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