Sunday, January 29, 2017

The Thing

The Thing by Alan Dean Foster. Originally published by Bantam Books, June 1982. Approx. 250 pages.

What is it that captivates us about movie novelizations? Is it the potential of "finding out what happens" before all the other rubes waiting for the release of a movie? Is it the promise of some additional character background detail; expository nuggets that perhaps were not truly fleshed out in the film? Growing up in the late 70's and early 80's, before Wikipedia and Director's Cuts, these were legitimate draws. Heck, a movie novelization was often the only way to "re-watch" a movie if your family didn't have a VCR yet.

It's fairly safe to say that the heyday of the movie novelization has passed. They still exist, but their cultural significance is somewhat diminished. Video game novelizations, on the other hand, seem to be enjoying a robust market/audience.

The myriad novelizations of my youth run the gamut in quality. There are gems, and there are ones that pretty much put the draft of the script into paragraph form.

One thing is for sure, however. No discussion of movie novelizations will go long without mention of Alan Dean Foster; the man regarded as the best and most prolific in the genre.

I have no idea how much information is given to an author in advance; how many specifics or details on characters, places, etc. I will say this, though: ADF always turns in consistently detailed, vibrant settings in his works.

With the movie novelization diatribe done (I think I am going to try and revisit some classic ones this year), let's look at ADF's novelization of The Thing.

Well, before I get started, I need to clarify...does anyone need a plot synopsis for this? I mean, is there anyone left who hasn't seen this science-fiction classic? If not, go do so now, then come back and we'll discuss how this novel stands as both an independent work and as a companion piece.

Plot similarities and differences:
The core structure of both the movie and the novel are the same for the most part (bearing in mind that this is the novelization of a movie that is a remake of a movie that was a novella adaptation). If I remember correctly, the novelization is drawn from the second draft of the movie script; so while there are structural similarities, the spiritual essence is different (seeing the evolution of script drafts to final film gives you a good perspective of just how talented a filmmaker Carpenter is).

Some scenes from the film are not present in the book: I am assuming that they spawned from the collaborative process between Carpenter and Bottin.

Also, there are scenes present in the book which did not make it to the final film: most notably the "dog chase" scene (no, not the opening scene with the helicopter pursuing the "dog-thing"), and the suicide of one of the team members (giving the novel a distinctly 80's "splatter scene"). The dog chase scene is a good one, to be sure, however it has the distinct feel of a traditional Hollywood action scene. I can see where this might have been omitted for either being too costly a scene, not necessary to the overall plot, or both.

Other than that, the ending is fairly different. The location of the finale takes place in a different part of the compound, and the final moments themselves, well, I think they end on a most "positive" (not necessarily upbeat) note. It is slightly open-ended, but with a kind of salvation in sight; unlike the nihilistic, bleakly ambiguous ending of the movie.

So, what information does a movie novelist usually get beforehand? I've seen some movie scripts, and I remember they might have a short paragraph description of each character as they are introduced. Is that all the novelists get? Do they get additional notes?

Well, to be honest, it's kind of difficult to reconcile the characters in the book to those in the movie. I mean, they weren't cast yet, so that's that. And it is a testimonial to what was some of the best ensemble acting that we've seen in cinematic history.

The problem is that these characters are hard to identify overall. And, again, I'm guessing that ADF didn't have a surplus of detail heading into this task.

I was going to gripe a bit about how lead character R.J. MacReady gets the thinnest characterization of all. He's fairly withdrawn, as in the movie. The best scenes in the book show hints at some mental trauma carried over from a stint in Vietnam. I was going to say how a little exposition would have enriched the depiction, but then I remembered - in the 80's, we all knew someone who had been messed up by the events in 'Nam. Usually, it was enough of an explanation just to say that someone had "seen some shit over there", and that was sufficient. Taking that into consideration, it remedies any complaints about the characterization.

My remaining complaint is the Childs is not the formidable figure that he is in the movie. Well, a lot of that has to do with the irrefutable coolness of Keith David, but a major part of the climax of the story is the "chess match" between MacReady and Childs. If they can't be seen as equals, it's all for naught.

Other than that, there are slight differences, but you can attach the faces from the movie, and it'll help a bit. Palmer is presented in the book as a more youthful grease monkey than the burned out stoner in the film, and the Clark we get makes you really appreciate all that Richard Masur put into his role.

Interestingly, the character of Windows is called "Sanders" here. This is funny, because it was originally supposed to be "Sanchez", and the character still speaks Spanish at points in the book.

The one aspect where the book trumps the movie. Rule One in ADF's novelization playbook: make the setting come alive. Go back and read any of his novelizations. They usually start with an in-depth description of the scenery. Bringing the area to life will help draw the reader in.

I wonder how much research, how many phone calls and interviews back in the pre-internet age he had to undergo to compile what comes off as a very accurate description of living and working at an Antarctic outpost. The tools and machinery, the day to day protocols involving everything; even seemingly mundane but actually critical details like dressing properly to step outside.

Remember, in the movie, the team members are stepping outside in shirts, hatless, etc. I get it; we need to see the actors to recognize them. However, they are dressing lighter than we do for Upstate New York winters, and it doesn't add up.

In the book, the full ramifications of the environment are recognized - the unforgiving, killing cold, the months of impending darkness as winter sets in, the feeling of total and utter isolation as no help can be reached. The movie plays well on the distrust of the team members; the book utilizes the isolation and claustrophobia to a better extent.

The creature:
Well, there's no way the book was winning this one. The effects that Rob Bottin brought to the table in the film version are incomparable. He is a genius in his field, and The Thing is his magnum opus (with his effects for Legend coming in second). Again, what tools ADF had to work with, we'll never know. He does indeed create a quite formidable creature for the book; playing off the terrifying screeches and bizarre transformation effects. Also, ADF demonstrates the formidable physical power of the Thing, further making the dog chase scene a helpful addition to the book.

As a comparison to the movie monster effects, it's a no-brainer. But, if you evaluate this as a creature that features in a book randomly picked off of a shelf, it's not too shabby.

Final thoughts:

I always knew this was going to be a tough one to give an unbiased review for. When you consider the movie, there are so many elements that elevate it to the masterpiece level - and you really can't rank them. You are nowhere without Carpenter's direction, Bottin's vision, the ensemble acting, Morricone's score (again with Carpenter), and Lancaster's script. That Foster could churn out a novelization of this caliber from what we assume are a script draft, some notes, and maybe some sketches is pretty amazing.

The Thing: the movie novelization works as a companion piece to the movie. Not exactly "separate but equal"; it is both similar and different in equal amounts. It excels as a novelization. It works as a standalone sci-fi/horror title, albeit one with fairly thin characterizations. It even surpasses Peter Watts' annoyingly pretentious short story "The Things".

If you are a huge fan of the movie, or a movie novelization fetishist, this title is a must have. Be aware, the costs in the secondary market run fairly high.

Final Score:


Cover Score:

Plenty of covers abound for the novelization. This one is what it is. It's creepy, it's desolate, it works.

Cover Final Score:



  1. Hey Anthony, nice to see a review of this old novel here! I read it over-and-over back when I was fourteen and it has never entirely left me. I feel that its divergence from the script is actually its great strength because it makes each a unique experience. I also prefer the novel's version of events after the blood tests. The plan to hole up in the rec-room and outlast the thing - to survive to warn the rescue team - made more sense to me than blowing everything up, which would leave the humans dead and the creature free to freeze itself somewhere conspicuous where it would end up being found and thawed. I've always believed that Carpenter ran out of budget and had to rush the ending, which bothers me greatly because 'The Thing' is my favourite film! PETERF.

  2. Hi Peter-
    Thanks for the kind words on this review. I'd always heard good things about this novelization (general consensus that this was top-tier ADF stuff, along with Aliens). Then, I got a glowing recommendation from a friend, so I decided to seek it out.
    I agree, that the rec room idea makes more sense. But the very ending scene - I prefer the movie. Both have their own degrees of ambiguity; but I guess I am just a perennial pessimist.
    Other than that, The Thing is one of my favorite films, for sure. So, I knew it would be hard to separate that from the novel; and, subsequently, the review. It's like trying to be an unbiased juror on a high-profile murder case. I really wish I had gotten a chance to read it as a youngster, and not a jaded old reviewer who has seen the film a few dozen times.
    All that aside, still cannot stress how well this stands on its own legs not just as a novelization, but as a compelling sci-fi/horror piece.
    All the best, take care!