One of the films I reviewed as part of my Titanic Month back in April was 1980’s Raise the Titanic, a massive box-office bomb which I felt suffered from poor pacing and lacklustre acting. This month, however, I took at the original novel upon which the movie was based, to see if it was any better. It was published in 1976 and written by Clive Cussler – who, incidentally, was so unhappy with the film that he did not allow another one of his books to be adapted until 2005’s Sahara.
The overall plot of the book and film is basically the same: during the Cold War, a secret program is underway to build an advanced defence system against nuclear missiles. The trouble is, this system can only be fuelled by a rare radioactive mineral named byzanium. A little investigation by the project directors reveals that in 1912, an American mining team was sent to secretly extract byzanium from Russian territory; most of the team were subsequently killed by enemy agents, but the leader survived long enough to place the byzanium onboard a ship heading to America – the ship in question being the Titanic. With this knowledge, a major operation commences to raise the wreck of the Titanic and recover the byzanium, led by Cussler’s recurring protagonist, adventurer Dirk Pitt.
The book is the kind of basic thriller that you would buy in an airport bookshop, filled with adventure, political intrigue, and a multi-talented macho protagonist. Certainly it is better than the film in multiple ways. As often happens with adaptations, the film ends up leaving a lot out and simplifying the original story. For example, in the book, the original 1912 mining team are hunted by French agents, since the US government had conned the French into financing the expedition and were going to steal the byzanium out from under their noses; in the film, it’s just Russian agents instead. All the extra detail in the book – including the technical side of things, which Clive Cussler’s background as an underwater explorer lends itself well to – does make it more interesting and satisfying.
Then there’s the pacing. In the book, very little time is spent searching for the Titanic before the wreck is found, and the ship is successfully raised less than two-thirds of the way through. From that point onward, the conflict and adventure comes from the combination of a hurricane passing through the area and the Russian antagonists attempting to seize the wreck for themselves. In the film, on the other hand, the Titanic breaks the surface around the three-quarter mark, and the threat posed by the Russians is dealt with far more easily. This means that a lot of time is spent on the relatively dull search for the wreck, and the buildup of the Russian conflict doesn’t have as much of a payoff, neither of which do the film any favours.
I suppose I can understand the reasoning: with the story being told in a visual medium, the moment where the Titanic is raised is going to be the money shot, the part that the audience are waiting for, so it makes a certain amount of sense to treat that as the climax. But then comes the issue that much of the book’s most engaging content comes after that point, a problem that the film fails to adequately compensate for on either side of the raising.
While the book lacks many of the film’s problems, it does unfortunately have issues of its own. One is that the dialogue often feels more like prose than something real people would say, something that often causes me to disengage from a story when I encounter it. But the thing I found especially distracting and off-putting about the book was the sexism. The film only has one female character of anything approaching significance, and she only appears to be there to provide some kind of female presence. The book includes more women, but is often cringe-worthy in how it utilises them. Most of the female characters’ dialogue revolves around men or relationships; there are multiple overgeneralisations about women overall; and male characters can frequently be found leering after, or making references to, attractive ladies. Here are some examples:
Young peered over the top of his glasses as the waitress hurried to the kitchen. “If only someone would give me that for Christmas,” he said, smiling.
“A man accepts the thankless burden of responsibility. We women do not. To us, life is a game we play one day at a time. We never plan ahead like men.”
Very few women are blessed with mechanical inclinations, and Dana was definitely not one of them.
“The bottom here is as flat as my girlfriend’s stomach.”
“You mean chest,” Woodson said. “I’ve seen her picture.”
“Nobody’s perfect,” Giordino conceded. “However, considering the fact her father is a wealthy liquor distributor, I can overlook her bad points…”
I’ve already said that I don’t recommend the film of Raise the Titanic. As for the book, it’s worth a read if you like the genre, but nothing spectacular – and I guess it hasn’t aged especially well.