Tuesday, March 23, 2021

Here's the Thing

Recently, I decided to revisit H.P. Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness and its derivations. I read, for the first time, John W. Campbell’s novella Who Goes There? (clearly inspired by Lovecraft’s story) and revisited the two film adaptations of Campbell’s story, The Thing from Another World (1951) and The Thing (1982).

The 1951 and 1982 adaptations are excellent films, both much better than Campbell’s novella. Although both are derived from the same source material, there are major differences in plot. Both are cultural artifacts of their respective eras. One was made by the generation that experienced the Great Depression and marched off to World War II. The other was made by a generation that experienced the Vietnam War and gave us the counter-culture. The two films are polar opposites in their attitudes towards male social hierarchies.

(This is a followup to my previous essay on male social hierarchies in anime. The concepts and terms that I’ll use to evaluate male hierarchies in this essay were set out there.)

Howard Hawks’ The Thing from Another World

The 1951 film extols the alpha male Authority Figure and the men underneath him. The script itself was likely written by an alpha male. Charles Lederer is formally credited with writing the script, but the producer, Howard Hawks, and super-writer Ben Hecht played a significant role in the rewrites. (Hawks is also believed to have played a heavy hand in the direction, although he is not formally credited with that either.)

The story’s Authority Figure, Captain Hendry, is portrayed in a positive light, and his unit is characterized by friendship, camaraderie, and teamwork. One of my favorite aspects of this story is how all the good ideas for fighting the monster come from characters who are on the lower levels of the hierarchy: the secretary, the enlisted crew chief, the junior scientist. Captain Hendry listens to these suggestions and runs with them. Imagine if these scenes had been written by a resentful, low-status male: The leader either would have dismissively rejected these suggestions (“If I want your opinion, I’ll ask for it.”) or, if he had liked the suggestions, he would have taken credit for them himself. Instead, the scenes reflect mutual respect between leader and subordinates. In the end, it is group problem-solving and teamwork that defeat the monster.

The role of the Outsider is played by the newspaper reporter. He pesters, complains, and makes snide remarks, but he is tolerated with good humor by the military men. His behavior doesn’t provoke the alpha because, in the end, he poses no threat.

The story has a romantic subplot and, in the end, the alpha male gets the girl. None of the other males even consider competing with him for her attentions.

John Carpenter’s The Thing

John Carpenter’s remake takes a radically different approach. Although the film was released in theaters in 1982, the screenwriter, Bill Lancaster (son of Burt Lancaster) started work on the script in 1979. Those who lived through the 1970’s remember that decade as a bad hangover from the 1960’s, and The Thing carries with it a 1960’s counter-cultural vibe.

Lancaster’s script is a rejection, a rebellion against male social hierarchies. Instead, his story celebrates the Rebel and the Outsider. 

The camp’s Authority Figure, Garry, is a military man. He is portrayed as a weak, almost emasculated character, and all of the other characters treat him with distain.

(In my essay on anime, I noted how some writers consistently portray male Authority Figures, particularly Father Figures, in a harsh light. These characters are usually portrayed as tyrants, weaklings, or buffoons. In such cases, the writer is probably importing real world resentments and emotional hang-ups into the story.)

Other than the scientists, the camp’s members are a motley crew of outcasts, oddballs, and misfits. They are characters who don’t fit in with larger society and transgress against society’s rules. The helicopter pilot MacReady, played by Kurt Russell, is the charismatic Rebel figure. He’s also a drunkard. (“Hey MacReady, we need you to fly the helicopter. It’s kinda important. Someone might die.” “No-can-do, Bro, I’m wasted. Call me tomorrow. I might be sober then.”)

Social trust among the camp denizens is practically non-existent. In an early scene, a conversation between the hippy radio operator and another character needlessly devolves into shouting. In another scene, the cook is playing loud music on his boombox, and a scientist yells at him to turn it down as others are trying to sleep. The cook responds by cranking up the volume. (In the real world, blasting loud music is often a subtle form of aggression. It’s as if the person is saying, “I dare you to tell me to turn it down.”)

This collection of misfits really threw me out of immersion and it bugged me for the entire film. For a military unit to function properly, it must have qualities like unit cohesion, teamwork, and discipline. Unit members must be trustworthy and dependable. The research camp in this film is a civilian organization, not a military one, but it’s an isolated outpost in a harsh, dangerous environment, and as such, would need these basic characteristics in order to function properly and survive. The crew of this outpost possess none of these.

When the film ended and the credits were rolling, I exclaimed out-loud: “What a nihilistic movie!” Afterwards, I did some research.

Lancaster’s original script ended with the alien triumphant and in possession of MacReady’s body  (a deviation from the source material). Carpenter rejected this and started what would become extensive tinkering in the rewrite process. In the final product, there are a few brief flashes of heroism and compassion, but to me they feel discordant and out of place, like an artificial appendage clumsily tacked on. As it turns out, these heroic flashes were not in Lancaster’s original script, but the work of Carpenter during the extensive rewrites.

Nihilism and heroism are fundamentally incompatible. John Carpenter tried to insert elements of heroism into a story that, at its core, was nihilistic, and the results are unconvincing.

Carpenter filmed five different endings, none of which tested well with screening audiences. The test screenings were a harbinger of things to come. Widely panned by critics, The Thing bombed at the box office. Costing about $15 million to make, it grossed a little under $20 million in theaters worldwide. Afterwards, Carpenter stated in an interview that he believed that audiences rejected the film because of its “downbeat, depressing view of things.” Carpenter also said that the film’s box office failure damaged his career.

In 2021, it’s hard to imagine that both audiences and critics would so decisively reject such a nihilistic film. Were the film to have been released in our time, say, sometime shortly before the pandemic closed down theaters, it would have been a runaway hit.

While both films are excellent, I think the vast majority fans would greatly prefer John Carpenter’s version. For starters, Carpenter’s version works much better as a horror film. The monster in the 1951 film is bland and boring compared to the wild practical effects of the 1982 monster. The scene where the head sprouts spider legs and starts crawling along the floor, only to be incinerated by MacReady, is nothing short of awesome. And none of the actors in the 1951 film can come anywhere close to Kurt Russell’s on-screen charisma and star power. Those are all good reasons for preferring Carpenter’s film. But I prefer the Howard Hawks version. I much prefer the likable characters, the teamwork, the camaraderie, and the underlying optimism. And my tolerance for nihilism is much, much lower that it was years ago.

When humans gather together and organize - whether it is the village or tribe of a primitive society or a modern nation state - they do certain things. They establish hierarchies of order, they establish rules, they organize into teams to accomplish specific tasks. People form bonds of social trust. Those at various levels of the hierarchy enjoy certain privileges, but they incur duties and obligations as well. 

And at a basic, fundamental level, John Carpenter’s The Thing subverts all of that. Most viewers today would fail to notice it because of  1) over forty years of programing by Hollywood, and 2) that’s the way it’s supposed to be. Subversion is the most effective when it operates on a subconscious level. In an early scene, a drunken MacReady vandalizes a computer because he’s upset that he lost a chess match. On the surface, it’s just harmless comedy, but underneath it lies a subliminal message: “If you’re angry about something, you can vandalize stuff that doesn’t belong to you.”

In a way, Carpenter was being prophetic, although he probably didn’t intend to be. For we now live in a low-trust, nihilistic culture similar to what John Carpenter and Bill Lancaster promoted in their film almost forty years ago. How well did that turn out?

If you're an author and are interested in reading my essays on narrative tools and patterns, check out Pulp on Pulp, edited by Kit Sun Cheah and Misha Burnett. It's only 99 cents on Amazon and free on other platforms.

1 comment:

  1. Your discussion is incomplete without some comparison of these 2 movies to the story.