Book Vs. Movie: The Eiger Sanction

eiger sanction by trevanianA few months back, my father-in-law, an avid reader who I often trade books with, passed me two novels by a guy calling himself Trevanian (real name Rodney William Whitaker) titled The Eiger Sanction and The Loo Sanction. While I wasn’t familiar with the author’s name (either of them), I did recognize the title from perusing the list of Clint Eastwood movies on Netflix and IMDb. Since my last two Ambitious Reading Lists turned out to be busts and I was looking for something else to read, I picked it up and gave it a shot. After finishing the book last weekend and then watching the film not long after, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to do another Book Vs. Movie post!

The Eiger Sanction, which was first published in 1972 follows the exploits of Jonathan Hemlock, a man who teaches art history by day, lives in an old, converted church with his illegal art collection by night and also “sanctions” (read: assassinates) people for an organization called CII when he needs some cash. A rough and tumble kid from the street who grew up without much of a moral code (read: sociopath), Hemlock made the easy transition into killing people for money. This book opens with another CII agent getting iced and Hemlock tasked with taking out the killer and his accomplice. Hemlock doesn’t want to do two jobs, so he takes the first one and assumes the second will go to someone else.

While on the way home from killing the actual trigger man, Hemlock meets a stewardess named Jemima who he takes home only to realize the next day that she was working for CII and stole the money he earned for the sanction. With his money gone, bills to pay and illegal paintings to buy, he’s desperate enough to meet with CII head Dragon once again and take a job that involves killing one of three men trying to climb a mountain called the Eiger. As it happens, Hemlock used to be quite a mountain man in his day and failed to traverse this mountain twice before. Caught between a rock and a hard place, Hemlock agrees to go on the mission, trains with his old climbing buddy Ben, who also happens to be the ground man for the Eiger climb and then heads to the location where he and the other climbers do their best to conquer the hill.

I had a great time reading this 350 page novel. It’s got a lot of espionage-like elements that reminded me of James Bond, but with a completely different character in the lead role. Instead of a charismatic ladies man, we’re dealing with a sociopath who kills in order to buy paintings, holds friendship as the highest form of social contract and only has sex for the release, not the pleasure. At the same time, it’s pretty fascinating to read about the Eiger, its history and the challenges Hemlock and his crew have on the mountain which wind up trumping the actual mission he’s on.

To get into SPOILER territory a bit, the plan is for Hemlock to find out from CII who his actual target is before having to climb the mountain. That doesn’t happen, so they all go up and the idea of killing someone falls to the wayside as the poo hits the fan and they must rely on themselves and each other to stay alive and get down after a storm hits making ascent impossible. In the process, one guy dies from a concussion mixed with the elements and the other two haphazardly fall off the mountain trying to get Hemlock to safety. This last was pretty out-of-nowhere and seemed a bit contrived as a way to keep Hemlock alive and kill off the potential targets which fulfills his mission. Later after Dragon credits him for killing all three possible sanction targets, Hemlock — SUPER SPOILER — figures out that his friend Ben was the other guy on the initial murder mission. What I liked about this reveal is that, when you look back at the book, there’s enough hints that you could have picked up on to figure out (though I did not), specifically when he ralphs after something intense happens on the mountain which reflects what happened on his ill fated mission.

Packed with enough twists, turns, intriguing characters and fun facts, The Eiger Sanction kept me reading at a pretty quick pace to the point where I was anxious to finish the book one night when I probably should have gone to bed earlier. It gets a big thumb’s up from me and I look forward to getting around to The Loo Sanction to find out what that one’s about. I’m going to jump in blind like I did with this one and hope for another great ride.
the eiger sanction poster

While reading the book, I tried casting Clint Eastwood as Hemlock in my head and it was a tough fit. Much as I love Eastwood as an actor, I had trouble seeing him as not only an art lover and professor but also a mountain climber teetering on the edge of sanity. Sure, that last part wasn’t so hard to put on the actor, but the combination didn’t match up with my vision of the actor.

And that was pretty much the case with the 1975  film version that Eastwood directed. He’s more of the brawling tough guy looking for justice and easily handled many of Hemlock’s one-liners, but he didn’t quite embody the character I had in my head. Since the time between my reading and watching the two versions was so close, I can’t quite judge whether Eastwood essentially created a different version of the character from the book and if that was successful. I just kept thinking of the differences between the two formats. On a similar note, while I love George Kennedy as Ben, I think they should have gone younger for both parts considering how intense the climb is supposed to be.

The comparisons between book and movie made up the majority of my thoughts while viewing the film. Certain bits of information are disseminated in earlier portions of the film, characters are cut out and elements are rearranged, none of which are bad in and of themselves. In fact, I thought cutting down the number of meetings between Hemlock and Dragon made a lot of sense. On the other hand, they changed a lot of the history between characters and what was going on with the CII missions to the point that I felt overly confused. The book itself wasn’t exactly mind-bendingly complicated, but it seemed like the movie version shook up the details along with the timing that information was revealed and just threw the results in the script.

The biggest problem with the film, though, is that the biggest point of the book’s finale, the mountain climb, doesn’t come off as epic as it should. Just like in Cliffhanger, it’s amazing to see humans climb a mountain. That footage will make me nervous any day of the week and looked fantastic as did the entire thing. But, in the book the climb is prefaced by telling us how dangerous it is even if the mountain isn’t overly tall. It then gets crazy as an insane storm rolls in. I understand that that would be difficult to film back then, but it all just seemed kind of fluffy to me. On a similar note, Hemlock doesn’t seem to spend nearly as much time with his team as he should have. We probably could have cut down on the beautiful, but not overly pertinent scenes of him flirting with and eventually bedding a woman named George while training with Ben.

On the other hand, the film does do a better job of keeping the target-related paranoia at a higher level on the mountain than the book. There are two scenes that hint at one of the fellow climbers as being a bad guy, but then they focus on actually surviving.

MORE SPOILERS. The movie version continues its kind of flat presentation by having Ben reveal to Jonathan that he’s the real target on the train ride back from almost dying. In the book he’s in the hospital and figures it out for himself, but in this case it’s kind of a casual conversation that ends without much fanfare or animosity which does make me think that the film features a different version of the Hemlock character that I’m just not as interested in because I’ve seen versions of that guy in this role played by that actor plenty of times before.

The whole time I read the book, I thought it would translate really well to the big screen. Unfortunately, I don’t think Eastwood’s version was the best film based on this source material. Maybe in a few years I’ll give it another look and see if it works on its own, but as an interpretation of Trevanian’s novel, not so much. If you’ve seen the movie without reading the book, drop me a comment and let me know how you liked it. I think I’m still too close to the source material, but maybe my problems were shared by others.

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