A true classic: The history of things


[Next up we have a blog from leokef, who shares his thoughts on The Thing as a franchise. Note: this was written before the release of the recent prequel, so apologies if the late promotion makes the author’s intended meaning outdated. Read this month’s topic and submit your blog! – Kauza]

Yet another adaptation of John W. Campbell Jr.’s classic novella “Who Goes There?” has slithered its way into theaters. This will mark the third time in sixty years that audiences will confront the vague, indescribable horror of The Thing. As the latest incarnation energes from the ice, we might consider how the prior films gained their eminent reputations as classics in the science-fiction genre. What qualities allowed them to capture their own era in celluloid and gain lasting relevance?

By understanding the peculiar greatness of these films and their common source, we might understand how a new director could hope to make his own classic. First, let us consider the source material, one of the greatest science-fiction stories of the Twentieth Century.

“Who Goes There?” was first published in 1938. Written by one of the legends of modern science-fiction, John W. Campbell Jr, the story made an indelible impression in the genre for its terrifying vision of an alien species capable of imitating other lifeforms—and potentially taking over all life on earth. Campbell’s story combined an unforgettable Arctic setting with an ingenious premise. It shocked readers not only with its speculation on the existential dangers of extraterrestrial life, but its tense depiction of paranoia and hostility among its own protagonists. In a little over a decade from its original publication, the story became the subject of a vaunted film adaptation by renowned filmmaker, Howard Hawks.

Though officially directed by Christian Nyby, The Thing From Another World (1951) was masterminded by Howard Hawks and produced through his studio. Hawks and company took notorious liberties with the story, foremost among them a total redesign of the titular creature (for which their adaptation has been criticized). Nevertheless, the film works. In my opinion, The Thing From Another World owes its success to these two primary factors: gripping, effects-driven suspense and a solid speculative foundation. Nevertheless, if not for the drive to modernize the themes of the story, it may not have found an audience.

Although the alien had been simplified to follow a more established archetype (that of an intelligent, carnivorous plant-like being), Hawkes updated the themes of the story to reflect the postwar American public’s exhaustion and nascent concerns over the authority of science in the Atomic Age. The most significant conflict in the film lies not between man and Thing, but between the insubordinate scientist Dr. Carrington and the hero Captain Hendry. True to the original story, the essential dilemma lies in man’s capacity or lack thereof to cooperate.

Ultimately, Hendry’s practical response saved the day and the good-willed but misguided logic of Carrington was rebuffed. Though Carrington could provide insights into the Thing’s physiology, his inability to read the threat posed by it rendered his prescriptions for action hopeless. The film’s evenhanded but wary outlook on the role of science in human affairs earned it credibility in the realm of science-fiction. The thrilling technique behind the film propelled it into cinema history.

Even today, The Thing From Another World still manages to chill my blood. Nyby and Hawkes maintained suspense through intelligent scares and a deliberately restrained depiction of the Thing, which is only fleetingly glimpsed until the climax. Thank goodness, too: a tall, hairless man in chunky makeup can only be so frightening (not that I would want to meet one in a dark Arctic research station). Beyond the suspense, The Thing excels as an example of dynamite special effects. In possibly the first scene of its kind, a stuntman was set fully aflame. Then he was doused with a bucketful of fuel in a small room full of actors. The danger is palpable, and it contributes immensely to the sense of desperation among the characters in a way that the often extravagant dialogue cannot.

The Thing From Another World went on to be the highest grossing sci-fi film of the year. It marked the dawn of a new era in cinematic science-fiction. Finally the medium had (somewhat) caught up to genre literature, then in a golden age. Only three decades later, John Carpenter and screenwriter Bill Lancaster unleashed their own Thing upon the world and totally redefined what that already nebulous term meant. The lesson of John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982) is instructive. Those who have cried foul on the new film have had to contend with the fact that Carpenter’s much loved classic was itself a reimagining.

For his own production, Carpenter returned to the source material. Benefiting from advances in special effects and makeup, he sought to realize Campbell’s vision of a shape-shifting beast. Thanks to the talented hands of Rob Bottin and others, Carpenter infused his Thing puppets with a loathsome, intensely organic and hideously lifelike quality. The results thrust the film into the regions of pure horror. I finally understood the innately hateful quality of the Thing that Campbell alluded to in his story. When Kurt Russell’s MacReady first encounters it, his reaction sums up my own: burn it.

Those two words could have been the tagline for the film. Through impeccably orchestrated effects, Carpenter artfully created a screen monster that defied description. It could only be understood through its singular quality of deception. By hiding under the skin of other creatures, other forms, it made a potential enemy out of any animal—or any person. This conception of the monster is much like the creature John W. Campbell Jr. envisioned. However, the visceral horror of this depiction owes entirely to Carpenter.

When Carpenter developed his version, the world was still engulfed in the Cold War. A sense of looming danger, even total doom, had long been a familiar sensation even in the most developed democracies. Though the most intense paranoia of the Red Scare had ended, the lessons remained. Carpenter’s The Thing strikes me as an artifact of that era. All the fears of the postwar generations coalesced in this vision of isolated men facing a largely invisible alien threat. The fate of the world rested in the hands of a few, all brought to life by a perfect cast. In a grim, uniquely Carpenterian twist, the survival of Man as a species possibly hinged on the destruction of this society in microcosm. These weighty themes imparted a relevance to John Carpenter’s The Thing that set it apart from the typical monster movie.

To become classics, both of these storied adaptations had to do more than scare. Or rather, they had to scare the audience through more than nasty monster designs and ominous shadows. They were both informed by the ideas, experiences, and socio-political issues of their respective eras. Luckily, the source material was rich enough to work in these varied contexts. As is its nature, the Thing’s strength lies in its adaptability. It became for Howard Hawks what he wanted it to be. For Carpenter, it mutated into something entirely different but still highly effective.

I have deliberately avoided much of the press for Matthijs van Heijningen Jr.’s edition of The Thing. I understand it to be a prequel, closely tied to John Carpenter’s work. Prequel or not, it will inevitably draw upon the fundamental scenario outlined in the original work and thus become another adaptation. Hejningen has the benefit of assimilating into his monster those films that preceded it. I only fear that Heijningen will content himself to work within these confines without branching out, making it his own. While I am certain that would give us a delightfully macabre film, I do not expect it to be enough to attain the status of a classic. Fans of Carpenter and the story may draw perverse pleasure from this extension of continuity, but wider audiences and, especially, future audiences will want more. I wish all the luck to Heijningen in determining just how to provide this new creature with the import it has previously had. I eagerly wait to see what he makes of the cursed Thing.