Adventure novels have gone through their own evolution. Novels by Alistair MacLean (The Guns of Navarone among many others) and Ian Fleming (of 007 fame) gave way to the creation of the techno-thriller. While Tom Clancy is seen as the start point for the techno-thriller genre, both Robert Ludlum and Craig Thomas had novels out a decade before. Thomas could be seen as taking Fleming’s setting and bringing it into alignment with the reality of the Cold War*. Starting with Rat Trap in 1976, Thomas showed a grittier, more realistic look at espionage, showing missions at several levels, including the agents on the ground and the MI6 heads revising plans as better intelligence arrived.
In 1977, Thomas released his second novel, Firefox. In the story, the Soviet Union had developed a new fighter jet, the MiG-31**, that incorporated stealth technology, could reach Mach 5, and had a weapons system controlled by the pilot’s thoughts. At the time of publication, the B-2 stealth bomber was in development and the fastest aircraft were the SR-71 Blackbird, reaching Mach 3.2, and the Soviet MiG-25 “Foxbat”, reaching Mach 3. Thought control was in the realm of science fiction at the time, but is now available to the general public. In the novel, an advance like the Firefox would upset the balance between NATO and the Warsaw Pact.
To counter the Soviet breakthrough, Kenneth Aubry, one of Thomas’s recurring characters, devises a brash plan. He recruits American pilot and Vietnam war veteran Mitchell Gant to sneak into the Soviet Union and steal one of the MiG-31 prototypes. Aubry’s choice of Gant boiled down to the American fitting the pilot’s uniform and helmet. Gant, however, has Post-Traumatic Stress from his experiences in Vietnam; Aubry is well aware and trusts that the stress won’t affect Gant’s flying abilities.
To get Gant into the Soviet Union, Aubry uses up several contacts and dissidents. The main goal is to get the Firefox. After arriving in Moscow, Gant meets the dissidents, gets another false identity, and is taken to Bilyarsk, where the MiG-31 is being tested. Once there, Gant sneaks in, creates confusion, and steals the Firefox. Once in the air, he’s invisible to radar and satellite. He lets himself be seen by an Aeroflot crew before changing to his real course. Meanwhile, the Soviet Air Marshal begins to realize the sort of chess game he’s in and gets reconnaissance craft, both air and sea, to cover the northern routes while telling the crews to seach for the stolen Firefox’s heat signature. The second Firefox prototype is sent to destroy Gant’s jet.
Adptations in the 80s were mainly made to exploit the name and make a quick buck. Writers didn’t have the pull that JK Rowling, Stephanie Meyer, and Suzanne Collins do today. However, when the producer, director, and owner of the studio enjoyed the book and wants to bring it to the silver screen, the chance of a good adaptation rises. Clint Eastwood had read the book and thought it would make for a good movie. His studio, Malpaso, shot the film for $21 million, most of which were on the special effects. The movie follows the book as close as it can, though at times feeling a little shallow from the transition – the book delved into the focus characters’ thoughts and brought forth imagery of the locations. Eastwood, who also starred as Mitchell Gant, keeps close to the events in the book, only adding little details. One detail, Gant’s flashback, made it into the novel Firefox Down, which picked up from the end of Firefox.
There are some interesting elements in the story and movie. Wolf Kahler played the head of the KGB, Yuri Andropov. During filming, Andropov replaced Leonid Breznev, and the world saw what he looked like for the first time, which was nothing like Wolf Kahler. The fictional MiG-31 took design elements from the SR-71 and the XB-70. The outer skin the B-2 stealth bomber wound up having elements in common with the Firefox. Thought control has since been relegated to toys, but the voice commands used to trigger the thought impulses needed are making their way to commercial uses, such as Apple’s Siri.
The likelihood of Firefox being remade today is low. Both the novel and the movie are artifacts of the Cold War that ended almost twenty-five years ago. The remake would have to be done as a period piece, but that could drive away the younger audience. That said, Firefox shows what can be done when the studio makes an effort to adapt a work properly. With Clint Eastwood as star, director, producer, and head of Malpaso, meddling by the executive suite was removed from the efforts, leading to a good adaptation.
Next week, the ultimate Avengers Adaptation review.
* The Cold War plays a huge element in this review. While an extensive knowledge isn’t needed, if things get confusing, the BBC and the History Learning Site have summaries that can help.
** There was a real MiG-31, codenamed “Foxhound”, in production at the time of publication. Its specifications are nowhere near as groundbreaking as its fictional counterpart’s. The real MiG-31 entered service while Firefox was being filmed.