (directed by Christian Nyby) is loosely based on the novella's premise only and changed the story in line with the times of the early fifties, that being the post atomic negativity towards technology and science. The Hawk's film discards all the character names while Thing 82 discards about half the character names from the novella.
The Thing From Another World 1951 was the only film of the three to remain faithful to the novella's plot device of using electricity, or more accurately, electrocution to battle the alien. (IMAGE 2). The other two films mainly used fire and explosives.
While John Carpenter's Thing takes its own share of liberties by straying from the original story also, it does adopt a few of the novella's plot concepts more so than the other two films.
The Thing 82 is more faithful to the physiology of the alien, or at least more so than the other two films (IMAGE 3). Carpenter also ramps up the paranoia theme even more so than the novella.
In Carpenter's film, none of the characters were given any clear cut clues they might have been imitated until they were revealed. In the novella, certain characters are proven to be imitations, or at leasted narrowed to select characters and are contained.
While Thing 2011 modeled their creatures in theme with The Thing 82, it could be argued that's not so much a credit to the novella and more so copying Carpenter's version of the alien. (IMAGE 4). Worst of all, this was a golden opportunity for Thing 2011 to focus on aspects of the novella that the other two films ignored.
It then could have planted itself as a legitimate flagpole in honor of the novella's theme, a potential to be regarded as a timeless classic under The Novella Umbrella, but instead they chose to mimic Thing 82's story that strayed also from the original story. Why imitate an imitation? (is that a Thing pun?)
All three films had the opportunity to capture the novella's various concepts and I will go over the novella's plot concepts that would have enriched any of the three films, but let's first take a look at the three films regarding their universal praise / criticism by the film community.
I use a rating system for SFMZ that weighs in critical reviews, viewer ratings, film organization accolades, all time lists, combined and measured for relevance to determine an overall rating by the film community (that feature article soon to be posted).
This gives an average weight where no one sector dominates it's overall rating. Here are the results for the three films (10.00 being the top score) . . .
The Thing From Another World 1951 7.53
The Thing 1982 - 8.25
The Thing 2011 - 5.05
The '51 film has landed on a number of prominent all time lists and is considered one of the greatest sci-fi films of the fifties. While the '82 film initially received mixed reviews and poor box office performance, the birth of home video turned Carpenter's version into a cult classic where re-appraisel reviews finally recognized it's high value.
The Thing 2011 bottomed out in all corners of the film appreciation community - poor box office, a truckload of negative reviews by professional critics, poor viewer ratings, and zero accolades from award organizations. Like Thing 82, the newest film did receive a Saturn award nomination for Best Horror film, but neither film won the award.
The Elusive Faithful Adaption
All three films are based on the novella and all three stray quite a bit from Campbell's story. Perhaps a story like 'Who Goes There' works best only in print and simply cannot migrate well on film regarding a truly faithful adaption.
On a personal note, I actually give The Thing 82's version of the story a slight edge over the novella mainly for Carpenter broadening the shroud of paranoia.
Nevertheless, there are intriguing plot concepts of the novella all three films had the opportunity to employ and chose not to. Considering what was left unexplored by the first two films, I have to wonder what the film makers of Thing 2011 were thinking by not tapping the original source.
In the novella, there are no Norwegians or Norwegian camp. The introduction of this unnecessary plot device rests on the shoulders of The Thing 82. The novella's main characters discover the ship and the body, which both were actually buried for 23 million years, not 100,000 years.
So for those complaining about the 2011 film centering on the Norwegian story, they have only The Thing 82 to blame for opening that can of worms. The novella gives a sense of true isolation, no one within thousands of miles outside the camp.
In The Thing 82, well not only they have neighbors, they "just so happen" to be only an hour away. Not to mention both the American camp, the Norwegian camp, and the alien ship site all "just so happen" to be in the same cozy area despite the wide reaching span of the Antarctica.
A land mass so large it's twice the size of Australia, yet in Carpenter's film you can hardly turn a corner without bumping into a Norwegian or alien, figuratively speaking.
In the novella, the exploration team had to travel for days from the camp site to the eventual discovery of the ship site. The Thing 2011 has even a much longer list of "just so happen" moments that could be a dedicated article itself.
In the novella, there were 37 men, much more than any of the three films. This is really not an issue and it's understandable that the films could not have a large staff, otherwise they would have to pick off victims in wholesale volume to get down to the lone few.
Carpenter's film is often inaccurately credited as one of the most faithful adaptions of an original work in the film industry. While Hawk's film purposely strayed significantly as explained above, making it loosely based on the novella, it is in some respects whether intended or not, more faithful to the story than Carpenter's film.
As mentioned earlier, electrocution used as a weapon in the Hawk's film is the most faithful of the three films, the '82 and 2011 film abandoned this novella element.
Another key element that Hawk's film remained faithful and Carpenter abandoned, is the alien's first confrontation with Earthlings - the dogs and the men.
The alien's transformation process was changed drastically in Carpenter's version of the story from the original. Perhaps, accelerated for the sake of telling his story, i.e. the dog was placed in the kennel, the transformation processes involved ventured into fantasy, all hard scifi was abandoned.
In Carpenter's version, the dog had an array of large organic appendages inside it's body - long tentacles, huge claws, a blossoming fanged circular mouth all revealed in a matter of seconds. If those appendages were inside the body beforehand, they would notice something seriously wrong with the dog long before it was placed in the kennel.
It probably couldn't even walk right, there would be unnatural protrusions easily seen under it's skin. But no, we see a dog walking naturally with all it's expected muscle tendons and bone structure, internal organs - those would have had to give way to park all those monstrosities inside that small body.
Therefore, none of that existed until a few seconds later. There is more than just cell imitation involved, there's cell multiplication happening to form matter increasing in size exponentially, at a fantasy land rate of acceleration. In the novella, when the dogs and men attacked the alien early in the story, it did none of the processes above.
It fended itself like any other cornered wild animal, lunging at it's opponents using it's talons to fight off the attackers . . . . . just like in the 1951 film version, giving Hawk the credit of remaining faithful to the novella's first confrontation.
Then there's the Norwegian camp in Carpenter's version mentioned earlier, Hawk's film remained faithful to the adaption by maintaining true isolation of the main characters, no neighbors. And this is the theme of this article, how can any film be considered a faithful adaption when it's missing key elements of the original story.
Despite Carpenter's film venturing into horror fantasy more so than horror sci-fi, I consider his version the cream of the crop. So obviously any lapse of hard sci-fi is not a deal breaker for me. There are a number of other plot devices of the novella that all three films are missing:
1) The novella is more realistic than any of the films regarding the humans allowing it to thaw, take samples, etc. It's only 12 chapters and over three chapters go over the debate what to do with the body. This is what would happen realistically.
Not like in the films where token resistance is given by certain characters with a line of dialogue or two. That's nonsense. The novella depicts a much more realistic and very heated prolonged debate covering all the possibilities and risks.
Of the three films, perhaps Hawk's '51 film provided more resistance over the debate by using authority to hold off, as in waiting for military approval. However, Hawk's film side steps this with the convenient excuse that an electric blanket was accidentally left turned on and melts the ice.
Please, it's the first discovery of an alien being, and humans develop a dose of whoopsies? Not likely. The intense debate explained in the novella would have made for a great drama slice of human conflict. A missed opportunity by all three films.
2) The alien has telepathic powers. It could read minds and project thoughts. Early on in the novella story, the human characters start having shared nightmares of the alien. One of the human characters even notices small movement of the creature in the block of ice.
In the novella, when the alien was still in the block of ice, it was conscious and was able to implant the nightmares among the human characters despite being encased in ice. What a great plot device this would have added to the intensity, which all three films missed the boat on this.
3) The human characters actually see the alien in it's true form, it's physical appearance is described in the novella. It was so horrifying, men charged out of the room in complete shock. "Three red eyes, and the blue hair like crawling worms. Crawling – damn, it’s crawling there in the ice right now!", the novella describes.
Also, once the humans see the Thing or close by it, that's when the recurring nightmares begin. They debate for awhile whether it was it's true form or that was the form of another alien the Thing had assimilated, but they eventually concluded that was it's true form (IMAGE 5).
Imagine the elevated status of the movies if this creature had been realized on screen, an iconic alien admired by fans for years to come in the same praise as Ridley Scott and H.R. Giger's famous Alien creature.
A golden opportunity ignored by all three films. Especially so for Thing 2011, introducing the alien's true form would at least been it's contribution to offer something new to the story line.
4) Not only did The Thing know which other humans were infected, it was just as vicious to it's own kind as it was with humans. One Thing/human murdered another Thing/human, or at least it's a suspicion.
Kill off the competition for hosts! Human or inhuman murderers as the novella explains. Yet all three films passed on this intriguing plot device that would have given the film story more layers.
5) In the novella, the dogs actually kick ass on the Thing, they rip it to pieces. And unlike The Thing 82 film where Blair killed the rest of the dogs, all of them got infected including the cows (there were milking cows in the novella).
Why not let the dogs have some glory in battling the alien, it is an Earthlings vs. Aliens story after all. Perhaps the '51 film came close to this with an attack on the creature by the dogs, but the Thing manages to get away.
6) The serum test is somewhat different in the novella, where the Thing plays mind games on the humans causing them to run a test that gave worthless results.
Garry and Copper are actually proven one of the two were indeed infected due to their blood being used for the test. The alien in hiding knows of this, reading minds, knowing the human's intentions.
In the novella, they isolated Garry and Copper until they could come up with a new test. The human characters finally realize that they have to come up with a way to expose the alien despite it's ability to read their intent. Another wonderful missed opportunity by all three films.
The remaining novella plot devices may not have necessarily been an enchancement to the film stories. For example, The Thing 82's portrayal of MacReady. In the novella, MacReady was not a helicopter pilot, he was formerly a medical intern then changed fields to meteorologist.
So it was MacReady who performed all medical related activities once Copper was out of commission (Copper broke down in delirium because he didn't know if he was a thing or not).
MacReady of The Thing 82 is a much more iconic presence in the story. Perhaps it was the film maker's motive to give him more of a pirateer, or rogue, or even Han Solo theme persona, since that type character was at it's peak with the release of the two Star Wars films. Which, coincidentally, Kurt Russell turned down the role of Han Solo.
The novella also explores to more extent than the films whether a human would know if they are infected, but even in the novella, it's not quite clear. For example, Nauls is very religious in the novella, almost evangelical (they call him Kinner in the book).
He's shouting non-stop prayers, but he was a Thing, so they describe that he was putting on an act. (He was the Thing/human that they suspected was murdered by another Thing/human)
The debate that rages on about when Blair got infected in the film, there is no dispute in the novella. They actually explain he was infected before being locked up and it was his goal to be isolated so he can get busy building.
But in the novella he doesn't build a ship, he builds an atomic generator and an anti-gravity harness. He was about a half hour away from making his getaway before they killed him.
Now in all fairness to the films, John Campbell's novella wasn't exactly a truly original story either. Though I've never seen any acknowledgement by Campbell, you can't help but wonder if his Who Goes There 1938 novella was borrowed from H.P. Lovecraft's At The Mountain of Madness (ATMOM) 1931 (IMAGE 6).
Published 6-7 years before Cambell's novella, ATMOM is a horror sci-fi tale set in the Antarctia where human characters discover the remains of an unidentifiable life form and were badly damaged (Carpenter's The Thing 82 connection: split face, the unidentifiable charred remains).
As the story progresses, it's revealed they were ancient aliens and some of the 'remains' come to life without notice from the human characters (connection: the remains of the films and the novella mostly play out the same way).
One additional note pertaining to ATMOM, Bill Lancaster, the screen writer for The Thing 1982, and / or John Carpenter possibly borrowed from ATMOM regarding another human's camp.
There's a second human camp in ATMOM, where the main characters go there and discover it has been destroyed and the men have been slaughtered (connection: Carpenter's Norwegian camp).
The dogs of ATMOM were also slaughtered just like the violent attack on Carpenter's dogs. Later in the story, these alien creatures can assume any form just like Carpenter's film and the novella.
And to stray even further, Ridely Scott's Alien has similar connections to ATMOM, with the engineered bio-weapons / servants (called the Shoggoths) created by the ancient aliens. The common ground shared by Alien and The Thing is explored further with SFMZ's article The Similarities Between Ridley Scott's Alien and John Carpenter's The Thing.
The Shoggoths eventually turned on their creators just like Ridley Scott modeled his space jockeys in Prometheus (IMAGE 7). Another Prometheus connection, the ATMOM's ancient aliens created life on Earth.
Yet another Prometheus connection to ATMOM, the human characters explore the structure of the ancient aliens and find large murals. Not to mention as the ATMOM's human characters continue further exploring the alien's structure they discover a pile of dead aliens who suffered a violent and fatal attack . . . just like in Prometheus.
Last but not least, ATMOM's human characters explore further deep into the structure and face a horrifying unknown form of black mass . . . yes, that's right, just like the black goo of Prometheus. But Dan O'Bannon who wrote Alien and H.R. Giger who designed the creature, have both openly stated they were inspired by Lovecraft's novella.
However, that's not to say At The Mountains of Madness was truly original either. Read ATMOM 1931 and tell me you didn't think of Sci-Fi Hall of Famer Abraham Merritt's The People of the Pit 1918 (IMAGE 8).
Numerous similarities. But why stop there, read The People of the Pit and tell me you didn't think of Edgar Allen Poe's Pym of Nantucket 1838. However, Lovecraft did acknowledge he was inspired by Poe's novel when writing ATMOM.
All tales have deep roots. There's nothing truly original anymore. If Universal Studios ever gets the ATMOM project out of purgatory and make the film, and IMDB open it's forum for that movie, I would bet my 401K you will see dozens of imdb members screaming ATMOM ripped off the Thing and Alien.
Oh the irony.
John Campbell's novella being a fairly short story, perhaps The Thing franchise has run its course at the box office, with Carpenter's film arguably the crowning star of the three versions. If Hollywood ever makes another attempt to give us yet one more version, anything other than a truly faithful adaption this time would be a disappointment.
IMAGE 1: Campbell wrote the horror sci-fi novella "Who Goes There" under the pen name Don A. Stuart, published in the August issue of Astounding Science Fiction.
IMAGE 2: The Thing From Another World 1951 was the only film of the three to remain faithful to the novella's plot device of using electricity, or more accurately, electrocution to battle the alien.
IMAGE 3: The Thing 82 is more faithful to the physiology of the alien, or at least more so than the other two films.
IMAGE 4: While Thing 2011 modeled their creatures in theme with The Thing 82, it could be argued that's not so much a credit to the novella and more so copying Carpenter's version of the alien
IMAGE 5: A quick photoshop graphic I threw together using a Nvidia game image to design The Thing alien.
IMAGE 6: H.P. Lovecraft's
"At The Mountain of Madness" 1931
IMAGE 7: Ridley Scott's
IMAGE 8: Abraham Merritt's
The People of the Pit 1918