Reading the Screen: The Thing
Posted by: David Pitt
If you’re a fan of science fiction movies, you probably already know that a prequel to John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982) is being filmed. It promises to explain just what went on at the Norwegian base prior to the events we saw in the movie.
A lot of people consider The Thing to be a remake of the 1951 film The Thing from Another World, but that’s not really true. Carpenter actually stuck a lot closer to the source material — John W. Campbell’s 1938 story “Who Goes There?” – than Howard Hawks, who produced (and, it’s commonly believed, directed most of) the ’51 movie.
Campbell’s story involves a group of researchers in Antarctica who discover a 20-million-year-old spaceship buried under the ice. They also find what appears to be the frozen corpse of an occupant of the fallen ship. They dig him out, his ice coffin melts, and soon the scientists are being hunted by a creature that can take on human form. Nobody trusts anybody else; nobody’s sure who among them is the Thing.
Hawks and his screenwriter, Charles Lederer, made a number of changes to Campbell’s story. They jettisoned the characters’ names, made some of them military men, introduced a romantic subplot, and turned Campbell’s rather ingenious shape-shifting alien into, in the words of one of the movie’s characters, “a super-carrot.” Here’s the classic shot of James Arness as the Thing:
The Thing from Another World is rightly considered a classic: it’s well written and well acted, and it captures a good deal of Campbell’s claustrophia. The movie was made during the initial explosion of interest in alien invasion and flying saucers. It was released not quite a decade after Pearl Harbor, and its final line – ”Keep watching the skies!” – must have sent waves of shivers down moviegoers’ backs. Hawks and Lederer (and the movie’s credited director, Christian Nyby) made a movie that was very much for its time.
But let’s be honest: the movie, good as it is, bears only a passing resemblance to its source material. Carpenter’s The Thing, on the other hand, goes back to the source, retaining most of the character’ names, losing the military men and the romantic subplot, incorporating many key scenes from Campbell’s story, and restoring Campbell’s alien to its menacing and deeply frightening self. I’d show you a clip, but most of the good ones are maybe a bit too, um, graphic. So here’s the trailer:
Carpenter’s movie is more of a Cold War version of Campbell’s story. The enemy could be anybody. It could be your best friend, your colleague. It could even — and this is the most frightening element of the movie, to me — be yourself. Is it better than the Hawks version? Let’s say this: it’s very different.