THE THING: The Novel Features Original Ending

Alan Dean Foster's 1982 novelization solves the mystery of what happened to Nauls and Fuchs and features the original ending.

By Brian Collins · @BrianWCollins · January 22, 2024, 7:00 PM EST
the thing novelization

Back in 2011, Stuart Cohen—a producer on John Carpenter's The Thingstarted a blog on which he offered some fascinating behind-the-scenes stories of its production and notoriously unsuccessful release. It's a bit scattershot, as he didn't walk through the film from inception to legacy the way some might, choosing instead to jump around between casting, production, release aftermath, etc., seemingly at random.

This meant you were never sure what Cohen would post next. The final post, in June of 2013, proved to be one of the most fascinating entries (and, even though it wasn't billed as much, a fine "finale" for the project) as it depicted the process in which John Carpenter used a planned break in production to reassess his footage and write new scenes. These additions would ultimately prove to be among its most iconic, proving the director's instincts were correct.

However, for those among us who had read Alan Dean Foster's novelization, there wasn't much to learn about the moments that were lost due to the rejiggering, as they were present in his novel all along.

As was nearly always the case back then, Foster was working off a not-final draft of the screenplay (and per Cohen, had no contact with the filmmakers throughout his writing —something Foster confirmed himself), so his 196-page adaptation included lengthier conversations, fleshed out backstories for the men of Outpost 31, and even retained a few action scenes that were either cut or never filmed at all.

One of Cohen's other posts explains how the film's budget was worked out, and a key sticking point was dropping a much-loved action scene (involving the remaining dogs after they escaped from their kennel, one of which is a Thing) to free up some of the budget for two necessities: Rob Bottin's creature effects and Kurt Russell's salary.

THE THING (1982)

Given the director and star's long history together, you might be surprised to hear that the role of RJ MacReady wasn't written for the actor all along. In the earlier drafts by screenwriter Bill Lancaster—and in turn, reflected in Foster's novel—MacReady wasn't a "lead" character and instead just one of the twelve.

He was of no more importance than any other, at least until the halfway point or so. He's introduced nonchalantly on page 17, completely absent for the opening with the Norwegian shooting at the dog, and we're not inside his head more than any other character's throughout the story.

But this was originally the idea; it was only later that the filmmakers decided they should get a "name" for the role, which allowed Carpenter to cast his more expensive pal and, in turn, retrofit the script a bit to give Mac more prominence. Now he is given a proper intro (the other men are "introduced" wordlessly hanging out in the rec room as a group), and it's clear the other men trust him even when things start going south.

In fact, the original version of Fuchs had a frosty, at times even antagonistic relationship with MacReady, but when the script was overhauled to make the latter man the hero, Fuchs trusted him and him alone with his findings as he pored over Blair's reports.

The Thing Joel Polis Fuchs

Naturally, some of the book's other additions were purely Foster's creation, though the author was always quite adept at blending his ideas with those of the original writers, making his contributions practically invisible to a casual fan, who would probably only notice the more overt diversions (i.e. the aforementioned dog chase, and clearer takes on the deaths of some characters whose fates are ambiguous in the final cut).

Conversations go on longer, characters bust each other's chops a bit more to cement the idea that they were actually a pretty amiable group before the Thing showed up, etc., and it always feels fully organic.

For example, when Bennings yells at Clark to have the dog put into the kennel with the others, in the film Clark just does it, whereas here we get an extra beat of Clark retaliating (in a friendly way) by spoiling Bennings' poker hand to the other players. And in one bit, I honestly think the movie could have used Norris asking how someone could be replaced without the others knowing, feeling they would have to act differently or make some kind of mistake that would give them away. Not only is it a question the movie curiously never asks, but it's also just good irony since Norris himself is a Thing at that point in the timeline.

1. The Thing Universal Pictures

But Foster really excels in the characters' internal thoughts, offering a little more backstory while also hammering home why they do what they do at certain points in the story. Childs reflects on growing up in a city where people were afraid to get involved and how others would be hurt as a result of that indifference, which he hated and motivates him to help ensure the Thing is contained, even if it means sacrificing himself in the process. Copper got bored living as a small-town doctor and wanted something a little more adventurous. MacReady lives in his own shack because the main building is kept too cold for his liking.

These little details (some of which are at least hinted at in Lancaster's script but fleshed out by Foster) don't contradict anything we all know and love, and given their origin in Lancaster's screenplay, they are safe to take as canon if you wish.

Even if you ignore the majority, it's worth reading if only to get a clearer idea of what each man actually DID at the outpost, something the movie leaves up to your imagination for some of the smaller roles. And it's nice to finally know who else accompanied MacReady and Norris out to see the crater in the ice, since on screen he is so bundled up (and unacknowledged with direct dialogue) that it's never been clear which of the others it was (it was Palmer, for the record).


However, the real draw is, of course, the deleted material. It's easy to see why the producers so loved the dog chase scene—it was a change of scenery for the mostly interior film, and it offered the sort of action that would look good in the trailer. And it is a solid sequence that Carpenter could have knocked out of the park, with Bennings being pulled under the ice by the monster while MacReady and Childs battle dogs that are Thing-ing out (as is Bennings, eventually).

Thanks to Cohen, now we know it was either the sequence or having Russell in the lead plus the Bottin FX we still celebrate today, so I guess it was the better option.

We also learn what happened to Nauls and Fuchs, whose mysteries were never satisfyingly resolved by Carpenter's final cut. Nauls' death in particular is quite grim, as it turns out—he slashes his own throat with a jagged piece of wood in order to avoid being turned by an advancing Thing.

This is followed by the original ending, in which MacReady takes a tractor and drives through the entire base, spilling gasoline to incinerate it all; a more spectacular and fiery version than the finished film's version, in which the base merely explodes.

the thing macready trust

The novelization also has a somewhat unique appeal: the realization that Carpenter was correct in his gamble that he could improve the movie. Because for every part we never got to see realized on screen, the book lacks an iconic line or scene that only exists because Carpenter decided to make it better without giving Foster the heads up.

Most of the fan-favorite lines: "Nobody trusts anybody now, and we're all very tired," "I've known Bennings for ten years, he's my friend!", and yes, "You gotta be fucking kidding me…" are absent here, because they were added in as part of the creative overhaul halfway through filming.

The blood test plays out differently as Windows survives longer, and it occurs without as much humor (anyone who has seen the film with a crowd can attest to how funny it is when they cut from Nauls' successful blood test to him standing next to MacReady with the flamethrower).

So sure, you might wish this or that bit of material that Foster never got the memo about had been left in the final cut, but you'll also occasionally notice your favorite line or beat is missing as well. And as anyone familiar with Bottin's process can attest, the script (and thus the novel) lacks the details in some of those monsters, as the master hadn't fully created them yet, leaving nothing for Foster to describe—there's no spider-head, for example.

the thing autopsy

Not that Foster skips over the goopier parts of the story, as we get more than a mere glimpse of how the assimilation process would be explained if Carpenter never had second thoughts. As a sci-fi writer, you can tell the veteran author relished getting more into the scientific ins and outs of how the Thing did its, er, thing, something that was so hand-waved even in Lancaster's draft (and reduced further by Carpenter's initial revisions) that they ended up needing to add material to explain it.

The scene where Blair asks the world's most advanced computer of 1982 to show how the cell duplicating worked and how long it'd take the entire world to be replaced by Things was one of Carpenter's late additions, so it naturally has no equivalent here.

the thing dog

Instead, the scene where Blair shows everyone else that one of the dogs isn't of this earth is padded out with more gobbledygook about how it worked, so it seems Foster figured audiences/readers would need a little more clarification about it than Lancaster offered, or maybe just wanted to work it out for himself.

Still, given the strings of multi-syllable words that permeate Blair's explanation in Foster's "clearer" take here, I think we can all agree that the simplified computer version Carpenter ultimately devised was the way to go; a classic example of "show, not tell."

And that's not the only time Foster misjudges his target audience. At one point, when MacReady is watching the tapes recovered from the Norwegian camp, the author has the character reflect that the cameraman "was no Abel Gance." Abel Gance was a French auteur whose most famous work was in the silent era, making him an unlikely candidate for someone MacReady, the horny pilot who didn't like to lose at chess, was familiar with.

And that's the second time Foster uses the same basic comparison!

When they first find the tapes, the footage is compared unfavorably to the work of Victor Seastrom, a Swedish filmmaker who was also prominent in the pre-sound days and whose films probably weren't in Childs' stash of VHS tapes. Since he penned the Alien novelization, it seems "Ridley Scott" would have been a more clever name to invoke, not to mention more fitting.

Then again, he doesn't seem to have much of a sense of humor throughout; despite it being present in Lancaster's script, he omits "voodoo" from Childs' crowd-pleasing "You believe any of this voodoo bullshit?" outburst. Conversely, I had to chuckle when a character says, "Who goes there?", a nod to the title of the original John Campbell Jr. short story that spawned this (ongoing?) franchise in the first place.

Long story short (about this short story made long), while not without its occasional quirks, it's a must-read for fans of the film, as it includes extra dialogue and character motivations in practically every scene, nearly all of which are easy to imagine hearing/seeing the actors perform (fans of David Clennon's Palmer in particular will be delighted at the extra bits of off-kilter dialogue he's been given).

A few onscreen moments that are a bit awkward due to the overhaul are given more clarity here, such as a proper explanation for Palmer's accusation of where Windows was when the lights went out (another longer sequence Carpenter jettisoned almost entirely). And the legendary ice/dog chase, which covers 10-12 pages alone, is easy to visualize thanks to Foster's thorough descriptions of the landscape and such, making for a fine consolation to those who wish Universal had forked over the dough to pay for it AND Bottin/Russell.

However, it's also not inexpensive to track down (the cheapest I found as of this writing is $50). It ultimately contains very little that you can't find in Lancaster's March 1981 draft, which is easily available online for fifty dollars less.

So if you're a casual fan who just wants to know what changed along the way, go ahead and read the script online to satisfy your curiosity. But for my fellow die-hards, as long as you got the spare cash, it's definitely worth having in your collection, and will certainly enhance your next viewing now that you know, among other things, that MacReady just wanted to fool around with a blow-up doll instead of dealing with all this alien crap. And wouldn't we all?

Stream The Thing on Shudder.