The “Who Goes There?” Adaptations

For anyone wondering just how different adaptations can be need look no further than two films based on John W. Campbell Jr.’s 1938 novella Who Goes There? The two versions of note are The Thing From Another World (1951) and The Thing (1982).

The original story was heavy with many underdeveloped characters. Character descriptions are focused on the physical, and we are reminded often of just how big a man McReady is. The story does best in keeping the plot moving along and setting a chilling tone, introducing a killer monster whose nature includes the ability to change shape, as is discovered early-on, as part of it is in the process of becoming a dog. The creature in the book is also telepathic.

Here’s the text of the original story:

Who Goes There Illustration

The Thing From Another World (1951) has much of the paranoia take a back seat to exposition of the monster’s abilities. It is revealed that the monster is composed of vegetable matter and is literally out for blood. The action is good, but much of the monster’s threat here is physical, resulting in the movies’ strongest sequences but venturing far from the original story’s content and tone.

More successful in its faithfulness to the novella is John Carpenter’s 1982 The Thing. Here the film sticks to the notion of the monster taking over via infection, and the threat to the rest of the planet is underscored by the conclusions drawn by the character Blair and a low-res computer simulation. The horror angle of a near-hopeless situation is emphasized and is more in line with the tone of the original story. The open, tense ending here is better than the source material, in my opinion where matters are more clearly concluded.

thing another worldthing 1982

Both movies use a few key elements from the story, notably the buried space ship, the frozen pilot which gets thawed, snow dogs getting eaten, and the urgency in destroying the creature before it kills everyone. The 1982 version borrows some of the earlier movie’s visuals in the found footage from the Norwegian base.

The notion that either film adaptation is better is a bit silly as they’re different films with different intentions. The 1951 version is more of a sci-fi monster movie typical of the day but is well acted and uses the original story as a springboard for the script. The 1982 version is truer to the original material and is a masterpiece in tone at the cost of clarity, namely not really being able to track the actual course of infection without repeated viewings (or reading superfans’ over-analysis online.)

But this is the beauty of adaptation. If we want things true to the material, we can reread the novella. Visuals will rarely match what we have in our head and actors will infrequently flesh out a character already alive in our imagination. I love both movies for what they bring to the table. Also, read the novella if you haven’t. I’ve linked it above and there are story collections available in print which include Who Goes There along with with similar period sci-fi and suspense which can be worthwhile reading.

Added bonus: Watch Horror Express (1972). This film is also based on Campbell’s story. It’s a fun romp with Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, and Telly Savalas, with a monster stuffed in the back of a train. It gets pretty far away from the events of the original story and shows how loose an adaptation can get.

One thought on “The “Who Goes There?” Adaptations

  1. Excellent post. I’d forgotten the latter film. I now recall seeing it late at night in the late seventies. I also recall really enjoying it. I never made the connection with the novella, which is odd because I lived and breathed science fiction at that time.

    Liked by 1 person

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