When John W. Campbell wrote his sci-fi novella Who Goes There? in 1938, he probably didn’t expect his story to inspire multiple movie adaptations. The book focuses on a group of Antarctic researchers who accidentally release a shapeshifting alien from a block of ice…but in addition to the killer creature, the scientist also unleashed three feature length films.*
The Thing from Another World (1951), The Thing (1982), and The Thing (2011) all draw on Campbell’s novella for inspiration, and all three films have their share of fans. The first two are considered classics of the sci-fi genre. However, since our emphasis here is on John Carpenter’s gory masterpiece from 1982, we’re going to analyze the tone, plot, and characters of the 1951 and 2011 films and see how they compare to Carpenter’s adaptation.
So first, let’s look at the similarities between all the Thing movies: All three films take place in scientific outposts in the middle of a frozen wasteland, but for some reason, the 1951 flick is set in the Arctic while the other two take place in the Antarctic. All three movies feature a male pilot as a major hero, although this character is the secondary protagonist in the 2011 film as opposed to the primary protagonist in the ’51 and ’82 versions. Every version of The Thing involves some sort of alien that crash-lands on Earth, and this beast winds up killing the researchers’ sled dogs. And an important consistency for all three heroes is that the only effective way to fight the Thing is with fire. In the original version, the characters use a combination of kerosene and flare guns to battle the monster as opposed to the flame throwers used by Kurt Russell (’82) and Mary Elizabeth Winstead (’11).
On a large scale, that’s where the major similarities between all three movies end. As for differences, The Thing from Another World is the odd one of the bunch. First, the titular Thing isn’t a shapeshifter. Instead, it’s a humanoid creature played by Gunsmoke (1955-1975) star James Arness, and believe it or not, the alien is basically described as a highly-evolved vegetable. In fact, one character refers to the monster as an “intellectual carrot.” Like the later Thing monsters, this extraterrestrial wants to reproduce, but it uses human blood to fertilize its seeds instead of assimilating and copying victims.
Another key difference is the cast of characters. Whereas the 1982 and 2011 versions featured a wide variety of people from multiple walks of life, the 1951 film focuses on a more homogenized group made up of scientists and soldiers. As such, it’s the only Thing movie to feature military characters, and since the film was released during the height of the Cold War, the soldiers are clean-cut, square-jawed heroes. Naturally, the creature itself is a not-so-subtle reference to the Soviets, ready to invade at a moment’s notice. As for the scientists, they come off as slightly unhinged. The head researcher, Dr. Carrington (Robert Cornthwaite), is your stereotypical selfish researcher who’s more concerned with gaining knowledge than preserving human life. When the Thing begins its bloody rampage, Dr. Carrington wants to protect the creature at the cost of everyone else on the base. After all, this is a “superior” being, and Carrington wants the alien to teach him the secrets of the universe.
If the Thing is meant to represent the threat of communism in 1951, then it’s not much of a stretch to assume Carrington symbolizes intellectuals with liberal leanings, similar to college professors or Hollywood types. Not surprisingly, this movie doesn’t care much for lefties who might sympathize with those dirty commies (author Richard Lingeman describes Christian Nyby’s thriller as “a new strain of anti-intellectualism), and when the creature turns on Dr. Carrington, it’s up to the hero, Captain Hendry (Kenneth Tobey), to save the day. After all, the only good red, uh, alien is a dead alien.
Compare this Cold War message to the underlying theme of Carpenter’s Thing. While it’s probably inaccurate to label the 1982 version as a “message movie,” some critics claim the film is playing with themes of homosexuality and AIDS. Writing for The Atlantic, Noah Berlatsky argues, “The men in the [1982 version] are constantly examining each other for evidence of the Thing, the spreading contagion that may make them not-men.” After all, the film centers on an exclusively male cast who are worried other male characters might infect them with a “disease.” Carpenter even admitted his film was playing on the fears inspired by the AIDS epidemic. After all, how does MacReady (Kurt Russell) determine who’s infected by a malicious “virus?” By testing everyone’s blood, of course.
Mike Bunge of KIMT makes another interesting point about how the two films differ when it comes to tone and theme. In Christian Nyby’s 1951 monster flick, everyone on the base works together for the common good. “Just six years removed from WWII,” Bunge writes, “these folks work effortlessly in concert like a unit with no one man standing out from the others.” The Thing from Another World emphasizes teamwork and unity in the face of an alien threat. The characters in Carpenter’s adaptation, however, only band together in the face of “horrible death.”
After all, these are very different sets of people living in very different eras. As John Lingan of Slant observes, Carpenter’s characters are “defined by individual eccentricity and rife with paranoia…[they] convey a distinctly post-Vietnam level of fatigued counterculturalism.” Instead of possessing that 1950s can-do attitude, the 1982 men are loners, living together but still separated from each other by their own self-interests which doesn’t exactly foster a sense of teamwork once the Thing shows up.
Underlying themes aside, perhaps the biggest difference between the original Thing and its cinematic spawn is the lack of paranoia. Sure, the film ends with a journalist warning the world to “watch the skies” (more than likely a warning to real-life Americans to keep an eye out for the commie threat), but our 1950s heroes vanquish the beast. Really, the only victims are those kooky scientists who should’ve listened to the soldiers in the first place. And while there are several tense and well-executed moments, we’re never worried about who’s an alien and who’s not because the 1951 Thing isn’t a shapeshifter. Instead of wondering who’s hiding secrets, we’re treated to a bunch of witty soldiers cracking one-liners which is all well and good, but it’s nowhere near as suspenseful as Carpenter’s masterpiece.
Now let’s take a look at the 2011 version (directed by Matthijs van Heijningen, Jr.), a movie that’s much more similar to Carpenter’s film because, well, it’s a prequel. In the 1982 movie, the film opens with a dog running across the snow with a helicopter in hot pursuit. We quickly learn the two men piloting the chopper are Norwegians from a base that was savaged by the Thing, who’s now in dog form. Despite their best attempts to destroy the canine creature, the two remaining Norwegians are killed by their own incompetence and a trigger-happy American (although, given the fact that one of the Norwegians was firing a machine gun at the U.S. base, it’s understandable that they fire back).
Wondering what drove the Norwegians to start shooting random dogs, the Americans visit their base and find the outpost in ruins. What happened here? While we discover the Thing made short work of the researchers, we’re never given any specific details on what exactly went down at the Norwegian base. For example, why did that one guy slit both his wrists and his throat**? Why is there an axe lodged in the wall? What’s the origin of the toasted two-headed Thing in the snow? How did the base catch on fire? And where did that one bearded Norwegian get those grenades? Carpenter’s version lets us come up with our own explanations, but van Heijningen’s films tosses ambiguity out the window. It wants to give us all the answers - which might annoy some fans while delighting others.
Although it was released nearly thirty years after Carpenter’s adaptation, the 2011Thing starts days before Kurt Russell and his not-so-merry men invite the alien into their humble abode. But unlike the first two Thing movies, van Heijningen’s version focuses on a female protagonist played by Mary Elizabeth Winstead. Sure, there’s a Kurt Russell knock-off played by Joel Edgerton, but Winstead’s Kate Lloyd is the big hero here. She’s a paleontologist who’s called out to the Norwegian base to examine a frozen extraterrestrial. Predictably, things spin out of control pretty quickly when the creature thaws out and the shapeshifter starts assimilating everyone in sight.
Interestingly, the 2011 version shares a few similarities with Christian Nyby’s 1951 classic. Although the original focuses mainly on its male heroes, both movies do feature female characters, while Carpenter’s film does not. Both films show the researchers discovering the Thing in a block of ice, and both movies feature villainous head scientists who are more concerned with gaining insight into the alien than following proper protocol (although in fairness, Robert Cornthwaite’s nut job is far worse than Ulrich Thomen’s doctor). But overall, the 2011 Thing has much more in common with the 1982 film, going so far as to borrow some of Carpenter’s best scenes.
For example, after incinerating a Thing in the snow, Kate Lloyd delivers an unsettling speech to all the men standing nearby, explaining how the monster wants to replicate everyone in the base. It’s nearly beat-for-beat the same as a speech given by Kurt Russell in the 1982 film.
Like R.J. MacReady in Carpenter’s flick, Kate Lloyd also concocts a plan to determine who’s a Thing by using the research station’s blood samples - only someone sabotages the blood before she can implement her plan. Later on, Lloyd realizes the monster can’t replicate inorganic objects so it’s forced to spit out metallic rings and fillings during assimilation. Armed with this crucial information, Lloyd forces everyone on the base to open their mouths so she can check their pearly whites. It’s similar to MacReady’s improvised test after he learns every part of the Thing is an independent creature that’ll react when jabbed with a heated wire, thus allowing MacReady to test everyone’s blood.
However, just like Nyby’s version, van Heijningen’s Thing lacks the paranoia of Carpenter’s. While it tries to replicate all that ‘80s tension, its very existence negates any lasting suspense. Yeah, the movie has plenty of scares and goretastic visuals, but it lacks the surprise of the 1982 adaptation because - since it’s a prequel - we already know what’s going to happen. We know everyone in the base is going to die***, and the Thing will escape to Outpost #31. While The Thing (2011) is impressive as a “fan film” and provides interesting insights into the 1982 classic, it doesn’t deliver the same thrills as its bigger, bloodier brother. Having said that, Carpenter’s version doesn’t have any creepy detached hand monsters which, you’ve got to admit, are incredibly eerie.
* There’s actually a fourth film that’s supposedly inspired by Campbell’s novella. Titled Horror Express (1972), this Italian film features Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, Telly Savalas, and yet another icy extraterrestrial. Set aboard a turn-of-the-century train, Horror Express follows an archaeologist (played by Lee) who finds a frozen corpse, brings it aboard the Transiberian Express, and then accidentally unleashes a killer creature. Unlike Carpenter’s Thing, this beast is killed early on but continues its murderous rampage by possessing passengers (LINK 9) aboard the locomotive.
** While we’re given explanations for many of the mysterious events teased in the 1982 version, the 2011 Thing doesn’t actually explain why the character of Colin slits both his wrists and his throat. During the credits, we see that he’s dead and waiting for Kurt Russell to discover his corpse. So why aren’t we shown his death scene? Well, in an interview with io9 (LINK 10), director Matthijs van Heijningen reveals why we weren’t given an explanation for Colin’s death: “We shot the whole, the guy his name is Colin, the whole slitting his throat and his pulse is… we shot that scene completely. And now in the movie it just… we sort of set it up as something that happened [off camera]. It didn’t work completely, and I wanted to have that scene in the movie so badly, because that’s one of the best parts in John Carpenters movie, what happened to that guy? But the movie became about him, as opposed to about Mary and Joe at that point. So we had to delete it.” Of course, you can watch the scene online if you’re interested in seeing what became of the unfortunate radio operator (LINK 11).
*** Well, not everyone dies. At the end of the film, Kate Lloyd is still alive and protected from the cold inside a large truck. While it’s possible that she might freeze to death, there’s a good chance she could drive to a nearby base, thus eliminating the nihilistic hopelessness that pervades Carpenter’s film.