What happens when you read the book of a movie you love? First up, one of my favourites, chosen at random: The Guns of Navarone.
I couldn’t tell you the first time I saw this movie. I associate it with rainy Sunday afternoons with my family, lounging about eating egg sandwiches and Wotsits. Back in those days, if a movie you liked was on TV, you watched it, because there were only four channels and you didn't have much choice really. So I've seen it A LOT. For me (and probably for a lot of other people) it is inextricably linked with Where Eagles Dare – you can’t think of one without the other. Though Navarone is, in my opinion, the better of the two. It is still one of those movies that I will occasionally turn to on the odd boring Saturday. And despite being made in 1961, it never gets old.
Why The Guns of Navarone is great
1. It has a cracking plot. An elite team of military experts have to infiltrate the Nazi occupied island of Navarone to destroy an enormous set of guns. Why? The guns are preventing the Allies from rescuing 1000+ men on the nearby island of Kheros. Every attempt they have made so far has failed. Yes, it’s a bit corny and typical of the war films of that era, but it’s very well done – and was nominated for Best Picture and Best Director at the 1962 Academy Awards (losing out to West Side Story on both counts).
2. There are enough twists and turns to take it just above your average war film. Things naturally don’t go according to plan, but there is a little espionage and double crossing thrown in to keep things interesting.
3. The characters are great. There’s the brusque and business-like Mallory (Gregory Peck) the flippant but caring Miller (David Niven), the fearless and larger-than-life Stavros (Anthony Quinn). Naturally they all have their own personal demons, and there’s just the right amount of camaraderie and friction between them all.
4. The performances are all brilliant. The three leads each give it their all, but for me David Niven just steals the show, mostly because he gets all the best dialogue.
5. It has a great ending. Anyone who has seen it will remember the whooping of the ships horns right before the closing credits. I find it oddly emotional. Gets me every time.
So, if you HAVE already seen the movie, you probably know what I'm talking about, and will have no problem keeping up with the rest of the post.
If by some bizarre chance you've never seen it, be warned that there may be spoilers from now on in!! I totally recommend you go grab some Wotsits, and watch the movie before you read on. It is Saturday afterall, and more than likely it’s raining...
So is the book better?
1. There’s no silly back story between Mallory and Stavros. In the film Stavros is supposedly going to kill Mallory after the war because he was somehow responsible for the death of Stavros’s family. I always felt this was a bit of an unnecessary plot point which didn’t really work.
2. Some of the characters are better and more rounded in the book. The engineer Brown is more interesting and is given a bit more to do. Stavros's backstory is better, and again, they make more of him in the book.
3. Both Major Franklin and Pappadimos don't appear in print. I always found Franklin a bit annoying and James Darren as Pappadimos just sort of sulks around a bit and doesn't do a great deal. I didn't miss either of them.
4. Instead the book has a character called Stevens. He's the one who falls and breaks his leg. I really liked Stevens. He was a much more rounded character than Major Franklin, as he has an interesting back story and wrestles continuously with his inner demons of fear and insignificance. Not sure why they cut him out really.
But hang on...
1. There are women in the movie! And not a single one in the book. The characters of the two resistance fighters, Maria and Anna are in the book but they are men named Louki and Panayis. I think the film makers really had a masterstroke in making them female, it works much better.
2. When Anna is discovered to be the traitor, there ensues a big argument between Miller and Mallory about what to do with her. This is quite a pivotal point in the movie. Miller (who up to this point has been quite jovial) snaps and accuses Mallory of dodging the grunt work and not getting his hands dirty. Mallory then feels he has no choice but to shoot Maria, and I think because she is a woman, it makes the decision harder. In print, Miller discovers that Panayis is the traitor and shoots him. End of story, and far less compelling.
3. Speaking of Miller, he is another character who is far better in the film. In the book he is American, and a bit jaded and cynical, but he doesn't say a great deal. David Niven does a great job of breathing life into him. I think he works much better as a Brit, since we naturally lean towards wry humour in the face of adversity. He's a lot funnier and also more challenging – I really missed the Miller of the film when reading the book.
4. A major difference in plot is what happens to the Franklin/Stevens character after he breaks his leg. In the book, Mallory refuses to leave Stevens to be taken by the Nazis. Even though he knows that he is dying, he believes Stevens will reveal their mission, and he is not prepared to save him at the risk of failing the men on Kheros. Instead, a semi delirious Stevens helps the team to escape capture by holding off the Nazis with a machine gun – thus sacrificing himself. This works quite well, because it shows Mallory’s ruthlessness, and also means that Stevens overcomes his self doubt and fear at the end.
However, in the film, Gregory Peck’s Mallory is far sneakier. He feeds the injured Franklin full of false information. When the Nazis later pump him full of scopolamine, they believe every word he says, because Franklin believes it himself. Franklin survives and Mallory is shown to have compassion AND cunning. I think I slightly prefer the film version.
Overall, I have to say that in most respects, I enjoyed The Guns of Navarone more as a film. It’s pacier (cutting out all the more boring and unnecessary scenes), it has more friction between the men to keep it interesting, and I do think that Miller’s character and the addition of some women improved upon the novel. I did prefer Stevens over Franklin and Pappadimos, but you can’t have everything.
The Guns of Navarone by Alistair MacLean is still widely available. You can pick up a cheap copy fairly easily. Why not try Biblio? I get a very small commission from books bought through the link below: