The Hunt For Red October – Book and Movie Review
The Hunt For Red October, written by Tom Clancy and published in 1984, was a huge commercial and critical success. Critics often mention it as one of the best spy novels of all time. The novel was also the basis for a successful movie starring Sean Connery and Alec Baldwin.
The Hunt For Red October: Title
The title uses a classic title archetype, the Prize, the Soviets and Americans both want to possess the submarine Red October and its revolutionary new stealth drive.
(For more on titles, see How to Choose a Title For Your Novel)
The Hunt For Red October: Logline
When a revolutionary new soviet submarine tries to defect to the USA, the Russians chase it across the Atlantic with everything they have. A CIA analyst who suspects the submarine captain’s true motives has to come up with a plan to guide the rogue submarine to safety.
(For more on loglines, see The Killogator Logline Formula)
The Hunt For Red October: Plot Summary
Warning: My plot summaries contain spoilers The major spoilers are blacked out like this [blackout]secret[/blackout]. To view them, just select/highlight them.
It’s 1984. After the death of his wife, Marko Ramius, one of the Soviet Navy’s best submarine captains, decides to defect to the United States in a revolutionary stealth submarine, Red October. The submarine’s officers are in on the plan but the crew are told they are carrying out a wargame where the Soviet Navy will attempt to locate them.
When the Soviet Navy’s leaders receive a letter from Ramius telling them he’s defecting, they immediately send the entire Soviet Northern Fleet to sea with orders to sink the Red October at all costs.
The sudden sortie of the Northern Fleet unnerves the US Navy, which starts making preparations for war. Meanwhile, Jack Ryan, a CIA analyst, learns of Ramius’s letter and the sortie of the Northern Fleet. Ryan guesses Ramius is planning to defect and convinces the CIA that the revolutionary submarine is a prize worth risking a lot for. The CIA assigns him to help Ramius escape.
Ryan gets in contact with Ramius and they arrange a fake reactor meltdown in the Red October forcing the enlisted crew to abandon ship. When the crew evacuate the submarine, Ramius and the other officers stay behind, claiming they are going to scuttle the Red October so it doesn’t fall into American hands. Ryan arranges for an obsolete US submarine, to be blown up at the location to add to the deception.
Ryan boards the Red October and meets Ramius. They realise that there is a KGB agent on the submarine. The KGB agent wounds Ramius and tries to sink Red October by igniting a missile inside her, but Ryan kills him before he can complete his plan.
A final [blackout]Soviet attack submarine discovers the Red October, realises the deception and attacks. The attack submarine damages the Red October but the Red October finally rams it and it sinks.[/blackout]
With the last [blackout]Soviet submarine sunk, the Americans escort Ramius and the Red October to safely in the USA. The crew return to the Soviet Union reporting that the submarine sank. [/blackout]
(For more on summarising stories, see How to Write a Novel Synopsis)
The Hunt For Red October: Analysis
The Hunt For Red October has dual protagonists – Jack Ryan and Marko Ramius. This gives it a relatively unusual Hybrid plot (see spy novel plots).
Ramius is On The Run (in particular the sub-type of the On The Run plot called a Straight Run) – trying to defect with his submarine.
The ‘Straight Run’ Plot
- Is involved in an Inciting Incident with a group of Antagonists.
- Realises they are not safe from the Antagonists.
- Is also not safe from the authorities, as they are tricked or controlled by the Antagonists.
- Goes on the run, pursued by both the Antagonists and the authorities.
- Involves one or more Allies in their escape (Optionally, there is a romance sub-plot with one of the Allies).
- Narrowly avoids capture and death (or is captured and escapes) by both the Antagonists and the authorities.
- Persuades the authorities they should work together to stop the Antagonists.
- Confronts the Antagonists and stops (or fails to stop) them.
Ryan has a Mission – to try to help Ramius defect.
The ‘Mission’ Plot
- Is given a mission to carry out by their Mentor.
- Will be opposed by the Antagonist as they try to complete the mission.
- Makes a plan to complete the Mission.
- Trains and gathers resources for the Mission.
- Involves one or more Allies in their Mission (Optionally, there is a romance sub-plot with one of the Allies).
- Attempts to carry out the Mission, dealing with further Allies and Enemies as they meet them.
- Is betrayed by an Ally or the Mentor (optionally).
- Narrowly avoids capture by the Antagonist (or is captured and escapes).
- Has a final confrontation with the Antagonist and completes (or fails to complete) the Mission.
The two protagonists come together towards the end of the novel in a last confrontation with the antagonists (the Soviets).
Like Alistair Maclean, Tom Clancy is not an author for whom character study is important. With the focus on technology and the details of warfare, Clancy makes use of a large cast of faceless naval officers doing their jobs. All the American and British characters are pretty generic ‘good guys’ who work together with little conflict. In some ways this is realistic—real military operations do include many people working together relatively smoothly.
Of the two main characters, Ramius is the one who is somewhat interesting. Ryan himself is an old-fashioned nice guy hero, with very little depth and no characterisation other than being quick-witted and straight-talking. The loss of his wife and a growing hatred of the Soviet system motivates Ramius though. He also murders the Red October’s political officer, who is just doing his job, which shows a ruthless streak.
The Hunt for Red October popularised the technothriller genre. Though books like Firefox had a similar focus on sophisticated technology, Clancy presented facts in such minute detail in The Hunt for Red October that critics described it as “containing as much technical information about submarines and undersea warfare as a Naval Academy textbook.”
But even the author of a technothriller must use artistic licence, if only because many details are secret. Clancy’s technique in this case, which he called ‘joining the dots’, involved extrapolating from publicly available sources of information. This lead to his being contacted by the FBI, who believed he must have received classified information, causing Clancy some amusement. He stated, in a New York Times interview that: “I’ve made up stuff that’s turned out to be real, that’s the spooky part”.
Reality: Soviet Naval Defections
Tom Clancy very loosely based The Hunt For Red October on two real-life incidents.
- The first was a Soviet submarine tender captain who sailed his barge to Sweden and defected, possibly with some help from the CIA.
- The second was a 1975 mutiny aboard the Soviet frigate Storozhevoy, whose political officer seized control of the ship and tried to sail to Leningrad, and launch a new revolution. The Soviet Navy hunted the Storozhevoy down and recaptured it. They shot the mutiny’s ring leader and sent his second in command to prison for eight years.
The Hunt For Red October: My Verdict
The archetypal technothriller. A must read.
The Hunt For Red October: The Movie
The Hunt For Red October was filmed in 1990. The movie starred Sean Connery as Ramius and Alec Baldwin as Ryan. The movie, which follows the plot of the novel faithfully, with a few exceptions, is pretty good, but nowhere near as good as the novel. Sean Connery makes a good Ramius though and a couple of the scenes, such as the Red October’s crew singing the Soviet national anthem, are great.
The Hunt For Red October: The Game
Games companies released three video games based on The Hunt For Red October in the eighties and nineties, but they’re obsolete now.
More interesting is the board game, which is really a naval wargame with the Soviet Navy fighting against the US Navy and its NATO allies.
The board is a map of the North Atlantic and Arctic, and there are eight scenarios, the hunt for the Red October itself, and various WW3 scenarios, such as escorting a convoy from the USA to Europe. It’s a fun game with relatively simple rules, so if you like board wargames with lots of counters and dice rolling you’ll probably enjoy it. It’s easy enough to find on eBay if you want to get hold of it. There’s also a companion game based on Clancy’s speculative war novel Red Storm Rising, and if you want to play the whole of an imaginary 1980s WW3, you can combine the two games.
The ‘Ryanverse’: Sequels to The Hunt For Red October
So far there have been over a dozen novels featuring Jack Ryan, mostly sequels, but also some prequels. Jack Ryan rises to Deputy Director of the CIA, joins the government as National Security Advisor, becomes Vice President and eventually becomes President of the USA. As Ryan moves into politics, the novels become a vehicle for Clancy’s paleoconservative political views, and the quality drops precipitously. I don’t feel I can recommend them.
However, ‘Tom Clancy’ remains very popular. His name has become a brand used on many inferior technothriller novels, not actually written by Clancy. Clancy himself died in 2013, but novels and games with his name on continue to be published.
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