Comparative Analysis of “Who Goes There?” and It’s Adaptations to Film

by Christopher Atkinson Jr.

In a time where Hollywood debuts less original stories, and produces more adaptations and retellings of stories, the discussion of how well the story is retold is an ever prevalent and growing topic. Opinions on every single film released are varied, especially if the source material from which the film was adapted already has a fan base. In this case, the opinion and critique of the film can be in depth and sometimes harsh. On the other hand, films like Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy set the standard for literary translations to film very high (as well as setting the bar high for films in general!). Nonetheless, the analysis of  these adaptations continues to be an important factor in watching film, discussing film, creating film, and of course, writing about film.
John Campbell’s “Who Goes There?” is a 1938 novella about a shapeshifting alien found during an expedition in Antarctica. The story has been adapted to film three times: Howard Hawks’ 1951 film The Thing From Another World, John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982), and Matthijs van Heijningen Jr’s film (also titled The Thing), which serves as a prequel to Carpenter’s film. All three films follow the same story line, but all three maintain their own tone and changes to the original material. Before  discussing such changes and differences, it is important to define what kind of literary adaptations exist, and apply to the translations of Campbell’s original work.

In his book, Understanding Movies, Louis Giannetti identifies three types of literary adaptations in film; loose, faithful, and literal. A loose adaptation is one that would take only part of a story, or a certain aspect, and translate it to film. There are dramatic changes made to the story, such as the setting and cast. A faithful adaptation is an adaptation that respects the original work to only omit what is deemed redundant or unnecessary  for a general audience, as decided by the individuals adapting the work onto film. The story at large remains the same, while subplots, smaller roles, and some dialogue are left on the cutting room floor. The third type of adaptation is a literal adaptation, which Giannetti explains is almost only reserved for stage productions that have made it to film. In fact, the only  usual differences between the two is the inclusion of cinematography, and the fact that the performance isn’t live. These three categories of adaptation can be used to determine how well any movie derived from a literary source, was translated onto film. Looking at 1951 and 1982’s literary adaptations of John Campbell’s “Who Goes There?” , I have determined that Howard Hawkes creates a loose adaptation of the film, while John Carpenter managed to successfully produce a faithful adaptation.

Differences between the original story and it’s adaptations are noticeable from the first scene or both movies, as both took a departure from the original starting point. “Who Goes There?” starts off with the crew looking down upon the recently unearthed (or rather, un-iced for that matter) extraterrestrial, and discussing it’s origins, capabilities, and possible threat to the camp. Carpenter’s take on the story sets the tone for the film, which involves a lot of looming uncertainty and mystery. It follows a dog being chased by my in a helicopter over the tundra. The 1951 version of the film is the most drastic of the adaptations, beginning with the crew being assigned to investigate a possible plane crash near the north pole. While the beginning point in the story isn’t so much a determining factor of how to gauge the translation, it is interesting and reflective of the film maker, to see how they wanted to initially present the characters, setting, and plot to the audience.

Howard Hawks’ 1951 adaptation of Campbell’s novella suggests itself to be a loose adaptation of the original piece. Not only is the cast of characters replaced with a strong military presence, but there are also two characters included that push the film into a departure from it’s original genre of mystery, suspense, and science fiction. One of these characters, Scotty, is an ambitious and thin-skinned journalist who seems more worried about his career during the whole ordeal than the present danger of an enraged extraterrestrial. The other cast addition is that of one female who seems to serve no other purpose than to be a damsel in distress, and a love interest for the male lead. These two characters and their unintentionally passive attitude (which the entire cast can be considered guilty of) take away the suspense and uncertainty that came with the source material. While “Who Goes There?”  carried with it a darker tone, “The Thing From Another World” fails to carry the horror aspect onto the silver screen.
Not only did the 1951 film adaptation fail in it’s translation of character and tone, but it also missed what is possibly the most important aspect of the film; the Thing. In this adaptation, the thing does not shape shift like it does in Campbell’s text, nor does it try to build it’s own escape craft. The mythology of the Thing is tossed aside, and replaced with am alien, humanoid plant that requires blood for survival. In addition to the science fiction aspect of this literary translation being excluded, it seems as though the movie was geared for a broader audience. In Campbell’s novella, he goes into detail within the dialogue about how the creature acts, survives, and where it may have come from. The dialogue in the film is much more watered down, especially during the scene in which thermite explosives were used in an attempt to remove the space ship and it’s inhabitants. The intricacies of the excavation were overlooked, and made for an unintelligent display of power on behalf of the characters.  Katherine Schulten goes on to elaborate on why things such as this are changed in the process of making a literary adaptation; “There are three main reasons a filmmaker or screenwriter might make major changes in adapting a literary work to film. One is simply that changes demanded by a new medium. Film and literature each have their own told for manipulating narrative structure. In a novel, a new chapter might take us back to a different time and place in the narrative; in film, we might go back to that same time and place through the use of a flashback, a crosscut, or a dissolve, such as the various techniques the filmmakers in Wuthering Heights employ to keep the complex narrative coherent.” (Shulten, 16). Although, the aspects of the Thing may have been limited by the technology of the time. It would have been very difficult for filmmakers to convincingly create something such as an alien in the midst of transforming into a dog.

While all this holds true, it could be explained that this movie was ‘watered down’ and made into more of a simple action adventure for the audience it was presented to. There wasn’t a broad choice of movies to go and see at the theatre in the 1950’s, and looking at the two addition characters previously pointed out, the lighter tone, and the less sophisticated antagonist, “The Thing From Another World” seems to conform to the exact same tone and plot development as any other movie of it’s era. As Katherine Schulten explains in her book, Masterpiece: Film in the Classroom; “. . . the third main reason for a filmmaker to make dramatic changes to an adaptation, and it is one that anyone who works on a MASTERPIECE classic is motivated by: how to make a classic story ‘new’ for a contemporary audience.” (Schulten, 17).

As for a contemporary audience in 1982, it was an easier task to translate to film the horror, paranoia, and often gruesome imagery illustrated by John Campbell. Carpenter succeeds in translating the source material to film, while maintaining much of the original story.  The major differences reside in both the lean in genre between science fiction and horror, and the emphasis on concepts such as trust, paranoia, and uncertainty between the characters.

Carpenter’s adaptation does change the events in the story, but he does so with good reason. The first being that he needed to pace the story as a movie. With a novella, the pacing is controlled by the reader. With a film however, the director controls the pacing for the viewer, a tool many filmmakers of the horror genre use to their advantage. “The Thing” was adapted into a horror movie by Carpenter, therefore, he needed to change not only the events that happened in the story, but how they occurred. For example, in the novella’s blood test scene, fourteen men are shot and killed upon discovering that they have been turned into Things. Carpenter uses the horror movie method of killing off the cast gradually over the course of the movie to stretch out this scene. His cast dies over time, each in a creative and gruesomely appropriate way. This stretching out of the killings also is an example of Carpenter’s goal of creating a film with fantastic suspense, and exemplifying the paranoia presented by the situation of a shape shifting alien.

While analyzing these two films and the original novella from which they were derived, it has become apparent that not a translations are defined by how faithful they were to the source material. Although including much of the story is important, filmmakers are often limited by budget, technological constraints, and delivery to the audience. Carpenter has demonstrated that not using the original novella as his screenplay is not to be condemned, but commended because he omitted, changed, and edited parts to his advantage of achieving his goal. It was the Carpenter’s goal of making a specific horror film adapted from Campbell’s work that made his changes from source material to film make sense.















Louis Giannetti “Literary Adaptations” Understanding Movies, Chapter 9: Writing, 2011,                           Accessed November 5th, 2012


Katherine Schulten, “Adaptation: From Novel to Film” Masterpiece: Film in the Classroom A                                Guide for Teachers, 2011, Accessed November, 17th, 2012


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