Things From Different Worlds
A Critical Comparison of the
1951 and 1982
versions of The Thing
In The Mammoth Encyclopedia of Science Fiction,
George Mann offers a positive assessment of John Carpenter’s 1982 cult
classic: "The special effects are extravagant, although perfectly in
keeping with the theme and plot of the movie, and it succeeds in being
both a strong horror movie and an excellent psychological thriller."
Upon seeing these words, the fan of the ‘82 film is encouraged in that a
mainstream critic such as Mann is giving some well-deserved credit to The
Thing (1982). Indeed, twenty years ago, the chances of seeing this
sort of critical acclaim were about as likely as an ‘80s Democrat
winning one of the American Presidential elections.
But Thing fans may be disheartened to read Mann’s
very next sentence. Having concluded his comments on the ‘82 film, Mann
introduces the 1951 Howard Hawks movie as "a superior adaptation of
John W. Campbell’s famous short story, Who Goes There?" The
1951 film "superior" to the 1982 version!? Those who truly
consider the ‘82 rendition to be "the ultimate in alien
terror" are nothing less than surprised. They may even cringe at the
thought that Mann, a person who knows his science fiction very well, would
consider the ‘51 movie to be the "superior adaptation."
Despite the progress that’s been made in gaining the acclaim that The
Thing (1982) deserves, it seems that fans of the film still have some
way to go in convincing others of the real value of Carpenter’s work.
After all this time, the 1982 adaptation still has not fully come out from
beneath the shadow of the ‘51 film.
By what standard or standards do we judge an original
film to be better than its remake? Conversely, how are we to know that a
remake is really superior to the original? Measuring this relative
superiority can be especially difficult in the case of The Thing,
for it is generally agreed that the ‘82 movie is not a
"remake" of the ‘51 "original." Rather, it is simply
a return to the story upon which both films are said to be based: the
novella Who Goes There? written by John W. Campbell, Jr., in 1938.
This basic fact was something of which most of the ‘82 film’s critics
seemed to be completely ignorant and unaware. Indeed, if we were to judge
superiority solely on the basis of faithfulness to Campbell’s story,
then the ‘82 Thing would win hands down. It is not much of an
exaggeration to say that the ‘51 Hawks version is virtually
unrecognizable as a silver-screen adaptation of the Campbell classic. The
two deviate that much from each other.
But Hollywood’s critics are not so much concerned
with how well a movie portrays its original storyline as they are with the
"artistic" qualities embedded throughout a film. In fact the ’82
Thing was criticized by some for holding too rigidly to the
Campbell novella. "Carpenter may ruefully ponder that, in an industry
famous for scrapping whole stories to get an idea or two …, his project
foundered because of excessive fidelity to its original source." So,
in comparing the two Thing films, we will not be all that concerned
with the original Campbell story. Rather, we will examine the various
themes and motifs of the two features, comparing them side-by-side with
each other. We will endeavor to discover which film uses superior
techniques in developing the conventional themes of the horror genre. In
so doing, we are able to determine objectively which version of The
Thing is the "superior adaptation."
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