From Page to Screen: The Thing (1982)


 

Written by Bill Lancaster

Directed by John Carpenter

Starring Kurt Russell, Wilford Brimley, T.K. Carter, David Clennon, Keith David, Richard Dysart

RT 109 min.

Released June 25, 1982

Home Video Blu-ray (Shout!)

Rating 8 slashers (out of 10)

When Richard and I recently appeared on Nightmare Junkhead to debate the worthiness of either Creepshow or The Thing to advance to the next round of “Into the Mouth of March Madness,” I asked how much credit we should give to the writer of the latter, Bill Lancaster. Sure, we all praise John Carpenter for the direction, but the movie’s production began with words on paper. My question was dismissed due to the fact that The Thing (1982) is based on an original short story by John W. Campbell Jr. from the August 1938 issue of Astounding Stories. This response has been gnawing on me ever since, so I want to dig deeper to learn how much of the final product really resembles Who Goes There?

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Certainly, The Thing resembles Who Goes There? more than the first film adapted from the short story, The Thing from Another World (1951.) Producer Howard Hawks took a simpler approach, altering the nature of the alien from one that could transform into other living creatures into one that was simply a hulking, lumbering monster. The 1982 “remake” draws considerable content from the science fiction of Who Goes There?, which offers extensive discussions about the origin of “the Thing,” of what it is capable, and about how to stop it. The movie doesn’t take the foundational concepts much further; however, it’s able to bring life to text that at one time (1951, for example) would be considered unfilmable.

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Early in the short story, Campbell describes the main character, McReady. In the film, MacReady is played by Kurt Russell, to whom, following Carpenter, most people credit the popularity of The Thing.

Moving from the smoke-blued background, McReady was a figure from some forgotten myth, a looming, bronze statue that held life, and walked. Even here, four feet below the drift-wind that droned across the Antarctic waste above the ceiling, the cold of the frozen continent leaked in, and gave meaning to the harshness of the man. And he was bronze – his great red-bronze beard, the heavy hair that matched it. The gnarled, corded hands gripping, relaxing, gripping and relaxing on the table planks were bronze. Even the deep-sunken eyes beneath heavy brows were bronzed.

Perhaps every detail doesn’t describe Russell; however, the overall package is the same: he’s a badass and he’s the one to take charge of the crisis as it escalates.

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Who Goes There? begins at a point where the Thing has been discovered and lies frozen in a block of ice on a table in the Antarctic research station, “Big Magnet.” The Thing begins both earlier and later that this. It’s earlier in the sense that the men of the Antarctic research station, U.S. Outpost 31, aren’t yet aware that an alien force is among them. It’s later in the sense that the alien force has already thawed. In the story, we get a sense of how the alien might look in its natural state; in the movie, we do not.

…three red eyes, and that blue hair like crawling worms. Crawling – damn, it’s crawling there in the ice right now!

In both versions, the first appearance of the Thing “in action” occurs with the dogs. Who Goes There? is fairly limited in its description, allowing room for interpretation by the movie.

Connant shifted abruptly, and Barclay could see what lay beyond. For a second he stood frozen, then his breath went out in a gusty curse. The Thing launched itself at Connant, the powerful arms of the man swung the ice-ax flatside first at what might have been a hand. It scrunched horribly, and the tattered flesh, ripped by a half dozen savage huskies, leapt to its feet again. The red eyes blazed with an unearthly hatred, an unearthly, unkillable vitality.

In both versions, the scientists quickly jump to accurate conclusions about the nature of the monster; however, Who Goes There? goes into pages of detail and scientific explanation where The Thing more quickly moves forward to the action. They both also quickly get to the dramatic core: any one of them could be a monster, but who? The short story talks circles around this conundrum. In one example, Copper says:

I know I’m human. I can’t prove it either. One of us two is a liar, for that test cannot lie, and it says one of us is. I gave proof that the test was wrong, which seems to prove I’m human, and now Garry has given that argument which proves me human – which he, as the monster, should not do. Round and round and round and round and –

The movie reduces the number of circular discussions and is summarized succinctly by no-nonsense MacReady…

I know I’m human. And if you were all these things, then you’d attack me right now, so some of you are still human.

Both versions take the thought to a similar worst-case scenario. In Who Goes There?...

It doesn’t have to prove on of us is a monster! It doesn’t have to prove that at all! Ho-ho. If we’re all monsters it works the same! We’re all monsters – all of us… and all of you.

Again, MacReady puts it more succinctly…

Somebody in this camp ain't what he appears to be. Right now that may be one or two of us. By spring, it could be all of us.

Childs (Keith David) then asks…

So how do we know who's human? If I was an imitation, a perfect imitation, how would you know if it was really me?

This leads to the big test which is so effectively depicted in the movie. The short story features the same test but it's later, after attempting a different test first, which fails. In Who Goes There?, McReady describes the effective experiment…

Blood is tissue. If they bleed – then that blood, separated from them, is an individual – a newly formed individual in its own right, just as they, split, all of them, from one individual, are individuals! The blood – the blood will not obey. It’s a new individual, with all the desire to protect its own life that the original – the main mass from which it was split – has. The blood will live – and try to crawl away from a hot needle, say!

In The Thing, MacReady also describes the experiment…

…maybe every part of him was a whole, every little piece was an individual animal with a built-in desire to protect its own life. Ya see, when a man bleeds, it's just tissue, but blood from one of you Things won't obey when it's attacked. It'll try and survive... crawl away from a hot needle, say.

The other big similarity is that in both the short story and the movie, when Blair seems to lose his mind and is locked in a shed, he is, in fact (spoiler alert) a Thing and utilizes his time in solitary confinement to manufacture an escape. So far, it seems my question was a stupid one; The Thing is remarkably faithful to the source material, Who Goes There? It’s at this point, though, that some differences evolve. In the movie, Blair (Wilford Brimley) has stolen helicopter parts to construct a spaceship. In the short story, Blair has constructed an anti-gravity device. This leads to different endings, both of which are ominous.

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The Thing ends with MacReady and Childs (Keith David) sitting opposite each other…

Childs: How will we make it? MacReady: Maybe we shouldn't. Childs: If you're worried about me... MacReady: If we got any surprises for each other, I don't think we're in much shape to do anything about it. Childs: Well. What do we do? MacReady: Why don't we just... wait here for a little while. See what happens.

Who Goes There? ends with the discovery of the anti-gravity device and the prevention of Blair escaping. Just prior to that, though, Barclay spots an albatross circling in the sky. After torching the Blair-Thing, Norris says:

Another half hour – it was just tightening these straps on the device so it could wear it – and we’d have stayed in Antarctica, and shot down any moving thing that came from the rest of the world.

McReady says softly…

The albatross – Do you suppose -

Ultimately, the story concludes with a paragraph that the world has been saved. The movie concludes with less certainty. If and when the survivors are rescued from the universe created in Who Goes There?, it’s implied that the story’s over. However, in The Thing, it’s probably not.

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Recalling what many teachers over the years have said, "There are no stupid questions," I'm going to insist that Bill Lancaster get some credit for the success of The Thing, even if it's just in expanding a short story into a full-length motion picture. He deserves more credit than I would have expected for being so faithful to the source material, yet just as much as I would have expected in reducing the details of the science in the fiction and in creating a compelling "wraparound" that adds mystery and ambiguity. Give praise to Carpenter and Russell where praise is due, but do not forget Lancaster.

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