Thursday, September 3, 2009

Movie vs. Book : The Thing From Another World / “Who Goes There?”

I’ll admit I was a bit afraid of doing another movie vs. book review after the Mephisto Waltz debacle. Luckily, this time Bill picked “Who Goes There?” as the book. That gave me two movies to pick from, one being The Thing, the John Carpenter classic. But let’s face it—more people reading this have seen it than have not. So I went for the other version.
The Thing From Another World was done three decades before the Carpenter version, in 1951. Depending on who you believe, the movie was either directed by Christian Nyby, as credited, or by Howard Hawks, the producer. To me, it didn’t matter who directed it. Whoever it was, they did a pretty good job.
A bunch of Army guys are sent to the North Pole because some strange aircraft crash landed, and they need to investigate. Once there, they find it wasn’t the Russian airplane they originally thought, but a flying saucer. And, lo and behold, they find a Martian frozen in a block of ice. They bring the Martian back to base, with express orders to keep it frozen.
And wouldn’t you know it, but some guy accidentally defrosts the spaceman.
This is not a friendly, Close Encounters alien. No, he is made from plant material and therefore thinks like a plant—with no emotion. His mission is to absorb as many living Earth creatures as possible, to grow and take over the world. Combine that with a few side plots of sexual tension between a Captain and his secretary, a mad scientist, and we have our movie.
It being made in 1951, that alone is going to cause some drawbacks. The effects are not nearly what they were by the time Carpenter’s version hit the screen, let alone what we have today. Also, when dealing with the romance, there’s only so steamy it can get. What was a pleasant surprise was how deftly they overcame these obstacles.
Yes, the spaceman was a bit corny-looking. But he was hardly on screen. Instead, you had the threat of him. They built the suspense so much that it did frighten you once he busted through the door.
The same pacing that built the suspense also helped to carry the rest of the movie. While today the dialogue might be looked at as affected or stylized, it worked in this flick. The conversations were rapid-fire back-and-forths, keeping the scenes moving and the viewer hooked. There were no empty spaces, no dead air where we might lose interest.
That’s not to say they overused the dialogue. There were plenty of times that the sound effects, the very capable music, or even a well-placed, well-acted silent stare were enough to help build the tension.
And, especially considering the era in which it was made, the movie was pretty gutsy. There wasn’t a whole lot of violence or gore, but more than audiences were used to in the time. The flirtation between our two lovebirds crossed a few lines past the innocent batted eyelashes of Production Code Hollywood. Don’t misunderstand me—this movie was hardly splatterpunk nor was it soft core porn. It had enough of the sex and violence to add layers to the story, but not so much that it took over.
All in all, I was pleasantly surprised by The Thing From Another World. The DVD case made it look like another cheap mid century monster flick. Instead, I got a damn fine movie watching experience. Highly recommended.

--Jenny Orosel

“Who Goes There?” isn’t even a book. It’s a novella. And it’s almost brilliant.
It was originally published in 1938 by John W. Campbell, Jr. for Astounding, while he was the magazine’s editor. (He published it under his pseudonym.) In it, the reader finds all of the traits which made Campbell such a major figure within science fiction.
Campbell is widely regarded as the reason for the transition between traditional space opera and escapist space fantasy and the contemporary “hard” and “soft” science fiction. He insisted that sf stories include actual plausible scientific elements. “Who Goes There?” is no exception, including such details as having the alien ship combust due to magnesium construction materials and the meteorological implausibility of high-speed winds in the Antarctic.. He also drew criticism from some when in later years his insistence on scientific speculation led him to promote things which were eventually discredited, such as psi powers. That is also foreshadowed in the story, where one character is explained as having a stronger reaction to the alien due to being more psychically sensitive.
Amidst the science (and pseudo-science) one finds another trait of Campbell: the ability to recognize a remarkable story. The reader watches as characters debate their situation and try to thwart the alien assault. The tension grows as characters who were recently hosting the reader’s point of view are revealed to have been turned. All of it leads to a satisfying climax.
(The oddest aspect of the story in the movies is the influence of special effects. In the original film version, reviewed above, the creature is a plant-based alien, rigid in form. In the Carpenter version, the creature is malleable, as per the original story, but far more liquid than in the prose form. The story creatures shift slowly, which allows a group of humans to literally fall upon one and hack it to pieces, rendering it easily destroyed. With the varying abilities of the aliens and the different quantities of station members, the three versions all work well within their established boundaries.)
The greatest drawback of the story is a function of the time. Magazines published short novels as serials, and novellas as single-issue stories. Campbell, knowing what he intended to put into the various issues of Astounding, had to know he would have space for a novella but not a short novel. Also, given his editing duties, he likely didn’t have much time available for writing outside of his monthly editorials.
The result is a classic novella which could easily have been a legendary novel. Not enough time is given to developing the characters for the reader to feel a strong connection to them, which would have combined ideally with the paranoia implicit in the story. It’s a remarkable piece of craftsmanship, but it feels hurried and oddly over-edited.

Four stars out of five.

--Bill Lindblad