In Praise of Old(er) Books: Reboot or Return?

Before the movie The Thing (released in 1982, directed by John Carpenter, starring Kurt Russell, with a screenplay adapted by Bill Lancaster from the story “Who Goes There” by John W. Campbell Jr.). there was another film adaptation of the same novella. The Thing from Another World, directed by Christian Nyby, was released in 1951 with a screenplay supposedly based on the same Campbell novella, although that time it was adapted by Howard Hawks, Charles Lederer and Ben Hecht.

Few story to movie adaptations better illustrate the original conceit of this series than the history of the John W. Campbell Jr.’s 1938 novella Who Goes There? That novella is available in eBook form from The story, in style, interpersonal relationships and scientific grounding, is very much a product of its time.

Rather than being set in Antarctica, the film’s action has been relocated to the Arctic. Rather than a group of scientists who are cut off by weather for months at a time, the scientists in the movie are regularly visited by (and provisioned by) the American military.

The 1951 and 1982 films are fundamentally different in tone and production values as well as widely diverging in setting and story line. The earlier film was a mere 87 minutes long, filmed in black and white, and very much a product of the early Cold War Period. The 1982 film is darker (in every sense of the word), more expensively produced, longer and surprisingly for those who routinely denounce/criticize the remaking of earlier films, arguably closer to the original work upon which both movies were based.

As Campbell himself describes it, in the introduction to Who Goes There? Seven Tales of Science Fiction (Campbell, John. 1991. Buccaneer Books. Cutchogue, New York) the emphasis of the story “is on putting over to the reader a feeling of the inescapable tension and fear brooding in the Antarctic camp.”(p.4)

Campbell also considered it to be an example of a ‘gadget story’ as opposed to a concept or a character story. The alien in the story could, he argued, be considered a non-mechanical gadget.

One could argue that the two film adaptations of the novella approach the question as to whether the alien is a ‘gadget’ and, if so, how to respond to it, in fundamentally different ways.

The 1951 film opens in Anchorage, Alaska as the audience follows a reporter out of a snowy night and into a very nice and civilized looking officer’s club. The books opens with the lines:

The place stank. A queer, mingling stench that only the ice-buried cabins of an Antarctic camp know, compounded of reeking human sweat, and the heavy, fish-oil stench of melted seal blubber. (p. 7)

When the 1951 film was being written and produced, the Korean police action has not yet started, so the American troops are watchful but not engaged in active combat. So rather than the ‘stinking’ opening to the novella, the film begins in Anchorage, Alaska with people who look, clean, well fed and well groomed heading off to fly to a “conference of scientists” and the crashed air vehicle. People are joking and passing the time playing cards in well lit rooms.

Some of the officers who were playing cards in gossiping with the reporter in the club in Anchorage are sent out to investigate reports from an icebound group of scientists soon after they have detected what appears to have been the landing of a meteor/comet/alien device. There is a suggestion that the ‘crashed air vehicle’ might be Canadian (given the location this is not unlikely) or Russian (since they were presumed to be “all over the place”.)

When the military arrive at the camp, we find an orderly outpost. The scientists have clean well-lit labs, the heroine is the lead scientist’s secretary (with a nice office of her own and a typewriter.) All the women wear makeup. Everyone except the cook (played by an uncredited Lee Ton Foo) is white.

The movie (and the original novella) is firmly set in a world in which military officers are male, scientists are male, women, if they are employed, are secretaries and ‘helpers.’ This is a world in which the man who is accused of ‘handsy’ behaviour on a date not only finds it amusing but also, apparently, does the woman he was groping.

All the named (human) characters in the novella are male. The reader can surmise attitudes towards women but has no chance to observe them. The 1951 films’ introduction of women to the story is uncanonical. Just as the 1982 film returned the setting to the original location (Antarctica) that film also returns to an all (apparently) male cast of characters.

The 1951 film changes the basic nature of the alien “gadget” to the point that it is unrecognizable. The alien threat is current (recently arrived on earth), the alien is threatening (it doesn’t simply flee) and the major threat it poses is the ability to build an army of superstrong, self-healing soldiers at great speed. The American soldiers are competent and the film is not anti-science though it does question the common sense and practicality of scientists. The American soldier triumphs, the Alien is defeated and we are left with a feel-good film that warns the audience to ‘watch the skies’ as a warning.

The 1982 film opens to a wide expanse as we see a helicopter chasing a husky across a wide, bright snowy terrain. The film progressively becomes more claustrophobic and less clearly lit. The crew of the outpost smoke (as they did in the 1951 film) and they do dope and they drink. They are not neatly clad, and they have a less than clear line of authority.

Further than, that I am loathe to go, for fear of spoiling the version of the movie now playing on Netflix. It isn’t a film version of the novella, rather it is a film that brings to life the ‘gadget’ of the original story. At the same time it manages to be both a concept and a character story. In opposition to the usual plea to first read the book, I think most people would enjoy watching the film first and then reading the book. Either way, I hope you find them as enjoyable as did I.


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