The art of adaptation is just that; an art. Adapting a short story, a novel, or even a novella takes a finely honed sense of what worked in the adapted material, of what drew readers and, presumably, a movie studio to purchase the film rights, and what works on the big or small screen. Of the three, the novel is generally the most difficult to adapt, the short story second hardest (because so many details and backstory have to be created from scratch), and that makes the novella, with its limited page count and linear story, usually minus subplots, perfect or near-perfect for the big - or small - screen jump.
John W. Campbell's 1938 science-fiction/horror novella, 'Who Goes There?,' has been adapted twice for the big screen, first, loosely, as 'The Thing from Another World,' produced and ghost-directed by Howard Hawks ('Rio Bravo,' 'Red River,' 'The Big Sleep,' 'His Girl Friday') in 1951 and thirty-one years later, by John Carpenter ('Prince of Darkness,' 'They Live,' 'Halloween') as 'The Thing.' Carpenter's adaptation hews closely to Campbell's novella, with some key differences (which we'll discuss below) while Hawks' adaptation shares a general premise and ideas, but little else with the source material.
[Note: Spoiler alert is in full effect.]
'The Thing from Another World' dispenses completely with character names found in Campbell's novella. It makes the members of a U.S. Air Force re-supply crew the central characters. The military doesn't appear in Campbell's novella or Carpenter's adaptation. Carpenter's adaptation carries over some, but not all, of the character names from Campbell's novella. MacReady, spelled McCready in the novella, emerges as the central character in Campbell's novella and Carpenter's adaptation. Campbell goes out of his way to describe McCready as a bronzed, bearded giant. Kurt Russell, who appears in Carpenter's adaptation as MacReady, is many things, including bearded, but the word "bronzed" isn't one of them.
In the novella and Carpenter's adaptation, the discovery of the alien spaceship has already occurred. In the novella, McReady describes finding the cigar-shaped spaceship under the Antarctic ice, the attempt to break up the ice using thermite explosives (which proves disastrous), and the discovery of the Thing in ice as backstory. In Carpenter's adaptation, a Norwegian scientific expedition finds the spaceship and the Thing first before a Thing, disguised as a dog, enters the American research station. In 'The Thing from Another World,' the U.S. military is called in to investigate the downed, saucer-shaped spaceship, destroy it accidentally, and discover the alien occupant.
In Hawks' adaptation, the alien is a humanoid invader (i.e., two arms, two legs, a head) from an unknown planet. A plant-based life form, the alien and its race need animal blood to survive. He, or rather it, is a one-alien-army, capable of creating an entire army of invaders from seed pods contained in his (or rather its) body. In both the novella and Carpenter's more faithful adaptation, the alien can imitate any animal-based life form, making it far more dangerous, not to mention creating a growing, ultimately overwhelming sense of paranoia and claustrophobia not present in the 1951 adaptation. That adaptation jettisons the compelling questions surrounding the imitations that seem to absorb their respective hosts personalities and memories along with their bodies.
The Sled Dogs (The Thing in Action)
The sled dogs appear in all three versions. They attack the alien invader in the 1951 adaptation (he uses their blood for sustenance) and are the first, or among the first, to be assimilated by the Thing in the novella and the 1982 adaptation. Both the novella and the 1982 adaptation contain one of the most chilling, disturbing, and (for some audiences) repulsive scenes: a Thing-dog caught in mid-transformation. In both versions, McCready/MacReady and the others respond in fear, disgust, and anger, destroying the Thing-dog with fire. It's also the first confirmation of the Thing's existence, raising immediate doubts about that among the research station scientists and support staff has been assimilated by the Thing.
The Blood Test
There's no blood test in the 1951 adaptation, though the scene of the alien seed pods, fed human plasma and "breathing" remains one of the most memorable in the genre. Both the novella and the 1982 adaptation turn on a blood test devised by McCready/MacReady. He assumes, correctly, that every part of the Thing, including its blood, is an individual entity imbued with a strong survival instinct. The novella includes several scenes of the survivors attacking and destroying the Things that, when attacked, begin to transform, but nothing like the visceral, gory scenes of a Thing's head, detached from its body, sprouting insect-like legs and trying to escape or another Thing, its true nature revealed by the blood test, transforming while tied down to a couch.
Both the novella and the 1951 adaptation end on a positive, optimistic note, with the alien vanquished. The novella is more definitive, however, in that optimism, due to when the alien's ship arrived on Earth (20 million years ago), making another alien visitation unlikely. The present-day/present-tense setting of the 1951 adaptation ends with the memorable "Watch the Skies!" line from the reporter character, Scotty. Scotty's words suggest we've only won the first battle in what could be an inter-species war for control of the planet. Carpenter's adaptation is the bleakest of the three. All but two men die in the confrontation with the Thing, but with the research station in ruins and the temperature dropping below zero, neither will survive the brutally cold Antarctic night. The kicker? One or maybe even both might be non-human.
Which version of Campbell's novella do you prefer? Or would you prefer an all-new adaptation? Both are among my favorite science fiction/horror films.