While the film First Blood, Sylvester Stallone’s initial cinematic turn as troubled Vietnam vet John Rambo, celebrates its 35th birthday later this year, the book on which the flick is based and the debut novel by noted author David Morrell is celebrating its own milestone 45th birthday.
45? Years? Holy crap.
For those who’ve never read the novel, it does follow most of the same beats as its subsequent screen adaptation, but it’s also much darker and violent. Whereas the movie is set in the Pacific Northwest, the novel unfolds in rural Kentucky. The battle between Rambo (no first name given in the book) and Sheriff Teasle is much more personal, and the ending is, well….way different than what folks remember from the film.
For a first novel, Morrell smacked the proverbial ball out of the figurative park, and when the ball landed it was smokin’. Like most people my age who’ve read the book, I did so after seeing the film (and its sequel, come to think of it). It was my introduction to David Morrell, and in the years since I’ve read pretty much every frappin’ word of fiction that man has written. The Brotherhood of the Rose, Blood Oath and The Fifth Profession are particular favorites. He also wrote the script for a Captain America comics mini-series, The Chosen, which has become one of my very favorite Cap stories.
The story of First Blood‘s journey from novel to film is a long, winding one, taking nearly a decade. According to the book’s Wikipedia entry, the film rights transferred between three different companies, and there were eighteen versions of the script. Among the many notable differences (including that ending!) is the character of Colonel Trautman, who’s almost recognizable between the book and the movie.
Okay, spoilers (highlight to see): Rambo mortally wounds Teasle, who also wounds Rambo. Trautman kills Rambo, then stands by Teasle as he dies. Fade out.
Fun for everybody, right?
When it became apparent that movie Rambo would survive his version of the events, and a sequel soon would come to pass, Mr. Morrell would end up writing the novelization for that film. In his own words from the “Rambo and Me” forward included in my paperback edition of First Blood, he took on the task of novelizing the Rambo: First Blood Part II screenplay “in an effort to supply the characterization they omitted.” He would do so again with the 1988’s Rambo III. There was no novelization of 2008’s Rambo, which is a damned shame. According to comments from Morrell in interviews around the time of the fourth film’s release, John Rambo as portrayed in this movie was closest to what he originally had envisioned for the character, rather than the near-caricature into which he’d morphed for the second and third movies. I’ve wondered more than once what a Morrell-penned adaptation of that fourth film might be like.
So, Happy 45th Birthday, First Blood the novel. I may have to read you yet again between now and the film’s 35th.