They Live (1988) – WTF Happened to This Adaptation?

The They Live episode of WTF Happened to This Adaptation? was Written and Narrated by Andrew Hatfield, Edited by Mike Conway, Produced by Lance Vlcek and John Fallon, and Executive Produced by Berge Garabedian. Here is the text of Hatfield’s script:

I bet you thought when we started covering adaptations that we would be going to the Stephen King well more than a few times and believe me, we will. Today though, we are covering our second John Carpenter helmed adaptation after we discussed The Thing in the inaugural episode. While that one was pretty well known for being a more faithful adaptation of the book his hero Howard Hawks had adapted, not a lot of people may realize that They Live was sparked from a very short comic that adapted a very short story.

We came here to chew bubble gum and find out what the f*ck happened to this adaptation, and we’re all out of bubble gum.

The Movie

While John Carpenter started to make a name for himself in the ’70’s with his student film Dark Star, seminal slasher Halloween, and the western inspired Assault on Precinct 13, the ’80s was his decade. During that time he would get an academy award nominated performance out of Jeff Bridges for Starman, have one of the best Stephen King adaptations with Christine, and pair with Kurt Russell for two of the decades best genre films. That’s just directing. He would write, compose, and produce for a number of other projects and his entire catalogue for the ’80s needs to be viewed and discussed. He would close out the decade with a movie that is close to rivaling Halloween in its cultural relevance.

The movie released on November 4th, 1988 and made 13 million off of its 3 million dollar budget. It was pushed back a couple weeks to coincide with the election and that paid off as it opened #1 at the box office before falling off shortly after that. Reviews were split at the time but it has since become an all time classic of both ’80s sci-fi and message movies. Carpenter wrote and directed the film and co-scored it with his long time buddy Alan Howarth. It was the last of 8 collaborations between the men and the music feels exactly as it ought to with these to creating it. The cast is lead by Wrestler Roddy Piper, Keith David, and Meg Foster. Sprinkled in are Carpenter regulars George Buck Flower and Peter Jason in minor but important roles.

Kurt Russell was in mind for main character Nada but Carpenter thought better of it since he had worked with his good friend so many times previously. While online trivia lists a murderer’s row of action talent, Carpenter was smitten with Roddy Piper after meeting him and watching him at WrestleMania III. A life-long wrestling fan, he knew they could perform and thought Piper had a good everyman look to him, even with the large physique. Piper had been wrestling for some time and appeared as Quick Rick Roberts in the 1985 comedy Body Slam but They Live was his big break and he even quit the WWF to make the movie. He led in Hell Comes to Frogtown as Sam Hell the same year but They Live is his legacy. He would go back to wrestling and show up in tons of direct-to-video fare until his death in 2015.

Keith David is the main co-star here and the role was written directly for him by Carpenter. David has had a wonderful career in action, horror, drama, and has that amazing voice that has led to some of the best voice over in cartoons and video games. He is still very active today and played the patriarch of the animal training family in 2022’s Nope. Meg Foster has electric eyes and has been consistently working since the late ’60s! Masters of the Universe, The Osterman Weekend, Leviathan, Stepfather 2, and most of the recent Rob Zombie movies all have her in some capacity. She was a mainstay on TV for the first few decades of her career and she still finds time for episodes here and there.

The Story

Eight O’Clock in the Morning is a (very) short story written by Ray Faraday Nelson and first published in 1963 for the November issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. You all thought that Children of the Corn was a tiny story to adapt, this one makes it look like IT in comparison. It’s a whopping 1800 words. The script for the video you are watching about the story has more words than that. It will take you longer to watch the greatest fight in cinema history between Keith David and Roddy Piper than to read the story. Bill Ray would then turn that short story into a very brief comic called Nada in 1986. While they are nearly identical, it was the comic that inspired that big nerd of all trades Carpenter.

Nelson was born in October of 1931 and got his start as a cartoonist for various science fiction publications, adding pictures to the words of other authors. While he is most well known for today’s short story, he published 10 books including one with his long time friend and very famous sci-fi writer Phillip K Dick. They wrote The Ganymede Takeover in 1967 and what is considered his best work Blake’s Progress was published in 1975. Oddly enough, he is probably most famous for inventing the propeller beanie hat.

What is the Same?

With the story being so short, the movie is going to encompass most of what the written version has to offer. Both properties follow a nondescript man named Nada as he finds out that an alien race has infiltrated earth and he tries to figure out how to stop it or at least spread the word. After finding that both, people wont believe him AND that he is surrounded by too many aliens to do something about it by himself, Nada decides to go to the local TV station. He has figured out that they broadcast through TV and radio signals and that’s how they keep people under their trance. At the TV station he is able to kill the TV crew and uses the still broadcasting TV to wake up the rest of the world and start a war. Unfortunately, he doesn’t live to see the work he did and dies as the rest of the world wakes up.

What Changed?

Well as I said, to fill a 90 minute movie from a 6 page story is going to take changing and adding a lot. First, let’s look at the minor differences from the story to the comic. The story starts with Nada waking up from a hypnotist’s show and boy did he ever wake up. He sees the audience as normal humans mixed in with aliens. The comic has Nada walking the streets already being able to see the signs and aliens with no revelation as to why he can suddenly see these things nobody else can. Most of the rest of the stories are in line with each other except that when Nada kills an alien in his apartment, he steals an alien dart gun in the short story and a standard Uzi submachine gun in the comic. The final change is the very end where Nada dies. In both versions, a controller, or alien, calls him and tells him he will die at 8 o’clock the next morning. In the story his heart just stops while the comic he more or less dissolves after the heart attack begins.

They Live WTF Happened to This Adaptation?

As for the movie, Carpenter had to fill a lot of time and did so by adding characters and giving the story added stakes. Frank, played by Keith David, is completely made up for the movie iteration, as is everything connected to his character. There is a device, the sunglasses, that enables our heroes to see the aliens and their signs where the story is only Nada and its due to the hypnotist event. We don’t see much of Nada’s backstory in the comic or story and all we know of his movie counterpart is that he is a jobless drifter who is out to LA from Denver after a decade of solid employment. The story has a girlfriend that Meg Foster becomes the avatar for although it takes some time for her to become a love interest and she of course betrays him when the story counterpart just doesn’t see what he sees.

In both mediums, Nada kills with little problem. The story one does it first to refocus after he starts to lose his new found sight and then in quick succession in the apartment building to both try and convince his girlfriend but to also get more information and supplies. There aren’t any alien weaponry in the comic or movie as they just use firearms but there is a communicator in both. In the story it’s a communication device that he doesn’t understand but takes it with him along with the weapon. The movie turns this into a communicator AND some sort of escape device that Frank and Nada use to get out of a tight spot and into the aliens secret hideout. This is a natural progression that takes a small element from the story and expands.

They Live WTF Happened to This Adaptation?

Finally, there is the subject of human collaborators. In the story material, the humans besides Nada are simply asleep or under control of the aliens. Carpenter takes the girlfriend character from the story and turns her into the reluctant love interest who almost ends the human race’s hopes to escape control. She is the one that gets almost all of the resistance killed and she even kills Frank in one of the saddest deaths of the ’80s. We don’t even get to say goodbye to him, man. They also run into the formerly homeless Buck Flower who is now in a nice suit and set up for the rest of his life. While Meg Foster’s Holly’s reasons are unknown, Flower’s drifter is motivated by greed and finally living the good life.

While both story and movie end very similarly, Nada is shot down as he blows up the aliens’ cloaking device as he flips a defiant bird to the bad guys instead of having a mind-controlled heart attack.


In a pretty big blowout, the movie is by far the bigger legacy of the two. With respect to a fine science fiction author and his very short work, he is better known for a hat contraption while They Live is a beloved and highly regarded work in a directors very loaded catalogue. While the story and comic are neat and brisk reads, they lack the characters, score, action scenes, one liners, and the single greatest street fight in the history of cinema. Sleep 8 hours, work 8 hours, and Obey. Watch They Live!

A couple of the previous episodes of WTF Happened to This Adaptation? can be seen below. To see the other shows we have to offer, head over to the JoBlo Horror Originals YouTube channel – and subscribe while you’re there!

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