Adapting popular books isn’t new in Hollywood. Some of the best known movies are based on written works, be they books, short stories, or plays. Historically, the accuracy of adaptation has fluctuated, though some works included a change of name to reflect the differences. It is possible that, right now, we are in the middle of a Golden Age of adaptations, where authors have just enough clout to ensure that their works are adapted faithfully instead of being mined for ideas and left an empty corpse in Hollywood Hills.
Outside Hollywood, studios and directors tend to be more aware of the original work and its audience when it comes to adapting. The approach is to keep the original work in tact where possible, and can be seen in The Guns of Navarone. The original novel, released in 1957 by Alistair MacLean, featured a hand-picked team of specialists being sent to destroy the anti-ship artillery guns on the titular Greek island after previous attempts, including a bombing run, failed to destroy them. At stake, the lives 1200 British soldiers and the British ships being sent to retrieve them before the German offensive starts. Without the guns destroyed, the flotilla would be under a heavy barrage from the guns, out of range of the ships’ own weapons.
The movie follows the plot of the book reasonably closely. Events from the book do show up in the movie. The changes between the two occur in the characters. Captain Keith Mallory, Corporal Dusty Miller, and Andrea, a former Greek colonel all appear and serve in the same roles in both movie and book, with some minor alterations. Supporting characters, though, did see changes, some minor, some massive. Mallory, a New Zealander in the novel, picked up Gregory Peck’s American accent in the movie. Andrea, played by Anthony Quinn, originally was Mallory’s confidante, and didn’t harbour the grudge he had in the movie. Miller was cynical in the book, but David Niven gave him a touch of resigned whimsy. The Greek resistance members Louki and Panayis became Maria and Anna, played by Irene Papas and Gia Scala, respectively. The gender flip allowed the producer to add a romance that didn’t exist in the original novel.
As I mentioned above, the plot remained unchanged. The change from novel to movie meant that different means of keeping up tension had to be used. The destruction of the guns occurred “off-screen” in the novel, leaving the tension to the reaction of the characters as they waited for their explosives to detonate. The movie, though, turned the focus of the tension to the search for the planted explosives and the raising and lowering of the cargo lift, where if the lift dropped down far enough, the circuit needed to detonate the charges would be complete. Camera angles, the tempo of the music, the cuts from the cargo lift to the flotilla to the main characters waiting heightened the tension.
Is the movie version of The Guns of Navarone a perfect adaptation? No; many changes, some for the sake of expanding the demographic to have something for everyone, were made. However, the plot remained unchanged, as did the general feel of the novel. The core ideas – the guns being a danger, the stakes, the race against time – remained. Helping was the quality of the cast*; the odd actor out was James Darren, whose movie works prior to being cast as Spyros Pappadimos included two Gidget movies. However, Darren turned out to be up for the challenge and held his own among the rest of the cast.
The Guns of Navarone has been adapted in other ways, beyond just the movie. A radio play was produced in 1997 for the BBC. The original Battlestar Galactica had an episode, “The Gun on Ice Planet Zero”, that combined The Guns of Navarone with another of MacLeans’s novels, Ice Station Zebra. The core story – the race against time by a small team to protect thousands – reaches out and grabs the audience, no matter the format.
Next week, The Man of Steel.
* Today’s cast equivalent would be Daniel Craig, Johnny Depp, and Patrick Stewart, in terms of talent and draw. James Darren would essentially be Rihanna in Battleship except with a better role to work with.