The Thing

Who goes there? The Thing! Four of them, in fact.

Who Goes There by John W Campbell JrThe original novella that inspired the three film versions (1951, 1982 and 2011) was “Who Goes There?” by John W. Campbell Jr (published as by Don A. Stuart, in Astounding Science-Fiction, August 1938). It has one of the best origin stories of any piece of fiction. Campbell’s mother was one of a pair of identical twins, and apparently his aunt resented the fact that her sister had married first, and that she had a child. To make things worse, Campbell’s mother would deliberately goad her sister when she visited by doting on John Jr — and the aunt would be correspondingly cold. As Sam Moskowitz writes in Seekers of Tomorrow:

“This created a bizarre situation. The boy would come running into the house to impart something breathlessly to a woman he thought was his mother. He would be jarred by a curt rebuff from her twin. Each time his aunt visited the home, this situation posed itself until it became a continuing and insoluble nightmare. Was the woman standing in front of him friend or “foe”?”

Perhaps it all sounds a little too plausible — could young John Jr really not tell his aunt from his mother, if nothing else by their clothes or hair style? But other details about his home life perhaps add to an explanation for the atmosphere of claustrophobic mistrust found in “Who Goes There?” and its adaptations. John Jr’s father, apparently:

“…carried impersonality and theoretical objectivity in family matters to the brink of fetish. He almost never used the pronoun “I”. All statements were in the third person: “It is necessary,” “One must,” “It appears that,” “One should.” Not only was he an authoritarian in his own home but a self-righteous disciplinarian as well, who put obedience high on the list of filial duties. Affection was not in his make-up, and if he felt any for the boy he managed to repress it.”

And, even when the aunt wasn’t present:

“The mother’s changeability baffled and frustrated the youngster. Self-centred, flighty, moody, she was unpredictable from moment to moment. While she was not deliberately cruel, her gestures of warmth appeared to him so transitory and contrived as to be quickly discounted.”

The essence of “Who Goes There?” is an intellectual problem: caught in a remote Antarctic base with a hostile, shape-changing alien, how do you tell who’s an alien and who isn’t? But around this science-fictional core is a deeper question that comes more to the fore in the film versions: who can you trust?

Kinner shuddered violently. “Hey. Hey, Mac. Mac, would I know if I was a monster? Would I know if the monster had already got me? Oh, Lord, I may be a monster already.”

“You’d know,” McReady answered.

“But we wouldn’t.” Norris laughed shortly, half hysterically.

The Thing (1951) Dr Carrington

The first adaptation, The Thing From Another World, came out in 1951, and, despite being widely praised as a classic SF film of its era, is a world apart from the original novella. (Quite literally — it takes place at the North Pole rather than the South.) Here, the core of the story isn’t how-do-you-tell-who’s-an-alien, because this version’s creature isn’t a shape-changer. The Thing From Another World uses its alien to be what most 1950s Hollywood aliens were — something strange, something not-human, something plainly other, with not much need to go into why or to what degree. (1951 also saw the release of The Day The Earth Stood Still, so not all Hollywood aliens were evil.) This Thing is a Thing because it’s not an animal but a vegetable, a “super-carrot”, though one that scientist Dr Carrington claims will be so much more intelligent and (oddly) “wiser” than the humans. The real enemy in the film is Carrington himself, the obsessed scientist for whom “knowledge is more important than life.” This film’s answer to the question, “Who can you trust?” then, is: not the scientists, they invented the atom bomb. No, in Howard Hawks’ film the people you can trust are war-toughened men (and a woman who has proved she can drink harder than the toughest of the men). This was, after all, close enough to the end of WWII that the world was full of people who had proven themselves in the recent conflict, a world where even the reporter who comes to the North Pole base in search of a story can’t be entirely dismissed as a pencil-squeezing wuss, because he’s seen action, too (though he does faint at one point). The final message of the film is entirely outward-directed: “Watch the skies!” The enemy is out there, not in here. (Invasion of the Body Snatchers was a mere, but perhaps significant, five years away.) The film’s best moment — and its most cinematic — is when the party that’s gone out to examine a magnetic anomaly (which has only just appeared, rather than, as in the other versions, having been there for hundreds of thousands of years) spread out to determine the shape of what they find buried in the ice. Forming a circle, there’s no need to say anything other than: “We finally got one!” Flying saucers were enough part of the culture, they didn’t need to be named.

The Thing (1951) UFO

The best version of Campbell’s story, for me, is John Carpenter’s, from 1982. Its main innovation is to have the story occur as a sequel to the action that drove the initial novella: other people, in a nearby Norwegian camp, discovered, dug up, and defrosted the alien; our heroes just get caught up in the aftermath. Here we have no over-obsessed scientist types, only ordinary Joes trying to get by in a harsh world. In many of his films, Carpenter presents us with both a nihilistic, hostile world and a hard-bitten loner hero who’s the perfect answer to that world. The people in this Antarctic base are the most human of all four versions of The Thing — before the alien action even starts, they’re getting on each other’s nerves. McReady (the Kurt Russell character) is, for some reason, living in his own hut disconnected from the main base, but despite being a cynical loner, he’s the one everyone turns to when things get in a fix. (Even the base’s captain, Garry, whom nobody trusts with a weapon, feels the need to justify himself to McReady, showing that he, too, defers to the loner-hero.) This, then, is John Carpenter’s answer to “Who can you trust?”: hard-bitten loner-types. They’re the only sort that can deal with a world in which, any moment, one of your fellows might suddenly turn into a thing, all mouth and tentacles, that wants to digest and replace you. They’re hardened against such a nihilistic world, because they don’t believe in anything anymore.

The Thing (1982) - McReady

The other key character — here, and in Campbell’s novella — is Blair. He’s the one who grasps the implications of the situation before anyone else. Realising an alien monster that can take human form will not only be impossible to find, but will, if it reaches human society, rapidly wipe out the human race, his response is twofold: one, he destroys the radios and means of escape, and two, he goes insane.

The Thing (1982) Blair

This, surprisingly, is straight from “Who Goes There?” One of the remarkable things about Campbell’s novella is just how modern it feels, especially compared to the sharply divided heroes and villains of the 1951 film. Campbell’s characters are — though glimpsed through very cut-back prose that focuses on speech and action, not feelings — edgy, nervous, and some of them go insane from the pressure. “Who Goes There?” contains the most shocking moment in all of four versions of The Thing, as far as I’m concerned: when Kenner, the cook, learns that the cows he milked only an hour ago were probably alien duplicates, he goes hysterical. Locked up in the kitchen, he bothers the others with his screaming and prayers so much that someone slips out and murders him. Not because they think he’s an alien, but because he’s getting on their nerves. That, as far as I’m concerned, is the most extreme picture of human beings under pressure in any of the four versions, but Campbell doesn’t dwell too much on the morality of this action — particularly as it turns out Kenner had been taken over anyway, so it wasn’t, technically, murder. (Campbell’s novella has a few jarring moments when the action is skipped over — to emphasise its suddenness — and we get nothing but the aftermath. It’s a hard-boiled style, one that leaves you to work out a lot of implications for yourself, and sometimes, either because of its style or the period it was written in, I found myself unsure of exactly what had happened and what was being implied.)

The Thing (2011)

The Thing from 2011 is presented as a prequel to the 1982 film, ending where Carpenter’s began, with two Norwegians in a helicopter chasing a dog through the snow. But in terms of the human situation, we take a bit of a step backwards to the 1951 film — before the alien lets loose, everyone on the base is being polite to each other, apart from one, the arrogant scientist. (And maybe one other — the lukewarm boyfriend-type who too quickly gives way to the arrogant scientist, his boss, rather than backing up the heroine.) Dr Halvorson says, “As scientists, we are obliged to study,” but he’s just impatient to get past everyone’s fine sensibilities about the fact that one of them has just been eaten by the Thing, so he can dissect it. When they open it up and find their colleague’s remains, he says, “It’s fascinating.” Then, defiantly: “It is fascinating.” It’s a good remake, but it lacks the deep-down, rough-edged tetchiness, claustrophobia and nihilism of Carpenter’s.

The Thing (1982)

The Thing, in its various incarnations, works as a story through the reaction the alien evokes in the humans faced with it — will they group together, or split apart? All four are most different in their endings. Campbell’s original novella has the scientists frustrated that, in ridding themselves of the alien, they’ve lost out on learning about its technology (it had just managed to build itself an anti-gravity flying device and a small, nuclear-powered generator), while thanking God it had crashed so far from human civilisation; the 1951 film ends with a reminder of who the real enemy is (“Watch the skies!”) with an implied, “And let’s keep tabs on those scientific-types, too”; the 1982 film is the most nihilistic, but also the most heroic, its two survivors, unsure if either of them is an alien, prepared to drink away their last living moments in a hostile, very much God-less world; the 2011 film, having added the least to the idea, has the least characteristic ending.

The Thing (1982) titles

Alien owes a lot to “Who Goes There?” (not least because Campbell’s story inspired A E Van Vogt to write SF, and his Voyage of the Space Beagle is sometimes cited as an influence on Alien), but also, more specifically, to The Thing From Another World: not only is Dr Carrington very much like the Company android Ash, in that he wants to save this creature that he admires far more than his human compatriots, but also in the way that a Geiger counter is used to detect the alien’s presence, just like the motion detectors in Alien and (far more) Aliens. Carpenter’s The Thing probably owes its existence to Alien’s success, though oddly it wasn’t a huge success itself. Still, to me, it’s the best of the “Who Goes There?” bunch, with John Campbell Jr’s novella a close second.

(And, as an alternative take on the story, there’s Escape Pod’s reading of Peter Watts’ “The Things” — the events of the 1982 film, from the alien’s point of view.)

The Big Sleep

BigSleepPenguinI can’t believe I haven’t read any Raymond Chandler before this. I think I was put off because that hard-boiled style is so widely imitated — or attempted, anyway — that there seemed no point. But a few sentences into The Big Sleep, I was laughing out loud for the sheer wit of the writing, the comic conciseness of it, the way it revels in its own ultra-cynical view of a dark, dark world:

I sat down on the edge of a deep soft chair and looked at Mrs Regan. She was worth a stare. She was trouble…

She said negligently: ‘He didn’t know the right people. That’s all a police record means in this rotten crime-ridden country.’ …

At times, you’d be hard pressed to tell Chandler from the Marx Brothers, or S J Perelman:

‘Mr Cobb was my escort,’ she said. ‘Such a nice escort, Mr Cobb. So attentive. You should see him sober. I should see him sober. Somebody should see him sober. I mean, just for the record.’

…you have to hold your teeth clamped around Hollywood to keep from chewing on stray blondes…

‘Two coffees,’ I said. ‘Black, strong and made this year…’

She had long thighs and she walked with a certain something I hadn’t often seen in bookstores…

He sounded like a man who had slept well and didn’t owe too much money…

But at others he achieves a perfect sort of scintillant, shadowy beauty — only ever in brief snatches — that works because of the sheer surprise of finding any beauty at all amongst so much shade and squalor:

It got dark and the rain-clouded lights of the stores were soaked up by the black street…

Dead men are heavier than broken hearts…

She was smoking and a glass of amber fluid was tall and pale at her elbow…

And — rare for a literary style — it works just as well with brisk action:

A tall hatless figure in a leather jerkin was running diagonally across the street between the parked cars. The figure turned and flame spurted from it. Two heavy hammers hit the stucco wall beside me. The figure ran on, dodged between two cars, vanished.

The Big Sleep has been filmed twice, the first (the 1946 version directed by Howard Hawks, starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall) being so perfect as to doom the second (from 1978), even if it hadn’t been directed by Michael Winner.

The screenplay for the 1946 version was co-authored by William Faulkner, Jules Furthman and Leigh Brackett (a hard-boiled writer herself, not to mention the author of Michael Moorcock’s favourite planetary romance, and a helping hand on the screenplay to The Empire Strikes Back), but its greatest asset has to be Bogart. I put off watching either film version till I’d finished the book, but still found it impossible not to hear Philip Marlowe’s narration in Bogart’s voice. His is the perfect hard-boiled detective tone — a lazy, drawly, world-weary whine, its every word bit back by a deeply ingrained sarcasm. Once you hear him delivering hard-boiled prose, it’s like a meme you can’t get rid of, and to which every other actor cannot help but fall short. If Raymond Chandler himself didn’t sound like Humphrey Bogart, I don’t want to hear him.

This is a point amply proven by Robert Mitchum in Michael Winner’s version. Faithful to so many details of the book in terms of dialogue and incident — to a degree the Bogart classic isn’t — Winner’s film nevertheless manages to miss almost every point in terms of the spirit of Chandler’s world. Mitchum simply can’t deliver a line with the bite and world-weariness of a truly hard-boiled PI. It sounds (fatally) like he means what he says, whereas a hard-boiled PI’s meaning is never in the words he speaks, only in their bitter aftertaste. And, gods, Winner has changed the setting to seventies England! Seventies England just isn’t, and can’t ever be, thirties LA. If nothing else, the sleazy photo-trade aspect of The Big Sleep‘s plot becomes rather quaint and old-fashioned in full-colour post-sixties England. And, although it may be too weird to say it, there’s just too much sun and fine weather in Winner’s UK. Chandler’s novel takes place mostly at night, or in those oppressively dark and super-heavy downpours LA can have. It’s almost black and white before the fact, never mind the year it was filmed in. (Which isn’t to say noir can’t be done in colour — Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner and David Lynch’s Lost Highway are modern noir. Plenty of black, still, but they bring in the sharp, dark reds of lipstick and blood, too.)

The 1946 version’s main departure from Chandler’s novel is to increase the interaction between Marlowe and the older of the two Sternwood girls, as played by Lauren Bacall, this apparently because an early showing didn’t go down so well, and seeing as Bogart and Bacall had recently had a screen-chemistry-fuelled hit with To Have and Have Not, additional scenes were inserted allowing the two to indulge in some playfully suggestive banter — including a weird scene that attaches such suggestiveness to an exchange about betting on horses, it sounds even more explicit than any upfront conversation ever could. Although this makes the film more acceptable and commercial in Hollywood terms, it does end up sacrificing one of the high-points of the novel. In the book, when Marlowe finally tracks down crime boss Eddie Mars’s wife, he finds something like an angel, a total contrast to the eternally cynical, selfish and calculating grifters who make up the rest of the book’s cast. Writing of her, Chandler’s prose switches to a level of sentiment you wouldn’t be able to take were it not so hemmed in by cynicism (“Her breath was as delicate as the eyes of a fawn.”), and it works, it really works, you feel you’re in the presence of something rare and delicate, something that all too soon leaves Marlowe’s shadowy, ever-disappointed world. But this is something not possible in the 1946 film, because Bacall’s character has to be the focus for Marlowe’s (and our) admiration, and Eddie Mars’s wife becomes just a bit part, yet another blonde. (As for the 1978 film, it can’t hope to approach anything like sentiment, let alone real feeling.)

A brunette, a blonde and Bogey

The fact that I’ve recently read the novel and watched two film versions of The Big Sleep yet still fail to remember whodunnit each time points to how little plot matters in this type of fiction. What matters is that, for the duration of the book or film, you’re dwelling in Hard Boiled Land, in Noirville — which is, really, more of an atmosphere (or, better, a shade) than a place, an effect caused by donning a pair of most definitely not rose-tinted glasses. But, as with the bleakest tragedies, there’s something about it that works — like a cold, hard slap works. Fitting, perhaps, as one of the iconic images of the hard-boiled world is of the detective slapping the hysterical blonde. This is a world, after all, where the only emotion ever expressed is one that bursts loose, out of control, something that’s closer to insanity than real feeling (at one point, near the end, Marlowe starts to laugh “like a loon”, making me wonder how much Chandler’s fiction was an attempt to address the same concerns as H P Lovecraft’s). Every other emotion has to be bitten back, or let loose in terse slugs of hard-boiled dialogue. It’s a world in which everything of any value has to be reduced, sullied, disenchanted. Women aren’t women; they’re blondes or brunettes. Men aren’t men; they’re cops or heavies. And everyone’s a grifter, and life is nothing but a series of no-hope games played for too-high stakes. The only surprises in this world are gunshots, corpses and the occasional troubled blonde. Till then, there’s always another drink, or a blackjack to the back of the head, or a sock to the jaw. Above all, there’s a feeling of a world steeped in a profound sense of injustice, something so fundamentally rotten the law cannot touch it — hence the need for the hard-boiled hero to be a freelance, a PI, half outside the law so he can stray across that grey line between right and wrong, and deliver his own sort of (leaden) retribution — something personal, before it gets to the (inevitably corrupt) impersonal courts.

Film noir – a guy, a girl, and a gun

The more I think about it, the more the hard-boiled world sounds like Lovecraft’s fictional world. I know hard-boiled Lovecraft has been done several times (Cast a Deadly Spell, and Kim Newman’s “The Big Fish”, to name a couple), but really, however fun, these are kind of superfluous. Chandler’s world was not quite as bleak as Lovecraft’s at its bleakest — I can’t imagine there’s a hard-boiled equivalent of “The Colour Out of Space” — and Lovecraft doesn’t really have an equivalent of the briefly-glimpsed angel of Eddie Mars’s wife — but they were certainly touching the same territory, each in their own oft-imitated but really inimitable way.