Treasure Island Was John McTiernan's Key To Understanding The Hunt For Red October

The first film to feature Tom Clancy's stalwart and honest action hero Jack Ryan was John McTiernan's 1990 thriller "The Hunt for Red October." In the early parts of McTiernan's film, a rogue Soviet submarine called Red October, captained by Marko Ramius (Sean Connery), has broken off from the Soviet fleet and may be planning an unauthorized nuclear strike in the United States. Jack Ryan (Alec Baldwin) pieces together some information about Ramius and concludes that he is not striking the U.S., but defecting. He is given three days to track down the Red October, confront Ramius, and confirm his suspicions. 

"Red October" was successful enough to spawn a briefly popular subgenre of steely espionage thrillers that persisted throughout the front end of the decade. Jack Ryan would return in the hit films "Patriot Games," and "Clear and Present Danger" (with Harrison Ford as Ryan) and "The Sum of All Fears" (with Ben Affleck). This was in addition to a pair of mid-1990s TV series called "Op Center" and "NetForce." Tom Clancy's works were also adapted into a series of successful video games that are still being made to this day. Clancy himself died in 2013, but other authors have continued his stories under his name. A new "Tom Clancy" novel is due in 2023. 

Because so much of Clancy's literary body was frequently adapted to film and TV, they largely dictated the technical, militant tone of the decade's spy thrillers. Despite this, when it came time to make "The Hunt for Red October," director McTiernan found his filmmaking "hook" from another source entirely. In the 300th issue of Empire Magazine, released in June of 2014, McTiernan talked about the genesis of the project, and how he saw it, at least at the beginning, as a retelling of Robert Louis Stevenson's "Treasure Island."

Jack Ryan = Jim Hawkins

Stevenson's "Treasure Island" was first published in 1883 and quickly became one of the exemplars of the "boys adventure" genre (its original title was "The Sea Cook: A Story for Boys"). Many schoolchildren in England and the United States have been assigned "Treasure Island" in class, and the book has been adapted to film, TV, stage, and radio innumerable times. For the four or five readers that may not be familiar with "Treasure Island," it concerns the adventures of a poor tavern-working kid named Jim Hawkins who has become friends with an old drunk named Billy Bones. A shadowy figure from Billy's past arrives one night after hours and hands him a page with a black spot on it. It is a pirate's death sentence. Before Billy can be assassinated, he dies of a stroke, and Jim makes off with a mysterious map that Billy had in his possession. 

Jim brings the map to the wealthy Squire Trelawney who agrees to fund a quest to a distant island to find what might be pirate treasure. The ship is staffed with suspicious ruffians, including the one-legged cook Long John Silver. Jim was always warned by Billy Bones to look out for a one-legged man. Long John Silver, although only a cook, will eventually prove to be one of the scariest men on the high seas. The book will climax with Long John taking over the ship from the honorable Capt. Smollett, trekking to the Treasure Island, and Jim taking the helm of the ship himself. It's all very exciting.

McTiernan liked the dynamic at the start of the novel with Jim Hawkins living on a remote ship with a scary, imposing seaman. To McTiernan, that was the Ryan/Ramius relationship.

Tough Ryan vs. Boyish Ryan

According to the Esquire article, the original screenplay for "The Hunt for Red October" (credited to Larry Ferguson and Donald E. Stewart) featured a scene of Jack Ryan in a rowboat, floating down the Potomac, smoking a cigar. McTiernan didn't like that image, and seemingly wanted a less "tough guy" image for his lead character. It wasn't until he drew a parallel between his movie and Stevenson that everything fell into place. He said quite plainly: 

"It's 'Treasure Island.' The Story of a boy who has to go off and find the scariest man of the sea on earth, who turns out to be a sweet old bastard. Once I had that, I had the movie."

In the interview, McTiernan goes on to describe his woes dealing with the studios. Unnamed executives wanted to alter and recut his film drastically so that it more resembled Tony Scott's 1986 hit film "Top Gun," complete with more action and explosions. McTiernan was patient and fought for his "steely" version of the story that was more tension- and character-based. Luckily for audiences, he won. 

"The Hunt for Red October" opened slow, but stayed in theaters for a long while, eventually racking up an enormous $122 million at the box office. Additionally, critics were kind, and the film received largely positive reviews. It also won a single Academy Award for its sound effects editing. As mentioned above, it also spawned a long series of reboots and imitators. With its Soviet Cold War setting, "October" hasn't dated terribly well, but as a thriller it remains first-rate. And fans of "Treasure Island" may appreciate it on a slightly deeper level.