How a touchstone Cold War thriller was sold when it was translated to the big screen 30 years ago.
Last night The Elk Grove Theater in exurban Chicagoland hosted a screening of The Hunt For Red October to celebrate the film’s 30th anniversary.
Based on the first novel from Tom Clancy – one praised by no less of a literary authority than President Ronald Reagan when it was published in 1984 – the movie follows CIA analyst Jack Ryan (Alec Baldwin) as he works to track down a new Soviet missile submarine whose commander Marko Ramius (Sean Connery) he believes wants to defect. Along the way he has to navigate not only the tricky world of international politics but also convince wary naval officers of his conclusions to complete the mission.
While the book came out at the height of U.S./Soviet tensions, the movie was released just as the Cold War was moments away from effectively ending when the Soviet Union collapsed a year and a half later. In that way the story stood on the line between being timely and serving as a historical piece.
Baldwin was a quirky actor often cast in offbeat roles in 1990, which is one reason why he’s completely missing from the theatrical poster. Instead it’s only Connery’s face that’s shown, indicating he was the bigger star at the time and the more likely to serve as a box office draw. His face looms above a submarine’s conning tower rising from a bright red field. In fact it’s the color red that serves as the primary visual element on the poster, reinforcing the branding of the movie’s name.
There’s a good amount of blank space, either black or red, on the poster, which creates a stark visual impression. (Disclosure: I had this poster on my bedroom wall for years as it’s a marvel of design work.) That blank space is used by the designers to make sure the audience is aware of the basic plot outline as well as the connection between the movie and the source book. Wedged between “The hunt is on.” and “Join the hunt.” is copy positioning the movie as “electrifying.” Even more importantly, it shares that it comes from the director of Die Hard, which John McTiernan had helmed just two years prior.
So you have a poster that ditches the hammer and sickle iconography of the original book cover but uses color to make sure everyone understands the story is still focused on the Russians. And it offers several strong hooks to bring in an audience that probably read the book and which still loves to see Connery on screen.
Ramius is introduced in the trailer as “The most brilliant commander in the Soviet fleet” with the submarine of the title being shown off after that. Other characters, including Ryan, offer more information on both so that the audience understands the potential threat being presented. That threat is shown to be an uncertain one as the trailer progresses, with some indicating Ramius intends to fire his payload at the United States and others positing he’s gone rogue in an attempt to defect. The score adds to the tension as the movie is presented as a mystery/thriller instead of a straightforward action film.
Paramount made it clear here that there would be lots of heated conversations and people trying to convince other people of the rightness of their position as opposed to an action movie. Still, McTiernan’s name is prominently used here, and the Soviet hammer and sickle reappears in the title treatment despite it being missing from the poster.
How it’s positioned by both the trailer and poster is on-brand for the book, indicating it’s a political drama whose tense situations are heightened as a result of the confined quarters of meeting rooms and submarine interiors. It uses Connery as the major attraction, an understandable choice given Baldwin’s position as a charming character actor at the time.
Most of all it shows that movies like this were, at this point in time, positioned as adult dramas, not special effects extravaganzas aimed at tweens. Even in the marketing it’s clear the movie’s pacing and story are slow and methodical, emphasizing big and bold statements over flash and clutter.
When the movie proved to be a success at the box office by grossing over $200 million, it was natural that Paramount saw it as the launch point for a franchise adapting Clancy’s other best-selling novels. Baldwin declined to reprise his role, though, and so the next two movies – 1992’s Patriot Games and 1994’s Clear and Present Danger – saw Harrison Ford stepping into Ryan’s shoes. Those two entries were much more action-oriented, a logical choice given Ford’s reputation as an action hero. And in a Bond-like move, all three movies featured James Earl Jones as Adm. James Greer, Ryan’s mentor and boss.
From there things got much more infrequent as the studio made various attempts to reboot the franchise. The Sum Of All Fears in 2005 starred Ben Affleck as Ryan and adapted the book of the same name while making some interesting story changes. Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit starred Chris Pine in 2014 and featured an original story. Both sought to bring a younger, less-experienced Ryan to the screen, offering a fresh start that could spawn a new series of sequels. Neither succeeded on that front, at least in part because they discarded the geekier, more technical elements of what made the Clancy-penned novels so popular.
The studio will try one more time later this year with the release of Without Remorse. Once more based on one of Clancy’s books, this one puts Jack Ryan to the side and instead focuses on CIA operator John Clark, played by Michael B. Jordan. Marketing for that movie has yet to fully spin up, but perhaps by cutting ties with Ryan Paramount will find the key to getting parts of the universe created in the novels that launched the “techno-thriller” in a groove and find the franchise the studio has been searching for.