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.

Halloween Scene: Creepshow 2 (1987)

As a big fan of both George Romero and Stephen King, I’m not quite sure why I haven’t seen the two installments of Creepshow the horror duo worked on (neither had anything to do with Creepshow 3). I remember my pal Rickey Purdin had a copy of the first Creepshow hanging around our apartment when we lived together and I think I tried watching it once, but either got bored or fell asleep and haven’t revisited since. When I decided to check the sequel out on Netflix Instant last night I had forgotten this fact, confusing this King-based horror anthology for another, Cat’s Eye. It’s not like it really matters, though, as they are both anthologies and don’t have anything but casual references to one another in common.

Creepshow 2 features three stories. The first is about a killer cigar store Indian (“Old Chief Wooden Head”), the second about a water monster in a lake (“The Raft”) and the third about a woman being terrorized by the man who shit hit with her car (“The Hitchhiker”). There’s also a wraparound story featuring a kid who loves the EC Comics-like Creepshow comic book buying beans to take care of the bullies who mess with him.

“Old Chief” might feature great actors George Kennedy and Dorothy Lamour who are excellent, but the three guys they got to rob the country store owners gave pretty boring, cartoonish, one-note performances and kind of killed the whole thing for me. Plus, the idea of a cigar store Indian coming together and killing dudes — most of which we see via shadows — isn’t super interesting or original.

On the other hand, I really liked “The Raft.” It’s a very Stephen King kind of story with a quartet of friends swimming in a remote lake that has an oily monster patrolling the surface. This is the kind of story that works perfectly in the anthology format. It’s a small story as far as who’s involved and the danger present, but for those people, it’s a very terrifying thing. It doesn’t really matter if you’re trapped in the arctic or on a diving raft in the middle of a lake, you’re still trapped and probably going to die. That’s encapsulated very well in this segment.

“The Hitchhiker” was less interesting to me and felt like an episode of Tales From The Crypt (yeah, I know the show came after these movies, but I experienced it first). Even though the story of the woman getting hounded by the dead man is eerie, it felt familiar and not in the way that “Raft” did where familiar elements were done on a different scale, this one just felt tired.  I actually thought the wraparound stuff with the kid and the Creep were more interesting than this particular story.

I think another reason I haven’t gotten around to watching the Creepshow movies is that I’m just not that into horror anthology  movies. They sound great in theory — more stories, possibly more creative talent for your buck — but most wind up feeling like this movie where there’s one great story surrounded by mediocre ones. Maybe I just haven’t seen the right horror anthologies. I think I might check the original Creepshow out today, but are there other ones that do a really great job? I’m also thinking of looking at Twice Told Tales and/or Tales Of Terror from my Vincent Price box set, but I might just be horror-ed out for a while after this month.