THIS REVIEW IS SPOILERTASTIC!
If you intend to read this book and want it to be a surprise, then you may not want to read this review any further.
Incidentally this kinda goes for the movie too, since I do discuss differences.
I’m gonna confess something right now: For as much as I preach the values of reading, I’m actually a very poor reader. I rarely do it, and when I do, I often have trouble sticking with books to the end without getting distracted. Sometimes this is my fault, other times its because the book just isn’t that good.
My copy of First Blood was ordered off of Amazon and came in the mail last Saturday. I cut open the bubble-mailer and turned to the first page… and didn’t stop reading until I was done. All right, I lie: I stopped to cook chicken. I stopped again to make a phone call and check my internet affairs. Yet each time, I found myself wanting to get back to the book as soon as possible.
Then, finally, I was at a point where I reached for the next page… and found only the back cover. I had been so caught up that the page count disappeared entirely from my consciousness, and that never happens to me.
Needless to say, I had good experiences with this book.
So let’s talk about the book itself.
David Morrell’s First Blood was first published in 1972 (or at least, that’s the copyright date), and from what I understand this may have been the book that launched his career. Many people are vaguely aware that First Blood was also the book that introduced the world to Rambo, one of the many screen heroes to inflame the imaginations of moviegoers in the 1980s.
In fact, First Blood was also the title of the original Rambo movie, and if you’re wondering how close it is… well, it’s somewhere in the middle. In terms of the events as they play out, a lot of the same things happen, but they happen in different ways, or at different times, or for slightly different reasons. Rambo still gets into a private little war with the sheriff of Madison, Kentucky, but here Rambo and Wilfred Teasle have multiple meetings before Rambo finally gets arrested. Rambo is naked when he escapes prison (because they tried to shave him as soon as he got out of the prison shower) and has to talk a moonshiner and his son into giving him clothes and a rifle. Rambo still gets trapped in a caved-in mine at one point, but in the book he caused the cave-in himself by knocking out support beams, in order to escape pursuers. The final confrontation takes place in a field, not in the police station. Probably the most famous difference (and this is one almost all hardcore Rambo fans have at least heard of at some point, but I’m still gonna say SPOILER WARNING) is that in the book, Rambo dies.
But probably the biggest difference is the morality and the psychology. Now, the movie had a very clear theme that this whole thing was one-big-fuck-up and both Rambo and Teasle were culpable, but in the movie its made out that Teasle is kind of a dick and Rambo is just a guy trying to get along in a world where he’s despised for no reason. In the book though, Teasle is actually kind of a nice guy, while Rambo comes off as dickish–repeatedly coming back into town just to force a confrontation, his only excuse being that this is the sixteenth time he’s been harassed by law enforcement just for petty reasons, and even though he admits to himself that Teasle was actually nicer than the other cops who’ve hassled him, it just happened that this time, Rambo wasn’t gonna let it slide.
I have to admit that even though Rambo is the instigator here, I still feel sympathetic for him. I mean there’s two types of people in the world: You’re either the kind who is harrassed by everyone, picked on just because you’re different… or you’re the one that does the picking. I won’t lie: One reason I love First Blood–both the book and the movie–is because of the revenge fantasy aspect, just seeing a man pushed so far that he decides to get back at society and teach them a lesson. It’s something I wouldn’t mind doing myself, sometimes.
There’s one more thing though: In the book, Rambo actually DOES kill people. The first person he kills–one of the cops–is an accident, but later in the book he starts doing it on purpose, and he’s kinda schizo on whether he feels remorse or not, even arguing with himself about it but for the most part, being okay with it.
Which brings me to Teasle. While the movie made hints that Teasle wasn’t completely a dick and was actually a good cop and a nice guy outside of his dislike of “strangers,” the book humanizes him completely. That guy who had the bloodhounds? Was a dude who adopted Teasle after his real dad got killed in a hunting accident and who Teasle saw as a father figure. Oh, and Teasle is going through a divorce right now but the wife may still love him. There’s genuine love here. Yet he also comes to understand Rambo by the end, and by the end he doesn’t even hate Rambo either.
So yeah, in the movie, Rambo is the protagonist and Teasle is the antagonist (with humanizing hints), and in the book its reversed.
Colonel Sam Trautman was another major character in the movie, popping in with advice for Teasle but not really making it clear whose side he was on. In Sylvester Stallone’s commentary on the movie’s DVD, he claimed that book-Trautman was “like Dr. Frankenstein, desiring to kill his creation.” I’m not sure I agree–Trautman in the book came off as similar to his movie incarnation to me, although it is clear he’s trying to help them catch Rambo, that same undercurrent of “I want him taken alive” is still there, that sorta-sympathy. Even though, yes, it’s Trautman who delivers the killing blow (because he saw Rambo firing on someone and had no choice).
I want to make one thing perfectly clear: None of these differences are meant to say “this version is better.” They’re just differences that exist. The movie is awesome, and apparently it was built on an awesome foundation. If I had to choose between recommending the book or recommending the movie, I would say “do both.”
What made the book fun to read though, was Morrell’s way with words. The humanizing bits and the psychology and the intense chases were all very good, but it was the way Morrell worded things that made it all click. He has this style that feels stream-of-consciousness yet very clearly isn’t since the book is cohesive (stream of consciousness tends to be nonsensical and random), and almost demands to be read aloud, in a voice that sounds like it’s on the verge of excitement. Just a sample (note: The cops call Rambo “the kid” for some reason):
He circled the hollow and crept up from behind, and something was more than wrong. Shingleton wasn’t there, and Mitch was flat on his back in the water, his throat neatly slit from ear to ear, his blood steaming in the cold. Shingleton. Where was Shingleton? Worried and tired of waiting, he must have gone after the kid too, and left Mitch, and the kid came up and slit his throat to kill him quietly. The kid, Teasle realized, the kid must be very close. He crouched and spun, and the sight of Mitch, the frenzy of trying to protect himself from all angles made him want to cry out, Shingleton, get back here. Shingleton! Two men facing in opposite directions would maybe see the kid before he rushed them. Shingleton, he wanted to call.
Grammar nuts would probably go crazy, because a lot of Morrell’s voice relies on things like run-on sentences, one-word sentences or ones that don’t have a complete object-verb structure but you still know what they’re talking about, and other things that give a feeling of intensity, like there’s just too much going on for people to care if they’re putting periods and commas in the right place. This especially enhances the parts where Teasle and Rambo are beginning to become delirious because of their wounds and infections as a result of said wounds, and start suffering from things like missing time (being somewhere without knowing how they got there, although it usually comes to them soon enough) and events seeming to happen out of order, and thinking they had accidentally said something out loud… it’s very intense reading, is all I can say. I know that fake critics and review blurbs have made “intense” almost a meaningless cliche but I honestly can not think of a better word.
I will say it one more time, First Blood is a good book that spawned an equally good (if somewhat different) movie, and I can not recommend one above the other. You should really go for both. I’m not just talking to the Rambo fans here–screw it, First Blood is a thing that survives outside of being the beginning of a franchise, and should be appreciated outside of those bounds. Who knows, it might even turn you into a Rambo fan… or a Morrell fan.