Friday 6 July 2012

First Blood by David Morrell (British First Edition, Barrie & Jenkins, 1972): the Original Novel, Basis for the 1982 Movie

This next novel I'm featuring in this series of posts on books wot begat perhaps more famous films didn't just inspire a movie: it inspired an entire franchise, comprising film sequels, a TV series, action figures, games and so forth. Moreover, its protagonist's name eventually wound up in the Oxford English Dictionary, coming to denote "an exceptionally tough, aggressive man"...

David Morrell's First Blood was first published in hardback in the UK by Barrie & Jenkins in 1972, the same year as the US M. Evans edition. The dust jacket on the British edition differs from the American one, and was painted by Michael Codd, who, as well as illustrating a variety of jackets and paperback covers, also illustrated a number of articles in top shelf men's magazine Mayfair. As the eagle-eyed among you may have noticed, unusually for a novel, there's no text on the front of the wrapper: no title, no author name, no nothing. But if we take a look at the whole jacket:

There's the title and author credit on the back.

As with one or two others of the books I've featured in this novels-into-movies series, I think I must have borrowed First Blood from Beckenham Library sometime in the 1980s, possibly even in this edition. I bought this copy of the Jenkins first – on Amazon Marketplace – much more recently, specifically because I wanted to include it in this run of posts, but dipping into it again after all these years, I was reminded how brilliantly gripping it is. For those who've been living in a cave for the past forty years, First Blood is the story of Rambo – I don't believe he's ever given another name in the novel, although he was christened "John" for Ted Kotcheff's Sylvester Stallone-starring 1982 film adaptation – a young man hitchhiking in Kentucky who lands himself in trouble with a local Sheriff and winds up killing a cop. Thereafter he escapes into the mountains and becomes the subject of a manhunt, leading to further deaths and a bloody climax. 

The first line of the novel is still one of the best I've ever read – "His name was Rambo, and he was just some nothing kid for all anybody knew, standing by the pump of a gas station at the outskirts of Madison, Kentucky" – which is all the more remarkable in that First Blood was David Morrell's debut novel. He's since penned another twenty-five-plus – a handful of which I've also read and enjoyed – including novelisations of Rambo: First Blood Part II and Rambo III – this despite Rambo – and look away now if you want to avoid a major spoiler – dying at the end of the first book.

I've only ever caught parts of the two Rambo film sequels – and I've definitely not seen 2008's Stallone-directed Rambo – but I have seen First Blood the movie, and though it's neither especially faithful nor the equal of the book, it's still a decent enough adaptation. As ever with these things, though, there's more to Morrell's novel than there is to the movie – an unexpected depth which belies the book's ostensible nature as a thriller. Because of course what First Blood is really about is the Vietnam War – of which Rambo is a veteran – which, by the early 1970s, had become highly unpopular in the States, reflected in the extreme violence Rambo metes out to his pursuers (see Olman's 2010 review of the novel for more). But it also displays a visceral feel for the mountainous wilderness that Rambo flees into, informed by a novel which Morrell cites as a major influence on First Blood: Geoffrey Household's superlative manhunt classic, Rogue Male (1939).

First Blood is set in the American south, but we'll be heading even deeper south for the next book and film in this series of posts: a 1970 novel about a canoe trip that turns into a test of endurance, which begat a 1972 movie that, to my mind, is even better than the source text...

Wednesday 4 July 2012

Fletch by Gregory Mcdonald (Gollancz, 1976): the Original Novel, Basis for the 1985 Movie

NB: Featured as one of this week's Friday's Forgotten Books.

Next in this run of posts on books which begat perhaps more famous films, we move from an obscure '60s crime novel – in a Gollancz first edition – and its '70s movie adaptation to a rather less obscure '70s crime novel – also in a Gollancz first edition – and its '80s movie adaptation:

First published in hardback in the UK by Gollancz in 1976 – two years after the US Bobbs-Merrill edition – Fletch was American journalist-turned-author Gregory Mcdonald's second novel, following 1964's Running Scared. It was also the first in what would become an eleven-book mystery series, one which would hop back and forth across the life of both its title character, investigative reporter I. M. Fletcher, and latterly his son, and would also spin off another four-book series featuring police inspector Flynn. But more pertinently from the perspective of this 'ere series of posts, in 1985 Fletch was turned into a film, starring Chevy Chase as the eponymous lead.

Now, let me just state for the record here that I'm a huge fan of Michael Ritchie's movie (which was scripted by Andrew Bergman, who also wrote Blazing Saddles). I rarely miss an opportunity to respond to a "thank you" or, even better, a "muchas gracias" with "Tierra del Fuego", or reply to enquiries as to what I do for a living with "I'm a shepherd". But as eminently quotable and gloriously silly as Fletch the movie is – and even though it was my gateway to Mcdonald's series (which, courtesy of Beckenham Library, I made my way through during the 1980s, although I don't believe I ever read the "son of Fletch" books) – the original novel still, I think, stands as the superior work.

A big part of the reason for that is Mcdonald's narrative approach. Fletch – all the Fletch novels, in fact – is very dialogue-heavy, with little in the way of description. Chapters typically begin with a conversation and progress from there, Mcdonald filling in the gaps where necessary. But where, say, George V. Higgins's similarly dialogue-heavy prose, with its long speeches posing as conversations, can become wearying (or at least, can for me), Mcdonald keeps it light and snappy, the back-and-forth banter between Fletch and the various players a joy to read.

Of course, Chevy Chase brought his own unique voice to Fletch – the character and film – dropping in ad-libs and generally arsing about. Even here, though, many of his quips and one-liners have their basis in the book – Fletch introducing himself to someone as "John Zalumarinero", or engaging with a police chief thus:

"What's your name?"


"What's your full name?"

"Fletch Fletch Fletch."

Alone in the chief's bare, utilitarian office, they sat on either side of a gray aluminum desk.

"By any chance, could Fletch be short for Fletcher?"

"It could be."

"Is Fletcher your first name or your last?"

"My first name."

"What's your last name?"


"Fletcher Smith," the Chief said. "Seems I've heard that name somewhere before."

"Fletcher Smith?"

"No. Just Smith. Where do you live, Smith?"

"I forget the address. Where your goons picked me up this morning."

"You live there?"

"Weekends I spend in Hawaii."

"Do you live alone?"

"Except for a pet roach."

"And what do you do for a living, Mr. Smith?"

"I"m a shoeshine boy."

Meanwhile the screenplay progresses along essentially the same lines as the book – Fletch is hired by wealthy businessman Alan Stanwyk to murder Stanwyk, a proposition which eventually becomes entwined with Fletch's investigation into the LA beach drugs scene – which is more than can be said for the 1989 sequel to the movie, Fletch Lives, again directed by Ritchie, but bearing little relation to Mcdonald's novels. Mind you, Fletch Lives, while nowhere near as good as the first film – and certainly not the equal of the books – has its own share of daffy dialogue. ("Take your pants off." "I don't even know your name." "Bend over." "Ben? Nice to meet you, Victor Hugo.")

The Gollancz edition of Fletch has become fairly uncommon in first: AbeBooks has just two copies listed at present, one of them ex-library (ignore the listings for Confess, Fletch, the first sequel, which has been mistakenly listed as being published in 1976 by a few sellers; it was actually published by Gollancz in 1977) – rather less than the Bobbs-Merrill first, of which there are over twenty copies currently available.

I'm planning on returning to Mcdonald and his Fletch series down the line – when I'll probably get into what a minefield collecting the novels in Gollancz first editions is – but next in this series of posts: a terrific 1972 thriller in the Geoffrey Household mould, one which begat an incredibly successful film franchise, and whose (anti-)hero would wind up as an entry in the Oxford English Dictionary...

Monday 2 July 2012

The Chase (a.k.a. Pursuit) by Richard Unekis (Gollancz, 1963): the Original Novel (a Lewes Book Bargain), Basis for the 1974 Movie Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry

NB: Featured as one of this week's Friday's Forgotten Books.

Into the second week of posts on books which begat perhaps more famous films we go. And this next novel is an obscure crime fiction work originally published in 1962 and adapted for the screen in 1974 – although not especially faithfully...

This is the UK hardback first edition of Richard Unekis's The Chase, published by Gollancz in 1963, originally published in the States by Walker in 1962, and subsequently published under the title Pursuit by Signet in 1964. I bought this copy in the Lewes Antiques Centre a couple of years ago, with no real notion of what it was, other than what I could glean from the dust jacket flap blurb. It was only later I realised it was the basis for the 1974 cult road movie Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry, directed by John Hough and starring Peter Fonda, Susan George, Adam Roarke and Vic Morrow.

There are, however, significant differences twixt book and film, not the least of which being that in the original novel, there's no "Dirty Mary". The film begins much as the novel does, with NASCAR hopefuls Larry Rayder (Fonda) and Deke Sommers (Roarke) enacting a daring daylight supermarket heist by holding the store manager's wife and child hostage – although in the book Rayder's first name is Floyd while Sommers is simply called Grozzo, and both are ex-cons rather than prospective racing drivers. But a major change comes with the addition of Mary Coombs (Susan George), Rayder's one-night-stand, who hitches a ride with the heisters: Mary is an invention of the movie, and doesn't appear in the novel. Moreover, the approaches and aims of the book and the film are quite different, as Richard Unekis had a very specific concept in mind with The Chase.

The Wikipedia page for the adaptation of Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry boasts a pretty detailed account of how the various changes came about, so I shan't dwell on them here. But it's also unfairly dismissive of Unekis's novel, calling it "an out of date book with little literary value except for a car chase". In fact The Chase has more going for it than that. Admittedly there's not much in the way of character development, but then neither is there in the movie; Unekis is more interested in exploring applied mathematics and probabilities, in particular how to "maximise or minimize the chances for interception" – in other words, Game Theory.

In making their escape, Rayder and Grozzo utilise the gravel roads "running straight by the compass in all four directions" to the south of Chicago. "From the air," Unekis notes at the novel's outset, these roads "make the countryside look like a giant checkerboard, running perfectly flat all the way to the horizon. There are so many roads that, in any manhunt, it is impossible to block them all. The state police do not even try. They just block the major highways—and hope." Enter Superintendant Franklin, the man heading up the hunt for Rayder and Grozzo. Instead of following the standard protocol, Franklin draws on his naval background plotting positions of submarines in order to work out where Rayder and Grozzo are heading, and what their most likely route will be. The result is a tense, clammily exciting game of cat-and-mouse, as Franklin deducts that the pair are headed for Chicago and directs the police cars at his disposal to cut them off, and Rayder and Grozzo barrel along at terrifying speeds on the dangerous gravel roads, a couple of times escaping seemingly certain death by the skin of their teeth.

Aside from a 2009 obituary, there's little in the way of information about Richard Unekis available online; The Chase was his only published novel, and fell out of print decades ago – there are only around twenty copies of the book in any edition available on AbeBooks (among them a single Gollancz first). But the Edgar Awards committee for 1962 thought highly enough of The Chase to shortlist it for the Best First Mystery Novel prize, and to my mind it deserves rescuing from obscurity: it's not perfect by any means, but in its intriguing deployment of mathematics in a high speed pursuit scenario, it displays enough ambition to make it worth a second look.

And I've another Gollancz first edition for the next post in this run, this time a hip, dialogue-heavy '70s crime fiction novel which begat a gloriously daft '80s action comedy...