The 1982 movie The Thing has long been one of my favorites, probably since about ’83, or whenever it made it to The TV movie of the week. I finally got my hands on the original novella by John W. Campbell, “Who Goes There?” published by Rocket Ride books and William F. Nolan. (And this paperback has all the marks of a small-time press, which makes me curious as to how they got the rights. But that’s neither here nor there, really.)
So now I have experienced three versions of this story: the John Carpenter film we all know as a SF/horror classic, the original story by Campbell published in 1938, and Nolan’s own movie treatment, which he was hired on for in 1978. Carpenter’s version won out over Nolan’s for the early ’80s remake, and it’s pretty obvious to me why that happened.
I have to say that having all three of these as options, Carpenter’s movie is by far my favorite and is the most effective. (Though I admit to some bias—it’s helped shape my story consciousness since childhood.)
Who Goes There? obviously has all the elements and the original genius of the story idea, but lacks the scariness and delivery to make it as cool as it should be. Campbell’s style is pretty straight forward and involves mostly dialogue. We don’t see much happening, mostly get it through what is said—more telling than showing, as we say in writing. What little action or horror we might get comes and goes pretty darn quickly. Of course, this was written in the 30s, so the style and expectations of the time were probably quite different from what we expect today. Even so, there seemed to be a lot of opportunities missed.
The suspense, paranoia, and horror are what make this such a great idea: being isolated in a hostile environment where cabin fever can make this very real without any need for shape-changing aliens. Campbell puts in quite a bit of science–most of the Antarctic expedition are, after all, scientists. And he makes a lot of credible arguments as to why someone might or might not be the alien. But from the first chapter we pretty much already know there’s an alien involved, which they too quickly decide could be a shape-changer that might imitate humans and have telepathic, mind-reading abilities. (Damn those guys are smart! And precognitive!) Any chance for creepy buildup is thrown right out the window. The alien found is also a blue-skinned humanoid with three red eyes and worm-like hair, which sounds about like an alien you’d expect from the 30s. But, of course, Campbell’s characters are smart enough to determine that this might not be the creature’s true form.
Over all, the story is good for the fantastic idea more than anything. In his story, he makes a very thoroughly scientific and horrifiying monster that, if it weren’t for the witnessed shapechanging aspect, could be taken as pure cabin fever for a while. In fact, that could have been a good approach for a bit: making the reader wonder if this is all just paranoia with no real monster. Then, after things got really nasty with someone killing another person, only then showing that the alien is real. Which Campbell kind of does, but well after we’re convinced there is an alien.
That’s another bit I think Carpenter improved on: the movie begins with a dog being chased and shot at by a helicopter, a strange situation that piques our curiosity but doesn’t lend straight to extraterrestrials. Chapter one of the story has the alien laying on a table, dripping as its icy tomb melts. Boom. Right to it, ball for creepy suspense tossed away on page one.
Third among these versions is Nolan’s own movie treatment. In his forward to this contemporary printing, he states that he was hired on with instructions to “get a lot closer to Campbell’s original.” (As compared to the 1951 movie The Thing from Another World). In this, in my opinion, he failed miserably. In fact, he didn’t even try to do that.
His treatment is chock full of new characters he invented, including three women, and a very different take on the aliens. Yes, plural aliens–three of them, who pilot a scout ship into Antarctica during the movie. But rather than be like a pathogen that infects and slowly replaces everyone in camp, Nolan’s aliens are yellow energy beings and possess one person at a time and wield hand-tube laser beams. And as they take over and then abandon bodies for a new one, they stuff the deflated skins into lockers and come up with lame stories for why people keep disappearing. It would be a completely different movie. I could see it being made and think it would fit well on a shelf of (I’m sorry to say, mediocre) sci-fi movies, but I do not feel it would serve as a good take on Who Goes There?
I will say Nolan had a good sense of his characters. Judging purely by what I have here, I’d say that might be Nolan’s greatest strength.
But as for Who Goes There? John Carpenter went there, and did so better than even Campbell, in my opinion. He took Campbell’s ingenious idea for a story and made it a more effective sci-fi/horror/paranoia experience. After reading the original, though, I could see how Carpenter’s relatively short movie (about an hour and a half) could have been just a little longer to make slightly better use of the paranoia. But his take on the shape-changing, body-infecting alien is superb in my view, maximizing Campbell’s scientifically thorough and horrifying idea in an isolated, cabin-fever environment.