04 August 2010

The Things




Over at The House Next Door, John Lingan offers some thoughts on both the 1951 and 1982 films of The Thing, films well worth viewing and an essay well worth reading.

The 1951 version is credited as directed by Christian Nyby, but most evidence points to Howard Hawks, who is credited as producer, having done most of the work we'd generally associate with a director.  (For the whole story of this, see Todd McCarthy's wonderful Hawks biography.)  John Carpenter, who directed the 1982 version, is a devout Hawks fan, but interestingly, The Thing is a much less Hawksian movie than some of his others.

I like both versions very much, though Hawks's seems to me relatively minor in comparison to masterpieces like Scarface, Only Angels Have Wings, His Girl Friday, Bringing Up Baby, The Big Sleep, To Have and Have Not, and Rio Bravo, each of them among the greatest films to come out of Hollywood. The Thing is wonderful on a variety of levels (though perhaps least on the level of genre: Hawks doesn't seem particularly interested in the monster movie elements).  Hawks's works are studies in humanism, and The Thing, with its science fictional trappings, gave him a special opportunity to explore that humanism on a kind of species level.  Robin Wood says of the ending:
The climax of the film gains great intensity by [Hawks's] determination to keep us aware of the strength of the opposite position.  The Thing, when at last we see it clearly, loses much of its terror.  In medium long-shot and from a medium-high angle, it ceases to look huge, and its close likeness to a human being (the human being of a future to which [the scientist] Carrington looks forward) becomes evident.  (I can't imagine why people find this a weakness of the film: do they really want a goggle-eyed robot?)  The impossibility of communication becomes almost poignant -- it looks as if it would be so easy to talk to.  It is destroyed: we watch a marvellous, if terrible, being reduced to a small pile of smouldering ashes, on which the camera lingers to allow the spectator a complex reaction: we have been made to respect Carrington's viewpoint sufficiently for us to find the outcome a triumph not unqualified, a reaction shared by the characters on the screen, who stand by in stunned silence.  We also realize Hawks's position here is not the simple anti-intellectual one that could be read into Bringing Up Baby: the Thing has been destroyed by science.  One of the points that emerges is that science is for man's use -- Carrington's viewpoint would turn everything topsy-turvy, making man the servant of science.
Lingan does a good job of summing up some of the central differences between the two versions when he writes
Carpenter takes Hawks and Nyby's basic plotline and removes the madcap pacing and romantic subplot, relocates the action to the southern hemisphere, and leaves his camera to linger on the desolate landscape in his early scenes. The narratives and small physical locations of The Thing from Another World [the title of Hawks's film changed once Carpenter's was released] and Rio Bravo informed Carpenter's earlier films like Assault on Precinct 13 and Halloween, yet in The Thing, ostensibly his most direct homage, he almost literally rips up the script and starts again; his film is a grim existential nightmare more indebted to Agatha Christie and Samuel Beckett than to Hawks's warm professionalism.

4 comments:

  1. Lingan does not note, or perhaps he does not know, that the story of THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD originated with John W. Campbell's short story "Who Goes There?" This hurts his analysis as he argues that Carpenter "tears up" Hawks' story, suggesting that Carpenter purposefully set out to remake the story of THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD to express his own vision, when in fact Carpenter hews rather closely to Campbell's original story and its conception of a shape-changing creature who could insinuate itself covertly, with presumably evil intent, into the company of humans. This is a more nuanced metaphor for cold war commie paranoia than is the straightforward "monster wakes up/monster escapes/monster kills/monster is killed" storyline of Hawks' film.

    That said, I do enjoy both versions. I loved Carpenter's THE THING when I first saw it in a Manhattan theater in its original release. I had seen Hawks' film on tv numerous times growing up, but I hadn't seen it for some time when I saw the remake. In fact, I never saw it again thereafter, until a few months ago when TCM (I believe) aired it. On re-viewing Hawks' film after more than 30 years, I was struck by how lean and efficient it was, well made, and very enjoyable.

    That said, it cannot be disputed that Carpenter's THE THING is vastly superior, both as an adaptation of the source material, and as an original cinematic expression in itself.

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  2. Oh, it can certainly be disputed that Carper's is "vastly superior" -- I'm not sure it makes any sense to rank movies from such different periods, with such different purposes, but if one were so inclined, and wanted to make a case for Hawks's film being superior because of its restraint, its focus on the group, etc., it could be done.

    It's been ages since I read Campbell's story, though as a kid I hated the 1952 Thing because it didn't have enough of the story in it for my taste; by the time I saw Carpenter's, I couldn't remember much of the story, so didn't make the comparison. I don't think it particularly hurts Lingan's analysis, though -- sure, it would be nice for him to be super-informed and know the original story, but it's hardly a fatal flaw in his analysis.

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  3. Of course, in matters of taste, everything can be and usually is disputed. I'm sure there can be very good arguments made in favor of Hawks's THING over Carpenters'.

    My hyperbolic remark, expressing my preference, is simply a bit of fanboy enthusiasm.

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  4. I agree with Robert Cook that the 1982 version of "The Thing" has really nothing to do with the 1951 version and that old version has almost nothing to do with Campbell's "Who Goes There?"; contrasting the two films one to the other makes little sense. Carpenter's version was obviously meant to bring the original novella to the movie going public and a fine job it did, being one of the best SF movies of all time.

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