Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The vision thing

with 7 comments

A few days ago, I was struck by the fact that a mere thirty-one years separated The Thing From Another World from John Carpenter’s The Thing. The former was released on April 21, 1951, the latter on June 25, 1982, and another remake, which I haven’t yet seen, arrived right on schedule in 2011. Three decades might have once seemed like a long time to me, but now, it feels like the blink of an eye. It’s the equivalent of the upcoming remake of David Cronenberg’s The Fly, which was itself a reimagining of a movie that had been around for about the same amount of time. I picked these examples at random, and while there isn’t anything magical about a thirty-year cycle, it isn’t hard to understand. It’s enough time for a new generation of viewers to come of age, but not quite long enough for the memory of the earlier movie to fade entirely. (From my perspective, the films of the eighties seem psychologically far closer than those of the seventies, and not just for reasons of style.) It’s also long enough for the original reaction to a movie to be largely forgotten, so that it settles at what feels like its natural level. When The Thing From Another World first premiered, Isaac Asimov thought that it was one of the worst movies ever made. John W. Campbell, on whose original story it was based, was more generous, writing of the filmmakers: “I think they may be right in feeling that the proposition in ‘Who Goes There?’ is a little strong if presented literally in the screen.” Elsewhere, he noted:

I have an impression that the original version directed and acted with equal restraint would have sent some ten percent of the average movie audience into genuine, no-kidding, semi-permanent hysterical screaming meemies…You think that [story] wouldn’t tip an insipid paranoid psychotic right off the edge if it were presented skillfully?

For once, Campbell, whose predictions were only rarely on the mark, was entirely prescient. By the time John Carpenter’s The Thing came out, The Thing From Another World was seen as classic, and the remake, which tracked the original novella much more closely, struck many viewers as an assault on its legacy. One of its most vocal detractors, curiously, was Harlan Ellison, who certainly couldn’t be accused of squeamishness. In a column for L.A. Weekly, Ellison wrote that Carpenter “showed some stuff with Halloween,” but dismissed his later movies as “a swan dive into the potty.” He continued:

The Thing…[is a] depredation [Carpenter] attempts to validate by saying he wanted to pull out of the original John W. Campbell story those treasures undiscovered by the original creators…One should not eat before seeing it…and one cannot eat after having seen it.

If the treasures Carpenter sought to unearth are contained in the special effects lunacy of mannequins made to look like men, splitting open to disgorge sentient lasagna that slaughters for no conceivable reason, then John Carpenter is a raider of the lost ark of Art who ought to be sentenced to a lifetime of watching Neil Simon plays and films.

The Thing did not need to be remade, if the best this fearfully limited director could bring forth was a ripoff of Alien in the frozen tundra, this pointless, dehumanized freeway smashup of grisly special effects dreck, flensed of all characterization, philosophy, subtext, or rationality.

Thirty years later, the cycle of pop culture has come full circle, and it’s fair to say that Carpenter’s movie has eclipsed not just Howard Hawks and Christian Nyby, but even Campbell himself. (Having spent the last year trying to explain what I’m doing to people who aren’t science fiction fans, I can testify that if Campbell’s name resonates with them at all, it’s thanks solely to the 1982 version of The Thing.) Yet the two movies also share surprising affinities, and not simply because Carpenter idolized Hawks. Both seem interested in Campbell’s premise mostly for the visual possibilities that it suggests. In the late forties, the rights to “Who Goes There?” were purchased by RKO at the urging of Ben Hecht and Charles Lederer, the latter of whom wrote the script, with uncredited contributions from Hecht and Hawks. The direction was credited to Nyby, Hawks’s protégé, but Hawks was always on the set and later claimed most of the director’s fee, leading to much disagreement over who was responsible for the result. In the end, it threw out nearly all of Campbell’s story, keeping only the basic premise of an alien spacecraft discovered by researchers in an icy environment, while shifting the setting from Antarctica to Alaska. The filmmakers were clearly more drawn to the idea of a group of men facing danger in isolation, one of Hawks’s favorite themes, and they lavished greater attention on the stock types that they understood—the pilot, the journalist, the girl—than on the scientists, who were reduced to thankless foils. David Thomson has noted that the central principle of Hawks’s work is that “men are more expressive rolling a cigarette than saving the world,” and the contrast has never been more evident than it is here.

And while Hawks isn’t usually remembered as a visual director, The Thing From Another World exists almost entirely as a series of images: the opening titles burning through the screen, the crew standing in a circle on the ice to reveal the shape of the flying saucer underneath, the shock reveal of the alien itself in the doorway. When you account for the passage of time, Carpenter’s version rests on similar foundations. His characters and dialogue are less distinct than Hawks’s, but he also seems to have regarded Campbell’s story primarily as a source of visual problems and solutions. I don’t think I’m alone in saying that the images that are burned into my brain from The Thing probably add up to a total of about five minutes: the limits of its technology mean that we only see it in action for a few seconds at a time. But those images, most of which were the work of the special effects prodigy Rob Bottin, are still the best practical effects I’ve ever seen. (It also includes the single best jump scare in the movies, which is taken all but intact from Campbell.) Even after thirty years, its shock moments are so unforgettable that they have a way of overpowering the rest, as they did for Ellison, and neither version ever really approximates the clean narrative momentum of “Who Goes There?” But maybe that’s how it should be. Campbell, for all his gifts, wasn’t primarily a visual writer, and the movies are a visual medium, particularly in horror and science fiction. Both of the classic versions of The Thing are translations from one kind of storytelling to another, and they stick in the imagination precisely to the extent that they depart from the original. They’re works for the eye, not the mind, which may be why the only memorable line in either movie is the final warning in Hawks’s version, broadcast over the airwaves to the world, telling us to watch the skies.

7 Responses

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  1. I admire both versions, but the original The Thing from Another World has a special place in my heart. The witty dialogue, the patter of the subversive love story (she ties him up–poorly; she drink him under the table) is just delightful and shows Hawks’ light touch. The natural, quiet patter between the men emphasizes the alien horror they face. Carpenter does horror better, but I do adore the Hawks version.


    April 21, 2017 at 3:00 pm

  2. [1] Campbell’s line that ‘you think that [story] wouldn’t tip an insipid paranoid psychotic right off the edge if it were presented skillfully?’ resonates when you know about his childhood situation with his mother and her sister.

    [2] I think the number of great — even good — science fiction movies can be counted on the fingers of two hands — maybe even just one. I didn’t see Carpenter’s THE THING for the first time till two years ago. It’s up there among those few great SF movies, IMO..

    (Admittedly, my picks of the few great SF movies are idiosyncratic. Alongside 2001, I’ll put THE ROAD WARRIOR and QUATERMASS AND THE PIT/FIVE MILLION YEARS TO EARTH.)

    [3] @ marieguthrie: I likes me some Hawks too. But all the things you point to him doing here he does just as well in THE BIG SLEEP, ONLY ANGELS HAVE WINGS and a dozen other movies sans the cheesy 1950s skiffy.

    Mark Pontin

    April 23, 2017 at 3:09 am

  3. @marieguthrie: My favorite moment in the Hawks version is when they all realize that they can see their breath, which is what tells them that the power has gone out. I just like to imagine Nyby—or Hawks—lowering the temperature on the set in order to get that shot.


    April 25, 2017 at 5:45 pm

  4. @Mark Pontin: Believe me, Campbell’s feelings toward his mother were even stranger than most people know. But you’ll need to wait for the book to hear more.


    April 25, 2017 at 5:46 pm

  5. I’m having trouble grasping what Campbell meant by “insipid paranoid psychotic.” Do you think he might have been reaching for “incipient?”

  6. @Bill Higgins: I’ve checked the letter—it was to P. Schuyler Miller, incidentally—and Campbell did type “insipid.” Your reading seems pretty plausible.


    April 26, 2017 at 9:25 pm

  7. “the movies are a visual medium, particularly in horror and science fiction.”

    Mmm… yes and no. I think the most gut churning horror films rely more on psychological impact and imagination than on the visual effects, just like classic horror literature (I completely share Ellison’s opinion of Carpenter’s output). And while I love seeing visual representations of SF, the most disappointing of SF films are usually those with a shiny candy shell but a hollow center. Star Wars is one of the most blatant examples of this. I saw it when it opened in 1977, and my anticipation had been excited by publicity stills in the pages of Starlog. I expected the movie to be space opera but I was hoping that the plot, dialogue and acting would match the revolutionary sophistication of the visuals – adult space opera, so to speak. Needless to say I was disappointed, and while I enjoyed the hell out of Empire, the rest of the series has continued at the original rather dismal level.

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