I previously blogged about going back and watching/reading The Hunt for Red October as a writer.As a follow up, I wanted to walk through it the story line and talk about it right here. Together, we’ll walk through each act and do a writing analysis at the end
SPOILER ALERT – SPOILER ALERT
This article will go into the movie and bits of the book in great detail. If you haven’t seen it yet, then stop right now. Sufficiently warned? Great. Let’s move on.
Down below, I have each section staked out. This is one way of framing the Three Act Story. Hopefully by analyzing The Hunt for Red October, you can start spotting this pattern in other places, and then be able to see how each writer applies their own styles and twists to come up with new, fun stories.
Captain Ramius is standing atop a Russian submarine with his first officer. The ship is on the surface, and getting underway. The tension from the captain is clear, but we’re not sure what it’s about. They go below deck and give the order to dive. Captain Ramius is alerted that the political officer awaits him in his cabin to read their orders.
The captain and the political officer meet. It’s clear they don’t like each other. Each one produces a key to access their orders. The political officer has one key, and Ramius the other. Their orders are to rendezvous at a certain location and conduct drills with another vessel, supposedly a submarine.
And here comes the hook. Captain Ramius kills the political officer, burns up the orders, and pulls out a separate set of orders. He calls the doctor to report an accident. In front of the doctor and another crewman, Ramius takes the political officer’s missile key and keeps it for himself. It is pointed out that the orders (fake ones) indicate strict radio silence. The captain then speaks to the entire crew, indicating that they will sail to New York and conduct missile drills.
Everyone knows what a pair of missile keys is, and it appears that the captain has seized control of a Russian submarine armed with nuclear warheads. He is heading straight to the eastern coast of the United States. And the audience is hooked. The title itself whet our appetites, and now we know why there will be a hunt for this submarine.
Disaster 1 – The First Act
Things switch and we are introduced to the crew of the United States submarine Dallas. Their top notch sonar operator has detected the submarine and moved to investigate. It’s nicely laid out that the United States is the protagonist and Renegade Captain Ramius is the antagonist.
The first sign of conflict and tension is when the Russian submarine activates a never before seen (or never before heard) silent propulsion system. The sonar operator loses track of this new submarine and is perplexed. He tries to track it, but it is hopeless.
Pinch Point – Enemy makes a move
The Russian’s turn but the Americans don’t follow. Ramius has made a rousing speech about the past successes of Sputnik and Yuri Gagarin as the Russians entered space. They elude the Americans and we are left hanging, wondering how the “good guys” can beat a silent submarine.
The sonar operator won’t stop. He listens over and over. He also is hooked onto a reel-to-reel tape, constantly listening. The COB (Chief of the Boat) mocks him, but it doesn’t work. The sonar officer then visits the captain and plays a tape recording at 10x normal speed. The cyclic sound is clearly a man-made sound. To top things off, he produces a chart with five readings, all marking a straight edge course for the entrance to a Russian-mapped ste of caverns.
In the book, the skills of the sonar officer are better laid out. On a submarine, you are trained to do one job and do it well. The sonar officer had no training in navigation, but this one manages to put together a big picture. On submarines, no one has perspective or view of stars or the sun, so navigation seems only possible if you were trained for it. The character in the book is immediately granted a promotion by the skipper. And the audience cheers.
The captain orders his first officer to put them at the end of the canyons. He instructs the sonar officer to stand by, and pick them back up, now that he knows what to listen for. Sounds like the hunt is over, right?
Disaster 2 – The Second Act
The story moves along, and we discover, that Captain Ramius is NOT a renegade planning to fire his missiles. Instead, he is planning to defect along with most of his officers, but not the enlisted crew nor the doctor.
After entering the canyons, the silent drive breaks down, and they switch to classic propellers. We have already seen that the bulk of the Soviet navy has been scrambled to find this submarine and sink it, and now we know why.
This disaster is quite fascinating, because the protagonist has shifted from the Americans to Captain Ramius and his officers that want to defect.
Midpoint – Enemy makes a move
Earlier, the Russian submarine was the enemy making a move. Now the enemy has become the rest of the Soviet navy. Due to the failure of the silent drive, they use propellers to keep moving. It attracts a Fox Bear aircraft to launch a torpedo.
We already have the tension of a Russian submarine slipping past American sonar. The tension gets bumped up when it turns out the captain wants to defect. Yet more tension is heaped on when a torpedo is bearing down in a boat that has no room to maneuver in this underwater canyon.
The captain does NOT order the turn when the navigator signals it is time. Instead, he keeps looking at the clock, listening to the “pings” from the torpedo, and seemingly making computations in his head.
At the last second, he orders a hard turn, and manages to dodge the torpedo. By waiting long enough, the torpedo has no room to turn and detonates as it hits the wall of the canyon. We get a hint of the captain’s expertise. In the book, these types of details are more clearly voiced. The knowledge the captain and his officers use to evade attack are better laid out.
Finally, as they exit the canyon walls, the silent drive is repaired and they continue on their real mission, escaping to freedom.
Disaster 3 – The Third Act
I haven’t really mentioned much about Jack Ryan, a pivotal character in the movie. That’s because he is mostly playing catchup. He represents the Americans and is the one that figures out in advance that Ramius is defecting. His tension is first suggesting the idea, then having to convince every member of the government along the way.
He finally links up with the Russians after the enlisted crew are evacuated for what he guesses is a false nuclear reactor emergency. Just when we get a sense of tension relief, the sound of a torpedo passes by. The sonar officer, without any gear, identifies it as Russian. As they plan to fire back, a secret member of the crew shoots at Ramius, but instead hits the first officer while also blasting the weapons control station.
Final pinch point – enemy makes a move
One of the other Russian submarines, a fast attack boat, is bearing down. He fires another torpedo, and Ramius manages to steer into its path, and blow it up before it arms itself. Another demonstration of his experience.
The crewman who shot at him threatens to blow up a nuclear missile and destroy the ship. In the book, this character is revealed to be a KGB agent. As Jack and Ramius enter the launch area, the agent keeps firing a pistal, wounding Ramius.
At the same time, the other Russian submarine launches another torpedo instantly armed. The tension is super high as the Dallas slips in between the other two subs and draws the torpedo away. After the Dallas escapes with an emergency blow, the torpedo locks back onto the Red October.
Here we get to see the skipper of the Dallas really shine. He was part of the contingent that joined Ryan on the Red October. Ramius put him in command as he went after the agent. Mancuso has ordered a bunch of maneuvers, but we can’t tell what is happening. Finally, the captain lets us, the audience, in when he says, “The thing about playing chicken is knowing when to flinch.”
The Red October is barreling down on the other sub and then breaks off. The torpedo that was following it, crashes into the other sub and destroys it. You get a real sense of awe when you realize that the captain performed this move without seeing everything, under enormous pressure, and on a boot he has never been on before.
To top it off, the explosion erupts up on the surface, and all the crewmen, unaware of the other sub, believe the Red October has been sunk.
The closing scene shows the Red October being hidden a hundred miles from any naval base with Jack welcoming Ramius to “the new world”. He is then seen on a plane flight, asleep. This tiny snippet resolves the fact that he hasn’t slept in days and has had to fly ever worsening conditions from London to Washington to the carrier to the Dallas and to the Red October.
In the books, the skill sets of each officer is better laid out. In a movie, you can’t just explain everything or it would slow down to a crawl. The captain’s ability to evade sonar and slip in behind another submarine is delivered smoothly.
I never quite bought the Russian officer’s ability to hide their defection from the crew until I read the book. There it becomes clear that most enlisted Russians are probably serving their first or second tour, and basically are there to push knobs and other things to make the sub go. They don’t understand navigation, how all the systems operate and other things. They totally trust their commanding officers. This difference is turned into more tension when the defecting Russian officers meet the enlisted sonar officer of the Dallas and see how intelligent he is.
Tom Clancy uses the medium of underwater submarines to tell an exciting story. It is quite fascinating, because it is a great way to hide and reveal various things.
His big twist is changing who the antagonist is halfway into the story. Tom Clancy also communicates navy and military elements with grace and charm, one of the biggest things that made his career so successful. I have heard of other writer’s using Tom Clancy’s writing as their source for military research.
So go forth and watch the movie and read the book. The Three Act formula is easy to see, and yet, it doesn’t rob the author of a good story. It certainly doesn’t produce anything dull. Instead, it provides a collection of tension and relief that keeps adding up all the way to the end, making it real page turner.