They Came From Outer Space 12 Classic Science Fiction Tales That Became Major Motion Pictures edited by Jim Wynorski science fiction book reviewsThey Came From Outer Space edited by Jim Wynorski science fiction book reviewsThey Came From Outer Space: 12 Classic Science Fiction Tales That Became Major Motion Pictures edited by Jim Wynorski

It really was a splendid idea for an anthology: Select a dozen of the most famous, beloved and influential science fiction movies of all time and then gather together the 12 short stories and novellas that had served as their source material. And that is precisely what editor Jim Wynorski did, resulting in his 1980 collection They Came From Outer Space: 12 Classic Science Fiction Tales That Became Major Motion Pictures. Released as a Doubleday hardcover, this anthology spans the period from sci-fi’s Golden Age all the way to the heyday of the New Wave. And besides the dozen tales therein, this generous volume also includes a fascinating introduction by Ray Bradbury, a heartfelt foreword as well as story introductions by Wynorski (who, two years later, became a screenwriter/producer/director of sci-fi and horror films in his own right), full details on each of the film’s cast and crew, and no fewer than 55 glossy stills from those classic motion pictures. On a personal note, I must add that although I had seen every one of these films, most of them in a theatrical setting, I had only read but one of the stories in this book, so that made 11 oversights that I was very happy to rectify here. They Came From Outer Space (a title that is of course a riff on the influential 1953 3-D movie It Came From Outer Space) has been sadly OOPs (out of prints) in English-language editions for over 40 years now, but is still easily obtainable online. It is a book, I feel, that all fans of ‘50s and ‘60s cinematic sci-fi will just eat up with a spoon, and really is required reading for them all.

The 12 stories here are presented in chronological order; not of the stories’ publication dates, but rather those of the resultant film debuts. And that means that, unfortunately, the volume’s weakest offering pops up first … surprisingly, from one of my favorite Golden Age writers. Henry Kuttner’s “Dr. Cyclops” originally appeared in the June 1940 issue of Thrilling Wonder Stories and was faithfully brought to the screen as Dr. Cyclops later that same year. Here, as in the film, a mad scientist named Thorkel lures three fellow scientists and their guide to his South American jungle encampment, and later shrinks them and his servant Pedro down to 6-inch size with his new, revolutionary device. The resulting battle of wits between Thorkel and his diminutive foes is both exciting and fast moving … actually, a bit too fast moving, for this reader. The film, with its excellent special FX and Technicolor, was a more satisfactory experience for me, somehow. Still, Kuttner couldn’t write a story that failed to entertain if he tried, and this one, crude and pulpy as it is, is no exception.

The collection rebounds in a big way with its next offering, one of the most famous novellas in the genre; namely, John W. Campbell’s “Who Goes There?” This story, the only one in this collection that I had read before, originally appeared in the August 1938 issue of Astounding Science-Fiction, was unfaithfully brought to the screen in 1951 as The Thing From Another World, and was much more faithfully adapted by director John Carpenter in his 1982 cult film The Thing. In Campbell’s original vision, a team of 37 men in an Antarctic research station is beset by a shape-shifting alien that they had foolishly thawed out after its aeons-long deep freeze. Over the course of the story, the men endeavor to discover which one of them is the monstrous killer; ultimately, no fewer than six of the 37 are found to be an alien “thing” in disguise. Campbell’s tale is at once a marvelous exercise in paranoia and an exercise in “hard” sci-fi. It is at times a tad dry (typical for Campbell) and a mite confusing, but yet remains one of the author’s very finest creations. And the tentacled, three-eyed, blue-haired creature here, need I even say, is a far more intimidating proposition than the classic 1951 film’s “walking carrot”!

And if The Thing From Another World was a rather loose adaptation of its source material, an even looser example is to be encountered next. Harry Bates’ “Farewell to the Master” (originally released in the October 1940 issue of Astounding; the same issue in which Part 2 of A. E. von Vogt’s Slan appeared) was later brought to the screen as the 1951 classic The Day the Earth Stood Still, but if there hadn’t been a character named Klaatu in the original story, the reader would never have noticed any connection. In Bates’ version, Klaatu is assassinated by a madman immediately after exiting his spaceship, and the bulk of the tale centers on a news photographer observing the giant robot Gnut – not Gort – which has been locked away in a museum. It is a pretty wonderful story, winningly written and mysterious, although the twist ending that comes at its tail end was a bit unnecessary, I felt.

I have written elsewhere of my great love for the 1953 picture The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms, but had somehow never read the story that served as its inspiration. That story, Ray Bradbury’s “The Fog Horn,” originally appeared in the June 23, 1951 issue of The Saturday Evening Post (not a 1952 issue, as Wynorski mentions), and comprises around five minutes of the film’s 80-minute running time. In Bradbury’s tale, an ancient – and lonely – sea monster is drawn to the sound of a lighthouse’s fog horn, with destructive results. It is a beautifully written story, in Bradbury’s finest manner, with many passages that you’ll want to read over and over. In his intro, Bradbury mentioned that, other than the FX provided by his pal Ray Harryhausen, he had no love for the cinematic adaptation whatsoever. But what did he know anyway, right?

Up next in this wondrous volume we have Ivar Jorgenson’s “Deadly City,” from the March 1953 issue of If magazine, and filmed the following year as Target Earth. In this tale, five folks in Chicago – an everyman Joe, a sweet but suicidal floozy, a gruff tough guy, a lonely cleaning woman, and a psychotic killer – find themselves the only ones left in the suddenly deserted metropolis. The interactions between the quintet are beautifully laid out by the author, and matters grow very tense when it is learned that an alien invasion is in progress! Perhaps the biggest difference between story and film is the absence of the humongous, lumbering robot that was surely the most memorable aspect of the screen version. But in the story, we do get to see those aliens, which the film kept hidden. A very fine outing, in all, with well-rendered, naturalistic dialogue and a surprisingly realistic – if rushed – finale.

Raymond F. Jones’ “The Alien Machine” (from the June 1949 Thrilling Wonder Stories … not 1947, as stated) is up next, the (partial) inspiration for one of the biggest FX extravaganzas in all of 1950s sci-fi; namely, 1955’s This Island Earth. But Jones’ story, as it turns out, was the basis for just the opening segment of that film. Thus, here, engineer Cal Meacham receives a catalog for equipment and parts that he has never heard of before, and is compelled to put together a device called an interocitor. Unlike in the film, the “action” – if one can call it that – is confined here to Earth; Cal ultimately discovering what the interocitor device is used for provides the primary thrill in this rather dryly written, overly technical story. I was not surprised to learn that Jones later came out with two sequel tales, “The Shroud of Secrecy” (1949) and “The Greater Conflict” (1950), and that the three stories were then cobbled together to form the 1952 novel This Island Earth. I’d like to read that one day…

The 1957 film Invasion of the Saucer Men is deemed something of a fun but cheapjack laughingstock today; a sci-fi comedy for the kiddy set only. And yet its source material, Paul W. Fairman’s “The Cosmic Frame,” from the May 1955 issue of Amazing Stories, turns out to be a much more serious affair. In this one, two teens (one of whom is named John Carter!) en route to a dance hit and kill a newly landed alien with their car, and the father of one of the teens sees big money to be made in the exhibiting of the deceased spaceman. A downbeat twist ending is the capper of this surprisingly well-done tale, with the aliens described therein being startlingly similar to the outrageous-looking ones in the film. Incidentally, Ivar Jorgenson was a pseudonym of Paul W. Fairman’s, I have just discovered, so he is thus the only author in this collection to be represented twice.

The classic sci-fi/horror film The Fly (1958) turns out to be the most faithful cinematic adaptation of the dozen big-screen entertainments spotlighted in this volume. Based on French author George Langelaan’s short story of the same name, which originally appeared in the June 1957 Playboy, the film sticks to its source material from beginning to end, even incorporating the same character names. You probably know the story line by now; how French scientist Andre Delambre invents a matter disintegration/reintegration machine, and how a figurative fly in the ointment results in a man with the head of a giant fly, as well as a fly with the teensy head of a man. Largely told in flashback, as was the film, the story is beautifully constructed and ultimately quite moving; a bravura piece of work, really.

As is the case with The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms, The Tenth Victim (1965) is one of my personal Top 100 Favorite Films – I deem it the greatest Italian sci-fi movie ever made – and I have wanted to read its source story, Robert Sheckley’s “The Seventh Victim” (or, as it originally appeared in the April 1953 Galaxy Science Fiction, just “Seventh Victim”), for many years now. Similar to the film, Sheckley’s story posits a world in which legalized hunt-and-kill competitions between two participants serve as a pressure valve to help do away with worldwide wars. The story gives us a middle-aged man trying to hunt down and slay his first woman; a twist ending of sorts serves as an ironic coda here. Personally, I still prefer the film, with a woman (Ursula Andress) hunting down a man (Marcello Mastroianni) amidst remarkable sets, garish fashions, and Piero Piccioni’s memorable musical score. Oh … no bullet-firing brassiere in Sheckley’s original, too.

Up next we have a story that you were probably expecting to pop up eventually: Arthur C. Clarke’s “The Sentinel,” the inspiration for a little 1968 film entitled 2001: A Space Odyssey. “The Sentinel” originally appeared in the Spring 1951 issue of the rarely discussed U.S. pulp 10 Story Fantasy; remarkably enough, the cover for this issue sported an illustration not for the Clarke story, but rather for the John Wyndham novelette “Tyrant and Slave-Girl on Planet Venus”! In Clarke’s offering, two scientists on Earth’s Moon discover an ancient relic; not a monolith, as in the film, but rather a 12-foot-high pyramid protected by a force field of sorts. Clarke’s story was of course but a fragment of Stanley Kubrick’s film, and Clarke would go on to expand this germ of a tale into a series of 2001 novels. But the original story manages to stand on its own, and conveys a sense of cosmic awe as regards mankind’s place in the universe.

Danish author Ib Melchior’s short story “The Racer” (from the October 1956 issue of the men’s magazine Escapade) is up next; the inspiration for the cult film Death Race 2000, from 1975. As it turns out, the big-screen version is similar to Melchior’s story only in its central conceit: a long-distance auto race in which points are scored by hitting and killing pedestrians! The story centers on just one driver, Willie Connors, and his ride-along mechanic, with Willie developing a bad case of the guilts after being called a “butcher” by a young mother. The story is of necessity violent and even brutal, but somehow not nearly as outrageous as the film, with its multiple drivers sporting wrestler-type personae (memorably, Sylvester Stallone’s Joe “Machine Gun” Viterbo). Still, a fast-moving thrill ride, to be sure.

This collection is brought to a close by its only winner of the Nebula Award, Harlan Ellison’s “A Boy and His Dog.” This story first appeared in the April 1969 issue of New Worlds magazine and copped the Nebula for Best Novella of that year; it was faithfully adapted, for the most part, as the cult film A Boy and His Dog six years later. Ellison’s original is set in the futuristic year of, uh, 2024, when the U.S. is a post-World War apocalyptic wasteland, filled with mutants, roving gangs, and loners. One such loner is Vic, a 15-year-old who roams the wasteland with his telepathic dog, Blood, looking for food and for women to rape. During the course of the tale, narrated to us by Vic himself, our young protagonist defends a woman, Quilla June, from a roving gang, rapes her, follows her to her home in the “downunder” of Topeka, and experiences some adventures belowground. Ellison’s tale is at once exciting, violent, foul-mouthed, hugely imaginative, and wholly winning; a well-deserved Nebula winner. I see that Ellison followed up this story with a few more centered on Vic and Blood, and I would love to read them someday, too.

So there you have it … a dozen fine stories that birthed a dozen fine films. Jim Wynorski’s collection enables us to once again experience some favorite authors and perhaps to encounter some new ones; I promise that you’ll be wanting to read much more of those new ones, too. Part of the fun of going through this book is trying to decide which entertainment worked better: the original story or the resultant motion picture. Every reader and filmgoer will of course have his or her own opinion; I can only give you mine. But one thing that is for sure is that this collection will prove a fascinating read for all science fiction fans, and deserves to be on their bookcase shelves at home. My highest recommendation for this essential read!

Published in 1979. Features twelve original science-fiction stories that were the basis for films such as “Dr. Cyclops,” “The Thing From Another World,” “The Day the Earth Stood Still,” “The Fly,” and “2001: A Space Odyssey”


  • Sandy Ferber

    SANDY FERBER, on our staff since April 2014 (but hanging around here since November 2012), is a resident of Queens, New York and a product of that borough's finest institution of higher learning, Queens College. After a "misspent youth" of steady and incessant doses of Conan the Barbarian, Doc Savage and any and all forms of fantasy and sci-fi literature, Sandy has changed little in the four decades since. His favorite author these days is H. Rider Haggard, with whom he feels a strange kinship -- although Sandy is not English or a manored gentleman of the 19th century -- and his favorite reading matter consists of sci-fi, fantasy and horror... but of the period 1850-1960. Sandy is also a devoted buff of classic Hollywood and foreign films, and has reviewed extensively on the IMDb under the handle "ferbs54." Film Forum in Greenwich Village, indeed, is his second home, and Sandy at this time serves as the assistant vice president of the Louie Dumbrowski Fan Club....