John W. Campbell, Jr.'s 1938 seminal science-fiction/horror novella, Who Goes There?, has been adapted twice for the big screen, once, loosely, in 1951 as The Thing from Another World and the second time more faithfully in 1982 as The Thing (a.k.a. John Carpenter's The Thing). While the second adaptation relied heavily on state-of-the-art practical effects, heavy on the body horror, blood, and gore (along with claustrophobia and paranoia, of course), producer and ghost-director Howard Hawks (Rio Bravo, Red River, The Big Sleep, His Girl Friday) structured The Thing from Another World as a moody, atmospheric horror film, relying primarily on suspense, tension, and audience imagination to create a memorable theatrical experience.
Set at a research station in the Arctic (as opposed to Antarctica in Campbell's novella and Carpenter's 1982 adaptation), The Thing from Another World centers on the first encounter between humanity and an alien from outer space. We never learn where the alien comes from, but we do learn that he (or rather it) has arrived in a flying saucer (the Roswell Incident was only four years earlier) that crashed into a remote area of the Arctic. The U.S. military dispatches a U.S. Air Force re-supply crew to investigate the downed saucer. The re-supply crew includes Captain Patrick Hendry (Kenneth Tobey), Lt. Eddie Dykes (James R. Young), Lt. Ken 'Mac' MacPherson (Robert Nichols), Corporal Barnes (William Self), and Crew Chief Bob (Dewey Martin). A reporter, Ned 'Scotty' Scott (Douglas Spencer), gets permission to tag along.
One of the station's two women, Nikki Nicholson (Margaret Sheridan), also happens to be Captain Hendry's lover. In an ongoing bit of humor, Hendry's crew teases him, sometimes mercilessly, for mishandling his romantic encounter with Nikki. Hawks handles their romantic backstory in a few lines of dialogue and one face-to-face meeting before returning to the central storyline, the search and discovery of an alien spaceship and its lone occupant, the "thing" (James Arness) of the title. Hendry decides to follow protocol and unearth the saucer using thermite bombs. Instead, he destroys the spaceship. Not so luckily, Hendry and his men discover the ship's lone occupant/survivor, later revealed to be an intelligent, plant-based life-form (minus the emotions that make us human, of course) that needs animal blood to survive and thrive.
As in the better one-location science-fiction/horror films (e.g., George A. Romero's Night of the Living Dead), the threat is both external, the alien invader, and internal, the conflict between the military and the scientists, the everyman vs. the egghead. Given the time period, both politically and culturally, the military proves to be right and the scientists, led by the arrogant, egotistical Dr. Arthur Carrington (Robert Cornthwaite), are wrong. Carrington wants to communicate with the alien, study it, and learn from it. He's willing to sacrifice lives, his and others, to the pursuit of scientific knowledge. He circumvents Hendry and leaves two fellow scientists unprotected in the station's greenhouse (they're fate's described, but not shown).
That opposition, that dichotomy, isn't quite as simple as it appears, however, especially when we compare Carrington and Hendry's leadership styles. The scientists, led by Carrington, want to pursue contact with the alien for what he (or rather it) knows, regardless of the consequences. Hendry's unwillingness to take risks, to preserve lives, turns out to be the best course of action. Rather than take Carrington's autocratic approach, Hendry prefers collaboration. At various times, he actively takes advice for his men, with one, Crew Chief Bob, stepping in repeatedly, with ideas that prove to be indispensable to saving everyone at the research station from the alien. Carrington refuses to accept alternative points of view.
A typically Hawksian heroine, Nikki gives as good as she gets. She's ever ready with a quip or comeback for any situation, making her, at least on that level, the equal of any male character in the film. Nikki may be locked into a secondary position on the scientific expedition, but she also speaks her mind. She's also not afraid to push back against Hendry, setting expectations for their future (romantic) relationship. Given the more rigid gender roles of the time period, it's not surprising that Nikki's independence eventually gives way to a monogamous relationship with Hendry, but even then, she's the one setting the terms of their relationship.
As for the "thing," we only see him five times, once, encased in ice, a second time when he escapes from a storage room as he fights off several sled dogs, third when Hendry opens the greenhouse door, fourth, during what I consider The Thing from Another World's most memorable scene, set in the station's dormitory as the men douse the alien with gasoline and set him on fire, and last, at the climax, when, forced to retreat to the mess hall by the alien, they face off one last time. At most, the alien is onscreen for four or five minutes, but it's the few, short scenes, shot and edited for maximum effect, and the discussion about the alien, his intentions, and what do to about it (or rather him).
How do you think modern moviegoers would respond to The Thing from Another World if it was released theatrically? Would they reject the approach that gives little screen time to the alien or would they roll with an approach that leaves a great deal to their imaginations? Would audiences respond more favorably to Carpenter's adaptation? Moviegoers failed to show up for Carpenter's adaptation in the summer of 1982, but that was probably due to a combination of factors (e.g., marketing, release date, downbeat ending, ahead-of-its-time film).