A few years ago I took a rare beach holiday and decided I’d try to slow down a bit: Sit under an umbrella on the warm sand and just let go of all my worries. A few weeks before, for a dollar, I had picked up a well used paperback of First Blood.
In 1972, David Morrell wrote First Blood. That’s over a decade before the Stallone movie, and I imagine he just cranked this sucker out. He’s that sort of writer – scores of pulp action books to his credit that all start to sound the same after a while. But that’s how you make business in writing, I think. Oh, and you magically sell the rights to your first book ten years after it came out and hold a stake in the back end of a blockbuster movie franchise, I suppose.
I expected the book to be as intelligent as the movie — which is to say, not at all. A Sly Stallone vehicle that has aged remarkably poorly. Imagine my shock when the book turned out to be a brilliant, gripping page turner. I slammed through it in one afternoon, slowly cooking on that beach, and it completely blew my mind. In the book, Rambo is a bad guy. He’s a crazy vet, like in the movie, but he goes bonkers all on his own. The sheriff is actually trying to help him out, and is sympathetic towards Rambo even as he starts losing deputies.
Meanwhile, the book lovingly explores Rambo’s shattered psyche and crippling paranoia. There’s even this weird second act journey where Rambo hides out in an abandoned mine and has no choice but to go through the mountain, following the mine deeper and deeper into the unknown. He stumbles across the old bones of the long lost miner, and moves blindly through a cave full of bats as he ponders his own flaws and fears.
Ultimately, there’s no hope for Rambo. No Colonel to sweep in and save him, and the only person who is due a comeuppance is Rambo himself who’s basically murdered his way through the novel. But the reader is asked to be sympathetic, as well. Rambo is a tortured, complicated soul.
I got to thinking about the books that inspired movies that had been totally eclipsed by the films, and so I try to find one every few months and explore the source material.
I’m currently reading The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, which is a hot mess of a book that leaps constantly through multiple points of view — from the criminals, to the cops, to newsmen, the mayor, and random people on the street. Here, the movie was an improvement, narrowing the focus and upping the stakes. Weirdly, in the book, the cops are all over the place, with no single interesting voice. (The movie is largely told from the POV of a young Walter Matthau, who plays a transit cop who happens to take the terrorists’ call.) The book gets in really deep with the hijackers, spending an incredible amount of time exploring their inner motivations. It seems like there’s an attempt to make them likable, to make them antiheroes, perhaps. Certainly the movie has an element of this — you kind of want them to pull off the heist. And the horrific Denzel Washington remake is all about fighting back against the man. There’s even a subplot, in the remake, where bad guy Travolta is inexplicably obsessed with destroying the stock market.
In the book, the bad guys are roughly the same. The ringleader is the fired motorman, but the real boss is the cool, calculating ex-mercenary. That character is at the center of the book and, sure, he has a fascinating background, but…he’s a sociopath. He’s also something of a fatalist. His entire life has been led blowing the heads off of babies and wondering why he doesn’t feel bad about it. Every choice he makes is simply because stuff happens to him and he’s always terminally bored. Your buddy wants to hijack a subway train? Sure, why not. Not doing anything else today!
Consequently, there’s nothing at stake. The fired motorman is the only one who really cares about the money, the passengers are all shown to be shallow and awful, and our main killer doesn’t care if he wins or loses, or even lives or dies.
Probably the most surprisingly disappointing book is Nothing Lasts Forever, which inspired Die Hard. The movie is such an iconic feature with pulse-pounding action that still holds up. So perfectly balanced with moments of comedy and Willis hitting all the right beats in, arguably, the best role of his career. Meanwhile, Rickman steals every scene he’s in. There’s almost a mathematical perfection to Die Hard.
With First Blood still fresh in my mind, I went into Nothing Lasts Forever with high hopes. Also written about a decade before the movie came out, it has very little in common with Die Hard. The same basic set-up is there: off duty NYPD cop gets stuck in high-rise on Christmas Eve when terrorists take the building. Barefoot and wearing only a T-shirt, he methodically kills them and saves the hostages.
In the book, though, our hero is a retired cop. Already, his energy levels are very low. He’s an old guy who’s come to LA to visit his daughter and his grandchildren. At the Klaxon Oil HQ, a 40 story highrise, his daughter and grand kids are in the final stages of a Christmas Eve party and he’s waiting for them so he can drive them all home.
Enter the German terrorists who, in the book, are weird anarchists. Their plan is to expose Klaxon for working with the military junta in Chili. Cracking the company’s safe to recover six million dollars, they don’t have theft in mind. They want to “destabilize” Klaxon by…um…throwing the money off the roof.
Our somewhat elderly hero has another problem. Anton Gruber, the ringleader of the terrorists, was a former Nazi fighter pilot and he crossed swords with our hero once before, in the skies over Germany during WWII, and —
Oh! Sorry. I fell asleep there. What was I talking about? Oh, right. I’m going to go watch Die Hard. Okay, see you later!