Thursday, April 09, 2009

Alan Dean Foster's novelization of THE THING (1982)

I occasionally like to read the novelization of a film that I love. Usually I do this to see what differences there might be from book to film because I know that the writer of the books are almost always working with a very early version of the script. Many changes are often made in production that simply cannot be reflected in the novelization so they provide a window into the progression of the story from concept to script to screen. In the case of THE THING I’ve watched the Carpenter film more times than I can count and have always been fascinated with the story, so a chance to examine the Alan Dean Foster (who else?) book was something I couldn’t resist.

Here are my quick notes on the book’s divergences from the finished film. Spoilers are massive throughout, as you might expect, but if you haven’t seen THE THING you should stop everything right now and check it out. Classic modern horror doesn’t get any better.

There are almost no descriptors about any of the character’s races or much in the way of physical attributes in the book. Station head Garry is described as an old Army man and Norris’ heart trouble is mentioned but his medical condition was handled well visually in the film. I’m most surprised by the lack of description of the cast. I wonder if Foster had any production photos at all. The few small details he gives, such as Palmer having long straight blond hair, are very off and can’t refer to anyone in the cast. Foster seems to have been working from a pretty early script draft as the film’s character Windows is named Sanders in the book.

Another indicator of an early draft is in the opening sequence when the Norwegian helicopter lands at Outpost #31. In the film it lands, and then a dropped grenade destroys it. In the book the chopper crashes and explodes. I bet it was a lot less dangerous and less expensive to do it the way Carpenter filmed this sequence.

The first significant alteration in the narrative I know so well comes at about the halfway mark. The book pretty much follows the film as done for the bulk of the story until we get to the point when Blair freaks out. Everything is the same as the film except that he has not killed the dogs at the time he disabled the chopper and snow cat. After they lock the subdued Blair in the outdoor shed it is discovered that the remaining three dogs have escaped the pen and run off into the storm. MacReady, Childs and Bennings take a couple of snowmobiles and set off in pursuit. When they catch up to the two surviving animals they find that the third has been eaten to keep the Thing going in its attempt to reach the coast. As they confront the changed dogs we have the appearance of the huge, multi-headed beast that shows up in the film at the very end. Bennings is killed by the Thing while Childs and Mac burn it to death and head back to camp. This is the first time anyone gets a really good look at the creature metamorphosing and it reads very well. I can understand why a rewrite might have shifted this set piece to the final act instead of the middle of the tale.

Throughout the book we are given hints of something odd going on with missing parts all over camp. Palmer can’t find a missing magneto to work on the chopper, Nauls loses a food processor and other bits & pieces can’t be found. This, of course, is later revealed to be stuff stolen by Blair to build his never finished transport to civilization. This is a nice bit of foreshadowing that I wish had been kept in the film. Another small detail in the book involves Palmer and Childs’ semi-secret pot garden in a storeroom. It’s a later point of entrance for the Thing into the camp. This is also where the book shows us the fate of Fuchs. In the film he just disappears with no explanation but here he is found dead and pinned to the garden door with an axe. I would like to know if this stuff was shot.

As we approach the ending things get changed around a lot. When Mac breaks back into the camp and is holding everyone else off with the threat of blowing the place up it is identical to the film. But when the Norris creature Things-out in response to defibrillation it doesn’t bite off Doc Copper’s arms! This leaves him very much alive for the blood test scene. And the brilliant head transformation into a spider-thing isn’t in the book either pointing to a probable FX crew addition to the proceedings that might not have been in the script at all. Smart move regardless as that effect has always been one the movie’s signature moments.

After Mac comes up with the blood test its Copper that is tested first instead of Sander/Windows. Copper is clean and he picks up a flame weapon so that when Palmer’s blood reacts violently it’s the poor doctor that gets attacked and bitten by the Thing. Once the Palmer-thing is destroyed the scene plays out as on film minus the F word addition to Garry’s line about wanting off the couch. This leaves Mac, Childs, Sanders/Windows, Garry and Nauls as the men left at this point.

The same three men as in the film go out to test Blair's blood and find him gone and discover his underground workspace. After destroying the half finished transport they get separated in the storm going back to the main camp and Childs goes missing. The plan Mac comes up with is to lure the Thing into the camp where they have booby traps waiting. By making the only warm locations where they wait prepared, they hope to trap it and burn it. In another bit I wish had been kept for the film Mac preps cyanide capsules for everyone just in case.

The creature uses the camp's speaker/intercom system cranked up as loud as possible to hide the sound of its approach to the men. As the Thing begins its final attack it is Sanders that gets it first from long talons ripping trough a door, although he seems to bite down on his cyanide capsule before being hauled away. Nauls, Mac and Garry crouch in the generator room and wait for the creature to enter through the only door. They have rigged the area with wires to try electrocuting the Thing in an obvious replay of the same scene in the 1951 film. It enters as they hope for but skewers Garry who dies as Mac throws the switch and fries him and the Thing. This, of course, doesn’t kill the monster. Mac escapes out an emergency window and Nauls becomes trapped in a bathroom stall where he kills himself with a wood splinter rather than let the Thing take him.

Mac fires up a snow tractor and begins demolishing the camp in an attempt to find the creature and blow it away with his clutch of dynamite. The monster pushes up through the tractor's engine; Mac scrambles onto the building's now very shaky roof and tosses a bundle of lit dynamite toward the monster and the hydrogen tanks it’s squelching over. Boom! Dead Thing. The book ends with the reappearance of a severely frostbitten Childs and plays just as the film does with one addition. Mac sets up a magnetic chess set to teach Childs to play as they wait in the cold to die.


Unknown said...

Really nice summary here.

Actually, Foster's novelization is almost identical to a early draft of the script.
You can find the text here:

DKP said...

I found this book at the library back in must have been 1983 or 84. I had seen the movie on HBO; I was 8. Thanks to my parents, I had years and years of sleepless nights. Anyway, the book was fascinating and just added to the terror.
I also had a Beta cassette with the network broadcast, that had the voiceover, the greenhouse, etc. I swear I remember a scene with the snowcat and tentacles but it must have been my imagination.