The Hunt for Red October is awesome, both the movie and the book. Penned by the legendary Tom Clancy in 1984, THFRO is a great techno-espionage thriller. In 1990, director John McTiernan turned it into an award-winning action-thriller classic that's still talked about today. One hotly debated topic is whether the film is better than the book. So today we're going to find out which piece of media is superior in its story-telling and mood-setting. To do this we'll mostly be looking at the differences between the two in order to get a feel for which Hunt for Red October is the more effective experience in fiction. So climb aboard, let's cast off!
But first, just a quick recap of the plot. The Red October is the newest Typhoon-class missile submarine that runs on an experimental new propulsion system that makes it nearly invisible to sonar. Its disillusioned captain Marko Ramius and his handpicked officers decide to steal the boat and defect to the US after killing the ship's political officer. After learning of Ramius' intentions, the entire Soviet Northern Fleet takes to the Atlantic to find him under the pretext of a search and rescue operation, which doesn't sound too convincing to NATO, whose forces are placed on alert. Jack Ryan, a CIA analyst who has been following the mysterious circumstances surrounding the Red October's construction, learns of these developments and correctly deduces that the sub's officers are wanting to defect. He is then tasked with guiding the boat (and its critical tech) into the US and away from the pursuing Red Fleet. After some close calls and some intensive searching a US attack sub, the USS Dallas, manages to locate the Red October, whose officers fake a reactor meltdown in order to get the crew to leave. Ryan, Commander Bart Mancuso (the Dallas's captain), and a few more American officers board the Red October, rendezvous with the defecting officers, disarm a bomb planted by a GRU mole, and begin their plans to transport it into the States, when the group is suddenly attacked by the Konovalov, an Alfa-class submarine (commanded by Viktor Tupolev, a former student of Ramius') that trailed behind them. Due to Cold War rules of engagement, none of the subs are able to fire on the Konovalov, but eventually they outsmart Tupolev and destroy it. The Red October and its remaining officers are then escorted safely to Norfolk, Virginia.
Of course one major difference between movies and books is that books have a lot more room to get everything across and are thus typically longer than film adaptations. Since movies are only around two hours long, the screenwriters have to judge which elements are important enough to make it to the script. And so there are a few components of THFRO that were cut out for brevity's sake. For example, the movie completely leaves out the scenes where a NATO helicopter crashes and a Soviet submarine suffers a reactor meltdown during the search. Similarly, Skip Tyler's role is drastically reduced and no mention is ever made of CARDINAL, the CIA mole inside the Kremlin. Unfortunately there are also some elements left out that would have made the movie better. For instance, the book explains in more detail why Ramius is so disappointed with the Soviet system and why he wants to defect. More importantly, the book also explains how the CIA hopes to cover up its theft of the Red October once the US Navy links up with it. In the book their plan was to detonate a different sub in its place in order to fool the Soviets into thinking that the Red October has been destroyed. In the movie, there is no such plan; the Americans basically luck out and manage to destroy the Konovalov (whose location is unknown to the Red Fleet) in the exact spot the Red October's crew thinks their sub was scuttled. What're the odds?
Another aspect that was altered for the film was its audience; American movies typically cater almost exclusively to American audiences. As a result, the film changes this operation into one involving only US servicemen, whereas the Royal Navy played a significant role in the novel's events. In fact, the only Brit in the whole movie is a flight attendant! Another change that often happens to movie adaptations is that the book's “boring” parts are jettisoned in favour of giving the film a more dynamic and exciting feel to it. For this reason the movie got rid of a lot of the Kremlin/White House scenes and instead added air-dropped torpedoes, lots of countermeasures, and even a few explosions. Also, while the novel had two climaxes, the movie saw fit to combine them into one (possibly due to run time constraints). This has the overall effect of making the film slightly less realistic and more intense in its action. I'll leave it to you to judge whether that's a bad thing or not.
There are a few major differences between the film and the book that sort of change how the plot and atmosphere unfold, such as the aforementioned lack of the Americans' cover-up plan. Another big difference is that in the book the Soviets never ask the US Navy to help them sink the Red October. Instead they continuously maintain that they're conducting a search and rescue operation. Probably the biggest change is the climax. In the book, the Konovalov remains behind after the Soviet fleet is informed of the Red October's apparent sinking and follows the October's convoy for a while – believing it to be an Ohio-class US sub – before realizing its true identity. The October is damaged by a torpedo, but eventually defeats the Konovalov by ramming into it, splitting that sub in half. In the movie, Tupolev correctly guesses his former mentor's course and attacks with torpedoes immediately after the October links up with the Americans and expels its crew. Through some expert manoeuvring and a lot of countermeasures, the October and the Dallas manage to hit the Konovalov with its own torpedo, destroying it in full view of the Red October's crew, who believe they are witnesses to Ramius' last stand. Honestly both these scenes are really good, but it's pretty obvious which one is more realistic.
Other than that, the remaining differences are not all that important. I won't go into detail; here's a brief list of changes the movie made:
- Ramius doesn't let his crew in on some aspects of his defection plan
- Jack Ryan boards the USS Dallas, which he didn't in the book
- the GRU agent shoots and kills Borodin instead of Loginov (in the film Loginov is the GRU agent)
- there's approximately 4 Americans board the Red October instead of around 12
- the film ends with the October being escorted to Maine, not Virginia
And that's all for the differences. In spite of them all I've got to say, the movie follows the book pretty well. The characters are spot on and the plots are more-or-less the same. But which THFRO is better? Well, they're both really exciting and intriguing. But if you pointed a Trident missile at my head and forced me to choose, I'd probably go with the book both because it has the ability to go into more detail and into the characters' heads and because its plot feels more realistic with more professionalism from all persons/organizations portrayed. But if you're looking for an adult-oriented spy/action movie that won't make you feel like you're watching a comic book, then go watch the movie. Or go and see both. They're worth it.
Stay tuned: next time I'll be evaluating the adaptation of the Patriot Games.