Who Goes There?, The Thing, and Beyond

Jeff VanderMeer • March 11th, 2010 @ 1:12 pm • Culture


(Brilliant? Yes? Effing brilliant? Yes.)

We recently re-read the 1950 story “Who Goes There?” by John W. Campbell as part of our search for weird stories for this big book of weird we’re doing. The experience of encountering the story was an interesting one, in that it no longer evoked any kind of horror for us. This wasn’t simply because we’d read the story before, but because we had the overlay of John Carpenter’s The Thing in our minds. (The 1950s movie version of The Thing, which adheres more closely to Campbell’s story, is hardly the classic it’s made out to be, btw.)

In a sense, the story had been annihilated by the movie. At times, too, Campbell’s SF sensibilities work against the horror in the piece, and the story has a certain dated quality as well.

The idea of the movie eclipsing the story I found interesting, since The Thing seemed to have a ripple effect. For example, Michael Shea’s “The Autopsy”, for me, gets hit by the edge of this ripple effect, aided by the existence of the Invasion of the Body Snatchers movies. “The Autopsy” retains more of its power, but it doesn’t fully retain it.

Peter Watts’ recent story “The Things,” while representing a bold move only partially escapes this situation. By writing from the viewpoint of the Thing, Watts re-energizes the scenario. However, the story also energizes readers to imagine their own version of the monster’s point of view, and inasmuch as that version differs from Watts creates difficulties in enjoying the story. As I was reading it, I was already constructing my own narrative from the monster’s POV; perhaps this is solely a writer’s problem, but perhaps not—readers who are not writers definitely engage in this kind of storytelling extrapolation, especially when invested in a story.

Most interesting of all was encountering The Thing in the context of Reza Negarestani’s Cyclonopedia. A chapter entitled “The Thing: White War and Hypercamouflage” completely reinvigorated the scenario, in the context of a “fake” academic paper contained within the more conventionally fictional frame of Negarestani’s fascinating and often brilliant book. (More on the book in a separate post.)

In a sense, Negarestani had imbued his chapter with the spirit and horror of The Thing in a kind of hyperlink way, without having to rewrite the story itself. All of the best parts of The Thing resonate within the piece.

Our reading for the big book of weird has been interesting in part because of issues of duplication, resonance, context, re-contextualization, and issues of debating what older fiction is still interesting as fiction and which is more interesting merely as history within the field. Our own gut feeling for this volume is not to include works that are no longer as powerful or resonant as when they first appeared in print. That helps us focus, and it still leaves us many, many powerful and entertaining works to choose from, across all of the decades we’re covering.

One question for readers would be: Are there other fictions that you no longer find as compelling because of versions from other media?

16 Responses to “Who Goes There?, The Thing, and Beyond”

  1. Wesley Osam says:

    I like the novel Les Miserables, but for me the end of the novel is marred by the ease with which Cosette is convinced to abandon Jean Valjean. I mean, she does not at any point seem particularly bright, but you’d think she’d ask more questions. I appreciate the fact that adaptations usually leave it out.

    I have a similar problem with The Count of Monte Cristo. The first thing Edmund does when he has his fortune is pass along some cash to the one man who once was kind to him. Unfortunately he thinks he has to be on-so-clever, and sends it via an elaborate near-ruin-and-sudden-salvation melodrama that just about helps the old guy into an early grave.

    I’ve had an experience in the opposite direction–print improving on media–with the TV series Doctor Who, which was improved upon by the tie-in novels (and spinoffs of tie-in novels) which were published in the 1990s/early 2000s.

    On a similar note, some stories have lodged themselves so firmly into the culture that it’s now impossible to experience them for the first time. Technically, I can sort of see that “The Monkey’s Paw” is a powerful story, but it’s been recycled and parodied so many times (even I’ve done it) that it’s lost its mojo.

    In film, it’s impossible to be shocked by Psycho‘s plot twists because by the time you’re old enough to see it, you’ve heard them already. If we lost Casablanca, it would be just about possible to reconstruct the script from people quoting it all over the place, the way scholars retrieve quotes from lost Greek manuscripts via citation. And the first time I saw Citizen Kane I got serious deja vu, because I’d already seen just about every shot on The Simpsons.

  2. Roland Dobbins says:

    No disrespect intended, but the more recent, color/Kurt Russell version of ‘The Thing’ far more closely adheres to Mr. Campbell’s original short story than did the lame 1950s version (a rare case of a remake being a) better than the original and b) more faithful to the original source), and it in every way a far better movie.

    Have you seen the 50s version recently, or did you see it long ago when you were a child, and since most originals are better than subsequent remakes, your memories of the 1950s movie were overwritten by the meme of ‘older is always better’.

  3. Steve Buchheit says:

    When I finally got around to reading “Catcher in the Rye” it just didn’t do anything for me. I’m sure at the time it came out it was amazingly wonderful and reshaped “literature” so we now have all these bored housewives who are discovering they hate their husbands, but I just don’t get why it’s still considered “required reading.”

  4. Jeff VanderMeer says:

    Roland: First, I’ve rewritten your comment so you don’t come off as a rude a-hole.

    Second, I didn’t say the 50s version was better, so try reading more carefully.

    Third, I saw the 50s version recently and it certainly seemed closer in tone than Carpenter’s version. Carpenter’s version also ends differently. I much prefer Carpenter’s version. I’ll take your word for it being more faithful, though, since I saw Carpenter’s The Thing a couple of years ago (a re-watch).

    Next time, don’t come barging in the front door shooting off flares.

    Jeff

  5. JasonUresti says:

    “And the first time I saw Citizen KaneI got serious deja vu, because I’d already seen just about every shot on The Simpsons”

    Similar experience for me, Wesley. Watching Citizen Kane, I had an “oh wow” moment at the begining, withe snow and rosebud, as The Real Ghostbusters cartoon of 87-88 had an episode where the team were hired to catch the ghost of a newspaper tycoon, who kept popping up and asking for rosebud.

  6. jeff vandermeer says:

    that’s both hilarious and terrible!

  7. Cora says:

    An additional problem with “Who goes there?” might be that it has been adapted and retold so many times by now that it has become a part of our culture, which in turn leads to the original losing the power it once had.

    Two other examples come to mind. One is “The Scarlet Pimpernel”. Many of the filmic versions are highly enjoyable as are Lauren Willig’s fine retellings. So I was very excited to finally find a copy of the original. And it was horrible. Jingoist, classist, thoroughly unlikable characters, all topped off by a moment of stunning anti-semitism near the end. The overall concept is still great, but the book itself is pretty much unreadable.

    The second, more obscure example is Karl May, a 19th century German novelist who wrote about adventures in far away lands he never visited and is best remembered for his “westerns” today. Pretty much every German adult is familiar with Karl May, either via the film adaptions from the 1960s or via the original books or via the theatrical adaptions or via a combination of all three. Karl May is so ingrained in German culture that the highest grossing German film of all time is a slashy parody of the 1960s adaptions of May’s Winnetou novels. The films, corny as they are, still hold a fond place in my heart. But even though I read May as a child/teenager, I can no longer read him now, because his novels suffer from 19th century serialized fiction bloat and don’t really rise above their pulp origins. Besides, the filmic versions of Winnetou, the noble Apache chief, and Old Shatterhand, his brave frontiersman best friend, have overlaid the original novels too much for me. Hell, I was going to marry Old Shatterhand, while my best friend was going to marry Winnetou. Interestingly, I suspect that an early contact with Winnetou and Old Shatterhand is also the reason why I could never enjoy Hollywood westerns. I enjoy spaghetti westerns and American B-westerns, but Hollywood A-list westerns, the sort starring John Wayne or Robert Michtum or Gary Cooper, just rub me the wrong way.

  8. Brendan says:

    Cora: You might want to try some of May’s other work, like his Mid Eastern adventures. He is by no means a great writer, but it might be that his non-western tales hold up better. I read last year and got something from it. Didn’t the Winnatou films have Terence Hill? That is reason enough for them being better than the originals…

  9. jeff ford says:

    Ridley Scott’s vision of Blade Runner was very different than Dick’s Do Android’s Dream. The film was easier to enjoy, but my feeling is that the novel was deeper. When I try to remember the novel I really have to concentrate now to get past the imagery of the film. I suppose I should be thinking of them as separate entities but I’ve never been able to do that.

  10. tinkoo says:

    A related aside: Have you read Campbell’s ‘The Brain Stealers of Mars‘? To me, “Who Goes There?” reads like a major reworking of this earlier work.

  11. Drax says:

    Great great great meaty post. Forwarding link to several friends. Thanks.

  12. Cora says:

    Brendan, the Karl May adaptions featured Lex Barker as Old Shatterhand and French actor Pierre Brice as Winnetou. No Terrence Hill alas, though Stewart Granger shows up in two of the latter, not so good adaptions.

  13. Nick Kessler says:

    It’s debatable whether “Jurassic Park” helped Michael Crichton’s novel with the visual experience of the dinosaurs or took away with the terrible acting, but the movie adaptation of “The Lost World” was just plain awful. It barely adhered to anything in the book AT ALL. I was thoroughly disgusted with this transaction.

  14. Hellbound Heart says:

    look, i’ve lost count of the number of times that i’ve read a book, loved it to bits and then watched some kind of visual adaptation and wished i’d never seen it because it ended up stuffing the whole experience/recollection/perceptual quality of the text for me…….

    peace and love…………

  15. James Crutchfield says:

    “Who Goes There” was written in 1938 not 1950 as you say. You also say the first movie stayed closer to the original story while some other critics would argue that John Carpenter’s is truer so maybe judging the story is not as easy as you would imply. The reality is that people are jaded by all the stories and SciFi movies that have come out since “The Thing From another World” and I think that cripples many who are reading the original story for the first time. “who Goes There” was an original concept and while there have been, perhaps, better or stronger stories since than they have all ridden on the back of what came first.

  16. leather jacket says:

    Some of the points made by the writer are compelling. I agree with most of what the writer has said and the presentation is fabulous.

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