"Something had to be done, and fast, Macready knew. Maybe this was how it had started at the Norwegian camp. The thing didn't even have to show itself. All it had to do was let you know it was around. Complete paranoia would soon take control of the human survivors and they'd reduce themselves to a manageable level. He wondered if the thing had a sense of irony, or humor, and decided it probably did not."
THE NOVELIZATIONS OF JOHN CARPENTER
alan dean foster, 1982
Most remakes are pale imitations. They imitate older, better movies and they imitate 'em perfectly, adapting the original film's title, characters and story, in the process shaping their own celluloid to imitate it. But the excitement and innovation is pure second-hand simulation. This, for instance: that's not Robert Wise's The Haunting. It's Jan de Bont's The Haunting. Take it back to the video store and exchange it right away, and while you're at it go pick up a case of Nehi Sangria. This is store-brand sangria. I'm surprised I have to explain these things to you.
Novelizations also have a reputation for being bland copies, little more than slightly-altered semblances of the screenplay they're adapting, and often enough that's true. I don't have official figures on this, but I'd guess that 99 out of 100 people would prefer to tough it through a single viewing of Ghost Dad than to peruse Mel Cebulash's paper edition. It's rare for a tie-in book to establish itself indepent of its cinematic source, or for a rehaul to emerge from the shadow of a classic movie. Which is what makes John Carpenter and Alan Dean Foster the MacReady and Childs of their respective fields* - Carpenter's remake of The Thing and Foster's novelization of that remake are individual efforts that endure in a way that Jim McBride's remake of Breathless and Leonore Fleischer's novelization of that remake do not.** (McBride & Fleischer are the Norris and Palmer of this scenario).
For his part, Carpenter paid tribute to the original film (a movie he loves so much that he gave it an extended cameo in Halloween) by including in his remake all the Hawksian elements he admires: characters stuck together in a single setting, under siege from an outside source that threatens them all, in-fighting and forging alliances based on their shared will to survive. These borrowed aspects characterized most of his major films up to that point - Dark Star, Assault on Precinct 13, The Fog - and would continue to define his later movies all the way up to Ghosts of Mars. But rather than simply reimagining the 1951 classic, he and screenwriter Bill Lancaster went back to John W. Campbell's 1938 novella Who Goes There? and its concept of an alien parasite that can assume the shape, memories and personality of any living being it devours, while maintaining its original body mass for further reproduction. The resultant marriage of masculine stamina a'la Hawks and anatomical incursion a'la Campbell was a successful one, Carpenter feeling right at home with both the b-movie mechanics of the 1951 film and gross-out mentality of pulp horror.
Which brings us to Alan Dean Foster, the sci fi/fantasy writer and Grand Poobah of movie novelizations.*** Over a 40-year career, Foster has established a reputation as going above and beyond his work-for-hire assignments, an amender of detail who'd often correct a screenplay's wonky science and add depth to its mythology so that the novelizations turned out better than the actual movies (examples: The Black Hole, Outland, Krull.) Wildly prolific (over 100 books published, including 21 novelizations), he's best known for his involvement with three high-profile science fiction film franchises. He ghost-wrote the novelization of Star Wars and authored an original sequel, Splinter of the Mind's Eye, before Empire Strikes Back materialized. After writing book versions of the Star Trek animated series, he co-plotted the first motion picture - although creator Gene Roddenberry handled the novelization, Foster would novelize the Trek reboot 30 years later. He also wrote the highly-regarded novelizations of the original Alien trilogy. But before all that, he adapted a low-budget sci-fi comedy called Dark Star, the directorial debut of John Carpenter.
"Guys sitting around in a spaceship talking about how bored they are - hardest film novelization I've ever had to do," Foster said of novelizing Carpenter's expanded student film. It had to be good practice though, since he'd follow Dark Star co-scribe Dan O'Bannon over to Alien and in his novelization do a great job establishing the Nostromo crew's boredom prior to adding a hostile creature to their population - the chaos that follows undoubtedly made them nostalgic for the days of griping over cornbread and negotiating the equitable level of bonuses. With Carpenter taking some cues from Alien in terms of The Thing's general milieu (the device of MacReady's personal recording and sign-off clearly inspired by Ripley's, for example), Foster offers the same service to characterization of the isolated members of Outpost 31. In the movie, there's the memorably banal moment of the jaded crew rotating dispassionately through video tapes of old game shows during downtime; in the book, it's revealed that Childs requests specific game shows from the states because of how attractive the female contestants typically are. Not only are they terminally bored, they're eminently lonely. Foster draws upon research of life in the Antarctic region to detail how uncomfortable it must be: the crew are restricted to two showers a week (A.D.F. points out the irony of walking across 30 percent of the planet's fresh water yet not being able to use it due to energy restrictions) and have to follow a specific process when it comes to disposing of their waste, since human by-products in the Southern Hemisphere freeze too quickly to biodegrade.
In Who Goes There?, John Campbell limits his description of the camp to a commentary on its nasty odor, one "compunded of reeking human sweat, and the heavy, fish-oil stench of melted seal blubber" (the word "taint" comes up twice in the story's first two paragraphs). Campbell was the first editor to purchase one of Foster's short stories for his magazine Analog,**** and provided a number of suggestions which Foster incorporated into his first novel, The Tar-Aiym Krang. So Foster was familiar with Campbell's work, and probably inclined to feel reverential towards it as well (as a little homage, Foster has Macready demand "Who goes there?" during a blackout.) He expands upon the unpleasant climate Campbell created by focusing on the desolation of the environment, opening The Thing with: "The worst desert on Earth never gets hot." Employing his trademark adherence to detail, he measures the vulnerable humans to the great expanse of ice, depicting the pressure ridging and seismic forces that have shaped the warped, cold terrain: "He felt like an ant climbing up a broken mirror." Beyond the practical accounts of life at the outpost (he includes a pragmatic reason for the blowtorches: to de-ice the helicopter blades), Foster waxes historical when MacReady and the doc check out the Norweigan camp, which looks "like Carthage after the last Punic war." He does a nice job using the demolished Norweigan base as an ominous foreshadowing of what will become of the American camp (Carpenter even filmed the scene at the Norweigan post last, shooting on the same set after it had been obliterated by explosives).
But before the crew are lined up for the slaughterhouse, Foster gets to indulge in the novelization staple of giving backgrounds to supporting characters we never learn much about in the movie. Fuchs is a jogging enthusiast. Palmer reads Gilbert Shelton comics (even after being assimilated, assumedly.) Norris is a talented calligraphist who put together a drink menu for the station, which includes a Tahiti-brewed beer. Foster's Nauls listens to Warren Zevon instead of Stevie Wonder, a difference I initially thought signified a race-change in casting until reading a Foster-added scene where Nauls flees from the thing on skates and remembers evading Crips back in Chicago in a similar fashion.
Most fleshed-out is Childs, who besides ogling game show contestants is given a sweetheart back home in Detroit and a green thumb: he maintains the station's greenhouse and even plays Al Green songs for his beloved plants. It sets up a neat moment later, after his shrubs all die because the thing smashed the window - Palmer comes up with the idea that the thing could be imitating a plant (a living being) and warns Childs not to go near them; the visual this conjures from the film is the spinning "flower" extremity that grows out of the dog-thing and shoots out at Childs right before he torches the whole monstrosity. Foster follows the team of meterologists and geophysicists as they take anemometer readings and plot percentage drops in temperature gradients, all the while building a mild tension between the scientists (Blair, Bennings, Norris, Fuchs, Copper) and the maintenance personnel (Garry, Childs, Palmer, Nauls, Clark, Windows, Macready), another carryover from Alien, with Mac telling Blair, "We're hewers of wood and drawers of water for you research boys."
Campbell's "McCready" may have been "a figure from some forgotten myth, a looming, bronze statue that held life, and walked," but Foster sticks with Carpenter and Lancaster's blue collar version. Turns out Mac was in 'Nam, where he picked up his piloting skills. One of the team dubs him "Neverready MacReady", which makes me think that maybe Foster didn't know how the name is pronounced. As MacReady watches the tapes from the Norweigan station, he thinks to himself that "the cameraman was no Abel Gance." While it seems unlikely that the John MacReady we know and love would be conversant in the work of Abel Gance, it's funny to think of Kurt Russell saying that line out loud.
While watching the tapes, Macready casually inflates up a blow-up doll, a "character" from Lancaster's script who made it all the way to the cutting room floor: there are stills of Russell sitting with his vinyl companion, whose name is later revealed to be Esperanza. After its initial appearance, when "the rejected mannqeuin went sputtering around the pub until it ran out of air and crumpled limply on the floor," it shows up again to serve as a cat scare when MacReady and Nauls find the roof torn off Mac's room and the doll pops out at them.
As for the title monster, Foster had no access to Rob Bottin's creature effects and was left to determine the look of the thing himself based solely on Lancaster's script. This wasn't a new challenge: on Alien, Fox forbid anyone not directly connected with the filming to see a picture of the xenomorph, so Foster was left to his own devices on that assignment as well (he was also given the unenviable task of having to interpret Harryhausen creations in his Clash of the Titans novelization).
Fortunately, Foster's dabbled in horror fiction on several occasions. In the novel Interlopers, a man drinks an ancient potion which allows him to "see" strange beings inhabiting the world, creatures that harm humans and cause feelings of hate and anger upon which they feed and multiply, a concept that combines ideas from Carpenter's They Live with ones from Stuart Gordon's Lovecraft adaptation From Beyond. Lovecraft was Foster's prime inspiration for his horror novels - he even added his own chapter to the Cthlulhu Mythos with his 1978 book The Horror on the Beach and in 1986 wrote Into the Out Of, a Lovecraftian tale of interdimensional creatures invading East Africa.
Such an influence undoubtedly led to passages in his Thing novelization as, "Other appendages rapidly began to take shape, a gruesome assortment of hooks and bulges and knobby growths that owed their development to no line of earthly evolution." Campbell's arctic-set novella was itself a reworking of Lovecraft's At the Mountains of Madness and contains its own Lovecraftisms: "Nothing Earth ever spawned had the unutterable sublimation of devastating wrath that thing let loose in its face when it looked around this frozen desolation twenty million years ago. Mad? It was mad clear through - searing, blistering mad!"
Campbell offered a very specific physical depition of the thing, describing it as about 1.5 meters tall with rubbery blue flesh and four armlike appendages ending in seven-tentacled hands, a pulpy head with three gleaming red eyes and thick writhing tendrils. At one point, Blair theorizes that this isn't necessarily its true form, that it may have imitated the beings who built the ship which crashed to Earth, an interesting idea that the novelization sadly doesn't have room to incorporate. Foster's Blair offers a longer explanation of what the thing is, comparing it to the lichen, an association of both algae and bacteria that shares a symbiotic relationship with fungi.
But for the most part, Foster sticks to fleeting impressions of the "jellylike" creature, usually after it's been blasted by fire and reverted into a "flaming, indistinct mass of protoplasm" that, two paragraphs later, melts "into a molten, shapeless mass of burning protoplasm." His colorful narration of the monster as "a raging, constantly shifting gelatinous form silhouetted by the flames" again recalls Lovecraft, in this case "The Moon-Bog": "...as I watched in awe and terror I thought I saw dark saltant forms silhouetted grotesquely against the vision of marble and effulgence."
One of Foster's most effective passages is another vague glimpse of the alien: "Parts of limbs and skin and half-formed organs of unknown purpose and a peculiar design went flying in all directions."
As talented a wordsmith as he is, Foster can only coast on nebulous sketches of biological carnage to such an extent. Although it's neat that he imagined MacReady likening the sound the thing makes to "fried pigskins being crumbled in a child's hand," Foster's book pales in comparison to the movie due to its lack of Rob Bottin-infused surrealism. Which is not a knock to the book, only an acknowledgment of the purely cinematic conceptions of Carpenter, Bottin and his effects crew.
Even a writer privy to the Bacon-esque sequences of biological nightmare that are the melded-face carcass, the arm-chomping belly-mouth and the Norris-spiderhead probably couldn't do them justice. These are all Bottin innovations that aren't depicted in the book; rather than have his arms amputated, the doc is given the fate that would ultimately go to Windows, being munched up whole once the Palmer-thing is revealed ("Palmer's mouth split from chin to forehead. A new mouth, dark and vitreous and horrible, moved forward and inhaled the entirety of the doctor's head.") The curse of the novelization is the reader's familiarity with the film and the elements that make that film unique.
But Foster comes into his own with scenes that have no equivalent on screen: if I doubted whether my enjoyment of the book was based solely on my love of the movie, A.D.F. assuaged that suspicion with an intense chapter in which MacReady, Childs and Bennings drive snowmobiles deep into the Arctic night, chasing two dog-imitations that have escaped towards the ocean. A confrontation that plays out on top of the ice and under it results in a much more spectacular death for Bennings, who's pulled under the surface and expropriated beneath the frozen floor instead of merely offering MacReady a horrified/horrifying "scream" before being charbroiled. It's almost as if Foster knew he couldn't duplicate Carpenter's clever Munchian visual reference from the movie and cooked up an extravagant action sequence that would have been tough to realize on film.
Later on, nerves run high during a blackout after the generator's fuel pump is tampered with - even if Carpenter had included the scene (which he apparently deemed poorly-lit by blue light), it's certainly a more internal one better suited to paper than screen. Foster also includes a "gearing up" montage where Mac has Childs readjust the flame-throwers to be more lethal, and stocks up on thermite bombs ("Okay. Let's load 'em.") that's sorta shockingly absent from Carpenter's movie. "Coke adds life" Mac thinks "grimly" as he prepares a Molotov cocktail with a Coke bottle, an antiquated slogan from late 70's commercials. Then there are additional little moments of nastiness, like Mac distributing cyanide capsules to the last three survivors and the blood-tested heroes actually pouring gasoline over Garry's head before giving him the test. And yet his reaction once he's been cleared doesn't seem as heated as in the movie - he doesn't even swear at them.*****
The science of the space creature's assimilations gets run through Foster's creative myth-making machine, filling in some of the gaps left unexplained by Blair's largely hypothesized exposition. Foster lengthens the narrated autopsy to confirm a Campbell invention that's somewhat iffy in the film: that the alien creates duplicates upon consuming the host. He has Blair estimate it takes an hour to fully invade and imitate its victim, and that guess becomes what several of the men's decisions are based (i.e., how long was that guy by himself?)
Another angle carried over from Campbell's early story and left cryptic in the movie, even though it explains the behavior of some of the characters, is that the imitation doesn't necessarily KNOW it's the thing once it becomes something else (Campbell: "Naturally, the imitation, imitating perfectly [the victim's] feelings, would do exactly what [the victim] would do.") Foster improves upon Campbell by having this realization drive members of the group nuts, which also drives the reader close to nuts: are the internalizations of the characters reliable? Campbell wasn't one for psychology, setting up thirty-seven men at his station, 15 of whom are eventually revealed to have been replaced by the thing, only one member who's been "thingized" the subject of prolonged scrutiny.
For the most part, A.D.F .keeps the prose neutral so we don't know who's an imposter, but occasionally his interest in developing the characters gets the better of him. He mentions how Norris is happy to switch jobs from medicine to electronics because it's more his field. He mentions how Palmer is dispirited by the idea of sticking to canned goods and not getting hot meals prepared by Nauls, then later he's scared after being left alone during the blackout. These two end up being "changed" - it's ambiguous at what points the changes happen, but all of these descriptions occur pretty close to their exposure.
If Foster decided that the imitations really were confused about what their true nature that's one thing, but some of his well-refined suspense suffers because of it. He switches prematurely to Mac's POV inside the supply room he's broken into, when there's still tension over whether or not he's a thing. A little editing would have come in handy here, as well as this moment from around where things are starting to go seriously downhill:
"Sanders [Windows in the film] didn't stop or slow down. Just then he wasn't thinking too straight. He wished fervently he was back home in Los Angeles, back at the university. Anywhere but where he was, trapped at the bottom of the world with a thing that could be your best friend."*** ***
Nice writing, but was it necessary to eliminate Sanders/Windows as a suspect? He's arguably the most minor character in the book and film - this sudden insight into his mind seems random and unnecessary when he could have remained a background suspect. While it is eerie to have him realize that all the others might be "things," that they've just been toying with him until now, it's the area where Foster is somewhat handicapped compared to the natural uncertainty suffused throughout the film. One of the coolest shots in the movie, a beautiful use of widescreen where Carpenter shows Clark concealing a scalpel as MacReady holds his friends/potential enemies back with a blowtorch, exists as a glorious ambiguity. Are we more tense over the idea of Clark being a "thing" and attacking Mac, or that human-Clark is really that desperate to find his way out of an unworkable situation? This taps into the kind of mistrust that fuels conflicts all around the world, where shots are rashly fired because one side suspects a person's behavior just because they're acting weird (Blair) or antisocial (Clark) or independent (MacReady). And every once in a while, it's one of these shady characters who comes out on top - as Foster puts it: "It takes an extraordinary set of circumstances to transform paranoia into a necessary instrument of survival."
Just a few more random thoughts on the novelization. The chess-playing computer seems to be male (MacReady says "Cheating bastard" after pouring the scotch into its wiring), so there's no female presence in the book whatsoever. Not a big deal, but it kind of undermines Carpenter's brilliant use of Adrienne Barbeau's sultry voice, which inadvertently unmans MacReady and leads to his rash decision to eliminate the film's only female presence (especially with Esperanza on the cutting room floor) by "killing" the computer, the only potential voice of logic and reason once the men become paranoid and quick to violence, slowly being made the same by a sinister outsider. There's a cool moment where Foster describes Blair as "staring straight ahead, but he was seeing something other than the far wall. Something insubstantial."
It made me realize that Blair is kind of the movie's Michael Myers, isn't he? Surly and clinical, starts attempting to kill his own at the drop of a hat, and once he gets down to flat-out butchering after being duplicated, he's silent and deadly, pulling up Garry like a gruesome Halloween slaying. He doesn't specifically return "thinginated" in the book tho: the last men standing try to use the ol' "electrocute it when it comes through the door method" from the original movie and end up electrocuting Garry. Whoops. As far as other alternative deaths: Bennings gets iced, Fuchs' frozen body is found with an axe imbedded in his chest (instead of him self-immolating off-screen) and Nauls, finding himself trapped in the bathroom and about to be absorbed by the alien, slits his throat with a sharp piece of wood. Rather than just wandering off, which always bothered me even though I'll admit it's effectively creepy that he simply disappears.
Following a lackluster performance at the box office and scathing reviews, Carpenter would follow The Thing with the family-friendlier alien vistor tale Starman. Alan Dean Foster wrote its novelization, the last such adaptation of a John Carpenter movie to be written. Join us in the coming weeks as we explore more novelizations of the films of John Carpenter.**** ***
~ OCTOBER 12, 2015 ~
* Here's where you can start arguing whether MacReady or Childs is actually an assimilation at the end of the movie/book. Personally, I think their stalemate is the best ambiguous ending ever and wouldn't want to know.
** Another interesting remake/novelization pair from 1982 is Paul Schrader's version of Cat People and Gary Bradner's book. I haven't read Bradner's novelization, but since he wrote the novel on which The Howling is based - which is so bad John Sayles basically ignored it in writing his adaptation - and I have conflicted feelings about Schrader's film, I'm not super-anxious to get to it. (Plus the '82 Cat People, like McBride's Breathless, is one of those Tarantino movie crushes, a fact which never endears a film to me.)
*** Foster dedicates the book to his niece Shannon, "So the kids at school will finally believe you." I realize he probably means they'll finally believe that her uncle writes book versions of big movies, but I can't help pretend that what Shannon's classmates didn't believe was that a malignant extraterrestrial that could assume the shape and personality of any lifeform it encountered would manipulate a group of men in an a secluded ice station in Antarctica in order to achieve its insidious plot towards total world domination. Guess he showed them! Stupid fourth graders.
**** Although Campbell's overbearing and erratic demeanor and ultra-right wing politics had managed to ostracize him from the science fiction community at large in the last years of his life, being "discovered" by him was still a huge deal, as he had once published the first stories by such luminary authors as Robert A. Heinlein, A. E. van Vogt and Theodore Sturgeon.
***** There are plenty of f-bombs throughout the book, so this wasn't a case of the publisher cleaning up the text a'la Foster's Aliens novelization, which Warner bowdlerized so that space mariners shout "Darn!" as hordes of unkillable monsters flood the base.
*** *** Later, the same character imagines a sort of quesy sexual scenario where "Thin white ropes would come out of them... they'd enter his hapless body while the men who weren't men any more would smile down at him, smile while something slipped into him and pushed Sanders aside, took over his brain and body cell by cell by -" etc.
**** *** I don't know why novelizations for Big Trouble in Little China, Prince of Darkness, They Live and In the Mouth of Madness weren't commissioned. I do know it's infuriating.