The Hunt for Red October is possibly the most successful book-to-screen adaptation I’ve ever witnessed, and it is precisely because of the myriad changes from the page that make it work so well.
Anybody that knows me knows I’m a big fan of reading books that I know have or will have movie versions made. I delight in anticipating the changes that will have to take place to move the action along, predicting which characters will be condensed or eliminated, guessing which sections of dialogue will be lifted wholly from the source. Usually I like to read the book first. Not because of some high-brow “the book is always better” attitude but just because I like playing the mental script-writing game so well. Sometimes it’s hard for me to concentrate on the page if I know the movie version particularly well, like when I read Auntie Mame, after having watched the movie probably at least 50 times from the point where I discovered it in junior high.
I think the first time I really relished the difference between the book and film was with Howard’s End. I saw the Merchant Ivory adaptation first and then read the EM Forster book. I was enchanted with how the story came alive in front of me on the page. Over the years I’ve sought out many kinds of adaptations, successful and wretched, and enjoyed comparing them to the source. I think I’ve done a pretty good job of keeping an open mind when things are wildly changed for the screen. As disappointing as it was to not see the super soldier suits, Starship Troopers got the world right; the feel for the politics and the military was spot on. The only one in recent memory that was a complete and utter failure was League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.
Which brings me back to Sean Connery. I think Marko Ramius is one of his best roles. It seems like he’s playing it over the top and yet there are moments where the character is just so real it’s palpable. His shock when he receives the morse code message – he quickly closes the periscope and you can see his thoughts flying through his head as he processes what he just read and how he will react. It’s spectacular. I also think that Alec Baldwin’s is the best of the movie Jack Ryans. He nails the out of his depth manner while still proving competent and capable.
There are certain character short cuts that the movie took for the two leads. I liked that Ryan was made into a Ramius expert. It worked better to have him be confident about the defection specifically because of his knowledge of the man. I also liked how we got to see Ramius’ amazing captaining skills, instead of just being told about them second-hand. It was very exciting to be onboard Red October, in the sea trench, evading their own navy’s torpedo.
And yet the expanded story in the book works just as well. Clancy details how the intelligence is gathered and processed and analyzed and I got a real sense of the actual pace. We get to spend much more time in Ramius’ head and learn details about his past and his motivation for defecting that of necessity had to be put into shorthand for the movie. I loved the moving of all the chess pieces into place in the Atlantic – on both sides of the Cold War. It gave a very full picture of just how unusual the Soviet fleet deployment was, how the US and UK countered the movements, and how both sides used the interactions as a chance to mess with each other, coming up just this side of actually starting a firing war, while still showing off what they were capable of. There were so many small tales that all fit into the big picture. But you’d never be able to include that in a movie and it was smart to concatenate it. To eliminate the British carrier entirely. To eliminate the other US submarine entirely. To eliminate the other Soviet submarine entirely. And especially to change around Skip Tyler’s role so that it included the rescue sub.
The movie expanded on the story in as many wonderful ways as it streamlined it. I loved Sam Neill’s XO and his desire to live in Montana. That small bit of humanizing made his character so much more real than he had been in the book. The aforementioned time spent running the trench past Thor’s Twins. Giving Jonesy an ensign to teach and thereby download sonar exposition to the audience while still keeping things tense and exciting.
I find myself unable to pick which version I liked best, and I think that’s proof of a wonderful adaptation. The movie contained the essence of the story, with all the pacing necessary to an action movie, while the book was able to spend time on detail and still be an intense political thriller. I’ve found myself enthralled with the Ryanverse and intend to read more of Clancy’s books. I doubt any of the subsequent film versions will be as successful as this first one. I certainly don’t remember any of them being something I needed to see more than just the once.