Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Returning to Sahara: The Dirk Pitt Novels On Screen

Clive Cussler's Dirk Pitt series has had an exceptionally unfortunate history on the big screen, each of the two attempts to film one of his novels--1980's Raise the Titanic and 2005's Sahara--ending up a notoriously expensive critical and commercial flop.1 Raise the Titanic has been blamed for killing ITC Entertainment, while Sahara resulted in a loss of over a hundred million dollars for the producer, as well as a spectacular legal battle that, as far as I can tell, has continued to this day.2 The latter is strongly connected with the more active role Cussler got as part of the terms on which the movie was made, and which he claimed the producers never honored.

Looking back it seems that there was never any question of the script closely following the book. Sahara's images of a Third World country where everyone is either a villain or an anonymous victim, its scenes in which Africans turn cannibal and attack foreign tourists, in which Pitt threatens to bury a Malian antagonist with bacon in his mouth, its climax in which a handful of Western heroes hole up in an old colonial fort and fight off a siege by vastly more numerous native soldiers they kill by the hundred, before their rescue by the cavalry (literally, a U.S. Army cavalry unit)--one doesn't have to be trained in post-linguistic turn literary theory or more than ordinarily given to approaching popular fiction as "cultural text" to see that these elements could have been problematic for a twenty-first century audience (a point highlighted by the film's producers when discussing Cussler's input on the scripts).3

The plotline about a United Nations commando team reflected the anticipations in the early '90s that the United Nations would be a more powerful, independent entity after the Cold War's close, which have long since become passé. The heavy weaponry on the Calliope probably seemed a bit over the top, like the pre-reboot James Bond--and perhaps a bit pricier than the producers wanted to go--much like the siege at the end (an idea that had already been used quite heavily in movies during those years, as with the Lord of the Rings and Matrix series, though frankly it would have made for a good set piece). Ditto for the plotline about the end of Abraham Lincoln's life (the principal bit of historical-archaeological interest the novel had).

All that makes it seem an unlikely candidate for an adaptation, but all this is the sort of thing that only seems obvious when one has actually read the material. The more casual glance that likely decided the issue simply noted that the Dirk Pitt novels were a bestselling series of globe-trotting action thrillers, a natural enough object of Hollywood's interest, especially with the surprising success of the Jason Bourne series--the film versions of which also jettisoned most of the stuff of the books--apparently encouraging the tendency to seize on such work.4 And there certainly were some reasons to think the Pitt novels would be worth a shot. The fast-paced plots and rapid-fire action of Cussler's novels are very cinematic in feel. The element of historical mystery that is a prominent feature of the series probably looked like a significant plus at the time. (After all, these were the years when Dan Brown became a full-blown pop cultural phenomenon, and the National Treasure films became the biggest success of Nicholas Cage's career.) And Sahara, which certainly had these two traits going for it, likely seemed easier to adapt than some of Cussler's other books. Its plot is a bit more grounded than lost continent tales like Atlantis Found (2000), for instance. It doesn't require nearly so much updating as the apartheid-era Vixen 03 (1978) or Cold War intrigues like Deep Six (1984) and Cyclops (1986). And for all the political difficulties mentioned above (perhaps more obvious when one starts thinking seriously about the conversion from page to screen), adapting it remained less awkward than Night Probe (1981), with its plot about the United States struggling with Britain for possession of Canada, or the Sinophobia and xenophobia-laden storyline of Flood Tide (1998).

And so it seemed like a good idea at the time--just as bad ideas usually do when people get it into their heads to act on them.

1. Those who have not seen the film might want to check out a fair review of it at the Den of Geek, written retrospectively just last year.
2. The film has in fact been taken as an object lesson in Hollywood's mismanagement of large budgets--the production budget doubling from $80 to $160 million (in part, because of script problems), and the distribution costs coming to a preposterous $81 million more. The Los Angeles Times published a special report on the matter including exceptionally detailed figures for expenses (specifying everything from the $102,884 spent on walkie-talkies, to the $48,893 Matthew McConaughey's personal chef received in compensation--more than Rainn Wilson got for playing Rudi Gunn--to bribes to various Moroccan officials).
3. Alas, such elements are common throughout Cussler's work, perhaps more so than in most thriller fiction--as with the Japanaphobia of Dragon (1990) or the treatment of immigrants as instruments of a Chinese plot for the conquest of America in Flood Tide (1998)--but his books still seem like a font of citizen-of-the-world cosmopolitanism next to the writings of John Ringo, Thomas Kratman and a good many others who have come to prominence in the past decade. Say what you will, this is certainly not a case of "now we know better."
4. The Bourne Identity (2002) dropped the plotline about 1970s-era international terrorism and the hunt for Carlos the Jackal--both long passé by that point, with that era's groups all but vanished and Carlos himself sitting in a French prison. (Since the third book, The Bourne Ultimatum, was "round two" for the Bourne-Carlos fight, the 2007 film also used a plot developed from scratch.) The element of jet set sophistication, and the edgier aspects of Jason and Marie's relationship (like his kidnapping her at gunpoint) were similarly dropped. The result, in my view anyway, was pretty thin stuff since the writers didn't really bother to replace what they removed.

Just Out. . . (James Bond's Evolution)
Just Out . . . (The Forgotten James Bond)
My Posts on the Dirk Pitt Series

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