Richard Hodgens

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[The essay from which this excerpt is taken was originally published in a different form in Film Quarterly, Winter 1959.]

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[The Thing from Another World, a 1951 film released in the United States as The Thing,] was based on a short novel by John W. Campbell, Jr.,… [entitled] "Who Goes There?" The story is regarded as one of the most original and effective science fiction stories, subspecies "horror." Its premise is convincing, its development logical, its characterization intelligent, and its suspense considerable. Of these qualities the film retained one or two minutes of suspense. The story and the film are poles apart. Probably for timely interest, the Thing crashed in a flying saucer and was quick-frozen in the Arctic. In Campbell's story "it had lain in the ice for twenty million years" in the Antarctic. In film as in source, when the creature thaws out it is alive and dangerous. In "Who Goes There?," when it gets up and walks away, and later when it is torn to pieces by the dogs and still lives, the nature of the beast makes its invulnerability acceptable. But there is little plausibility about the Hollywood Thing's nine lives…. Instead of the nearly insoluble problem created in Campbell's story, this Thing is another monster entirely. He is a vegetable. He looks like Frankenstein's monster. He roars. He is radioactive. And he drinks blood.

Probably Campbell's protean menace was reduced to this strange combination of familiar elements in the belief that the original idea—the idea which made the story make sense—was too complex. This was probably incorrect, because monsters since that Thing have imitated the special ability of Campbell's Alien, although with far less credibility … and there is no indication that anyone found them difficult to understand. (pp. 82-3)

The Thing is a most radical betrayal of its source, but since the source was generally unfamiliar, and since the idea of a monster from outer space seemed so original (though the monster itself had blood brothers in Transylvania), the film earned both critical approval and a great deal of money. In addition, it fixed the pattern for the majority of science fiction films that followed, for it proved that some money could be made by "science fiction" that preyed on current fears symbolized crudely by any preposterous monster…. (p. 83)

One should realize that, like them or not, the invaders in Wells's War of the Worlds, the stranded Alien in Campbell's "Who Goes There?," or the parasites in Heinlein's Puppet Masters … are a different sort of monster from those of most SF films. They may be symbols too, but first they are beings. Campbell may invent a creature that evokes a complex of ancient fears—fear of the ancient itself, the fear that death may not be final, that evil is indestructible, and fear rising from the imitation motif, fear of possession, of loss of identity, all the fears that gave rise to tales of demons, ghosts, witches, vampires, shape-shifters. But in "Who Goes There?" it is a realistically conceived being that evokes these fears and creates the suspense, not an impossible symbol; and the story is not hysterical, but a study of man under stress. (p. 88)

Richard Hodgens, "A Brief, Tragical History of the Science Fiction Film," in Focus on the Science Fiction Film, edited by William Johnson, Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1972, pp. 78-90.∗

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