First of all.
This isn’t the story that was fined as The Hunt for Red October. Don’t go reading this expecting to see the film playing in your head.
Second, the title is perhaps misleading. Though on second thoughts, maybe not. Not in the very last section of the book, maybe. You see, it depends on who you think should be doing the hunting. You think you know before you open the book. But it isn’t them, is it?
Set in the good old pre-Berlin Wall collapse of Communism, Cold War days, this wants to be a tense, detailed, almost revelatory – if you consider how little was actually known about ‘them’, by ‘us’ thanks to the fog of misinformation and fear – tale of fugue and subterfuge, seamanship and stealth. But it isn’t. Tense, that is. The film is much more so, but the book just isn’t. It’s too long drawn out. OK; there are some tense moments, but they’re few and far between. I think if you (are old enough to have) read the book before seeing the film, you might well have thoroughly enjoyed both. Maybe you’d think the film actually improved the books dynamics and tension? You’d be right. Having seen the film before just now reading the book, I can certainly see and understand why they did what they did.
While Jack Ryan is to some extents the ‘hero’ of The Hunt For Red October, it’s a close-run thing. There’s no one who really distinguishes himself (I can’t think of any female characters) here. Except perhaps the Sonar man ‘Jones’. It is he who actually finds ‘Red October’ after all, and if you’re thinking of the title from an American perspective, it gives reason to wonder why it’s called ‘Hunt’ and not ‘Following Of’. But Jones is ‘just’ an unlisted man and Jack Ryan is of course Clancy’s once and future king. As I thought the above, it struck me that it really didn’t fit that other characters praised Ryan to the skies for his contribution. That doesn’t work unless you’re an author grooming your main character for the future. Then the Russian skipper ‘Ramius’, apart from setting the whole thing going of course, and some tricky ducking and weaving at the end, also has less of a role than you would have imagined, coming to the book from Sean Connery’s ‘Captain Ramius’ of the film. Understandably really, as you wouldn’t get Sean Connery out of bed to play the book’s Ramius, that’s for sure. Not enough to do. Unless the money was (Scottish) tax-free, I guess.
In fact, I would say the book is more of an ensemble piece. And all the better for that. The main star, rather obviously, is Clancy himself. Not so much for writing the thing, but for the obvious enormous amount of research into all things submarine and naval – on both sides of the Iron Curtain – he clearly did. Just and astounding piece of work when you begin to realise it.
With the book, the good stuff happens after Ramius has actually handed over the Red October. That can hardly be described as a spoiler, as the cover on the (first edition?) paperback I have (plundered from the library of a deceased family friend) has; ‘Russia’s most advanced missile submarine. Brand new…undetectable…and heading straight for the U.S. – TO DEFECT!’ Well really, as the really tense, exciting stuff happens after the Russians have in effect defected, with that give-away, you can pretty much skip the first 300 pages I’d say. It is only after that, that the actual hunt for Red October begins. But you can see why they changed the story structure for the film, especially moving the final phase from post- to pre-defection, as it were.
To be honest, when you think about it; it is hard to criticize or evaluate effectively really. As I can’t think now how much work I myself was doing in the imagining of the characters – of Ryan and Ramius especially – and how much I was using the film’s/Alec Baldwin and Sean Connery’s portrayal (though as Harrison Ford played Jack Ryan subsequently and more often, his face and mannerisms kept appearing in my head). The film director’s ideas, as opposed to how good, or how vivid Tom Clancy’s book’s characterisations were. A bit unfair on Clancy really.
In short, an interesting curio, if you’ve seen the film. A kind of verbal equivalent to the ‘behind the scenes’ extras that come with DVD/Blu Rays these days. An interesting exploration of Cold War secrecy and politics if you grew up around the time of the fall of the Berlin Wall – and all in all, probably a more interesting read if you haven’t seen the filmed version.