The Thing Is …
Antarctica. Home to penguins, the South Pole, and one of the scariest sci-fi/horror stories ever. But what’s more effective: the page-turner or the popcorn-pleaser? And are those chills just –49˚C winds, or something nastier? Is there some Thing at the door? Zip up your parka, strap on your snow-shoes, and let’s ask Who Goes There? But if you see any stray huskies, don’t pet them…
A scientific expedition camp finds an alien, preserved in the ice. When it thaws out, they discover that not only it is alive but can also shape-shift into any of them. Suspicion leads to paranoia and even murder, as everyone realises no-one may be whom he seems…
The Novella: Who Goes There?
When it was published in Astounding Science Fiction in 1938, little did anyone guess Who Goes There? would undergo almost as many changes as the alien in it. The title has occasionally been The Thing from Another World (the name of the 1951 film version), the length has been 12 chapters or 14 chapters (and now there’s the recently discovered novel-length edition) and the author has been credited as Don A Stuart, a pseudonym of John W Campbell Jr (the name comes from his first wife, Doña Louise Stewart Stebbins). Like the paranoid denizens of Big Magnet Antarctic base, you’ll be forgiven for wondering which version you’re getting.
The camp’s population is 37, all men, plus dogs and cows. The principal characters are Commander Garry, the base’s leader; McReady, a meteorologist and second in command; Connant, the first person suspected of being an imitation; and Blair, who realises the threat it poses to humanity. These characters are easily relatable. From Garry we feel the self-doubt, when his identity is questioned; from McReady we witness someone having to think fast and assume command; from Connant we experience the fear of suspicion as the others ostracise him; and from Blair we understand the full horror and consequence if the creature should reach civilisation.
Some Thing Wicked …
At the centre of it is the Thing. Unnamed, unidentified. It never speaks in its own voice, though we learn it has telepathic powers, and in a disturbing example of cunning, it accesses the memories of other people to ensure the person it has copied behaves as they expect.
And that’s the novella’s biggest difference to the film versions. This creature is more devious than the parasitic killer onscreen. In the novella’s most memorable scene, a blood-serum test to positively identify humans fails, and suspicion falls upon two people. The Thing rationalises how the other person must be innocent – and by doing so looks innocent itself. It’s hard to escape the notion that the alien is the smartest one in the room.
By writing in the third-person, Campbell Jr never gives us insight into anyone’s thoughts – so we have no idea who is human and who isn’t. This allows the novella’s main theme, paranoia, free reign. The misidentification aspect goes back to the author’s childhood too: his mother and aunt were identical twins, so he grew up knowing how it felt to question if someone was the person they appeared to be.
Whilst there’s a lot of science, it’s handled in a way that doesn’t confuse the reader. However, that method of presentation – dialogue – has its own challenges. Sometimes a character talks for an entire page or more, which comes across as unrealistic, and many scenes – including discovering the spacecraft and sabotaging their aircraft – are related in yet more dialogue. That maxim about ‘show don’t tell’ is largely ignored, so we’re frequently left with the impression of being told a story rather than experiencing it.
The Science Fiction Writers of America described Who Goes There? as one of the “most influential, important, and memorable” stories, and its core idea is now a sci-fi staple; from Doctor Who to The X-Files, we just keep finding bad things in the ice. But if we thought we knew everything about Campbell Jr’s alien, we were mistaken…
In 2018, a novel-length manuscript called Frozen Hell was found among papers sent to Harvard University. A Kickstarter campaign saw the original story finally see print, 81 years after Who Goes There? first sent chills up readers’ spines. Which shows, no matter how long something lies dormant, there’s still life in it yet…
The Film: John Carpenter’s The Thing
Back in the 1970s, producers David Foster and Lawrence Turman felt it was time for a more faithful adaptation of Who Goes There? than 1951’s The Thing From Another World. Co-producer Stuart Cohen suggested John Carpenter for director, but Universal wanted an established name. Tobe Hooper (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre) and John Landis (An American Werewolf in London) were considered, but the project stalled until Alien’s box-office triumph. Meanwhile, the most profitable independently produced film up to that point opened in 1978. That film was Halloween. John Carpenter was back on the list.
Carpenter was reluctant, being a fan of the 1951 film (it’s on the television in Halloween); however, he loved the novella, having read it in school, so the idea of filming that was tempting. He decided not to adapt it himself, but found the scripts offered somewhat lacking, ignoring the shape-shifting aspect – also absent from the earlier film – and resorting to the dreaded ‘man in a suit’ monster. The one writer who understood his vision was Bill Lancaster.
Lancaster slashed the base personnel to 12, upped the action, dispensed with the story about finding the alien by including a Norwegian camp that found it first, and introduced many concepts that became indelible with the film, including the famous blood-test scene – the scene that convinced Carpenter to sign on. With a budget of $15 million, filming began on location in Alaska and British Colombia (where the exterior camp was built six months earlier, before the snow fell), as well as refrigerated Hollywood studio sets.
Cast & Characters
Many of the novella’s principal characters appear, with minor changes. Microbiologist McReady is now helicopter pilot MacReady, his non-science background making him a better conduit for the audience’s questions. Commander Garry’s part is diminished, as are his leadership qualities. Connant is dropped; his role of first suspect is unnecessary, because once the alien’s chameleon-like nature is known, everyone is suspected. Blair is perhaps the character who changes least between page and screen, still being the first to realise the threat it poses to the world, going mad, being isolated, becoming the Thing and almost building a means of escape.
Carpenter turned to his Elvis and Escape From New York star Kurt Russell for MacReady. British actor Donald Moffat played Garry, and Wilford Brimley was cast as Blair when first choice Donald Pleasence was vetoed as being too recognisable. One significant addition was the mechanic Childs, a first major film role for stage actor Keith David, who filmed most of his scenes with a broken hand. With the decision taken to return to the all-male crew of the novella, the only female cast member was Carpenter’s then-wife (and The Fog star) Adrienne Barbeau, voicing MacReady’s chess computer.
Thing’s Change …
It’s surprising how much of the novella is retained, albeit with a few twists. The creature is once again a shape-shifter, though the telepathy has been dropped; the blood-serum test is sabotaged this time (someone destroys the uncontaminated blood samples); MacReady works out that sticking a heated wire into extracted blood will identify an imposter; and the Blair-Thing still goes all Scrapheap Challenge whilst locked in the shed.
Where the film comes into its own is with what’s added. This camp doesn’t ‘find’ the Thing, it literally runs up to them, disguised as a huskie. When MacReady visits the Norwegian camp, the corpses found there prime us for what follows. And what follows are some of the goriest special effects ever – courtesy of 22-year old (really!) Rob Bottin and his team, with help from Stan Winston (he did the dog-Thing that gets torched). Universal initially budgeted the effects at $200,000. They came to $1.5m – and every cent is there, on screen.
But whilst the effects are rightly celebrated, they’re only one part of the film. Right on the halfway point MacReady says, “Trust’s a tough thing to come by these days,” and paranoia is still the story’s DNA. Carpenter makes us doubt everyone – including MacReady –tightening the screws until the film’s finest scene: the blood-test. The tension is sharper than an alien’s incisors and, until we get to the actual reveal, the whole thing is played out without a single special effect. It’s all in the acting, the writing, the directing.
If there’s one thing that’s discussed more than the effects, it’s the ending. Bleaker than an icy tundra, with the camp destroyed and everyone else dead, MacReady and Childs wait to see if one of them is the Thing as a frozen death awaits. Carpenter wanted this to be a heroic sacrifice: the men forfeiting their lives rather than risk the alien reaching civilisation. The question of whether one of them is ‘it’ has become the focus of much debate. Carpenter has teased that someone is the Thing, but he ain’t saying who. Such ambiguity for a film about suspicion feels rather fitting.
From a story perspective, there are a few unanswered questions (who sabotaged the uncontaminated blood?), and strange inconsistencies (the sign reads ‘United States National Science Institute Station 4’ but everyone calls the base “Outpost 31” – a holdover from an earlier draft). Also, some characters wander off like teenagers at Camp Crystal Lake. We never really get to know them like the crew of Alien, but The Thingdeserves kudos for avoiding the one pitfall of Ridley Scott’s classic: this monster is a whole menagerie of horrors (Bottin theorised it could morph into any creature it has previously assimilated – so there’s a lot of spiders in space) but it is never, ever a man in a suit.
Release & Reception
When the story of an alien stranded on earth opened in the summer of ‘82, audiences went wild. However, that alien was Steven Spielberg’s extra-terrestrial, which came out two weeks earlier, and may have contributed to The Thing’s poor box office. There’s been almost as much debate as to why it failed as there has about that ending, and possibly the nihilistic finale (at a time when America was in recession, so more uplifting films fared better) played its part too. But what about the reviews?
Some critics took offence to those bloodthirsty effects, and others, it seemed, took inspiration. One said it was “entertaining only if the viewer needed to see spider-legged heads and dog autopsies” (five stars, right there), another called Carpenter a “pornographer of violence” (he laughs about it. Now.) It soon found a home, a fan base, and critical reappraisal thanks to the home-video revolution, and is today considered a classic – coming 4th on Empire’s top 50 horror films, one place ahead of Halloween – but its initial failure had consequences. Carpenter’s multi-picture deal with Universal was terminated, he lost the directing job on Firestarter, and his confidence plummeted. He has said that, if not for The Thing, his career would have taken a different path. But he has also said The Thing might just be his favourite, so it’s fitting it has finally been welcomed in from the cold.
In 2011, a prequel focusing on events at that Norwegian camp during the alien’s discovery was released. Directed by Matthijs van Heijningen Jr and starring Mary Elizabeth Winstead (a superb Ripley-on-ice) and Joel Edgerton, it shows its fan-love for Carpenter’s original in every frame.
Eric Heisserer’s script meticulously sets out how each discovery made by MacReady comes to pass, but cannily keeps us guessing who will suffer which fate. There’s a neat twist on the blood-test scene, as we learn the Thing cannot replicate metal, so open wide and let’s check for fillings (this throws an interesting slant on Carpenter’s ending, because one of those two gentlemen has an earring…) and it does raise the subject of alien infection, something Campbell Jr discussed but Carpenter dropped.
It also received a frosty reception, but fully deserves its own reappraisal. With our current obsession for origin stories, studios could do far worse than studying this. The only misstep was also calling itself The Thing – leading many to think it was a remake of the 1982 film – but otherwise it barely puts a foot, tentacle or claw wrong.
And the Winner is…
Both novella and film are rightly considered classics, and have been hugely influential. They share a sense of isolation, a feeling of paranoia, the fear of not trusting anyone, including yourself – and credit for that must go to Campbell Jr. But though Carpenter’s adaptation retains those elements, it adds eye-popping effects that no prose could replicate – and whilst the novella gets bogged down by dialogue, the film has a lean, streamlined narrative that’s relentless. It’s as impressive now as it was 38 years ago, and so John Carpenter’s The Thing is the winner.
BIO: Nick Jackson has written several Book V Film comparisons for Lucy, as well as short stories which have been published in numerous anthologies, usually horror and science fiction. He’s fairly sure he is human, but it’s a while since he had a blood test.