When one reads First Blood today, their situation must be similar to my own experience with the James Bond series. For almost all of us, we have been introduced to the character of Rambo through the movie series, not the book upon which that first film was based. Because of that, we tend to focus quite a bit on how the book deviates from the movie and not the other way around.
The most obvious difference is that Rambo (the first name John was added for the film, in the book he was just “Rambo”) did not survive the book. In fact, the original ending of the film also had Rambo meeting his maker. Fortunately for Stallone and decades of Rambo movies, the test audience was upset that the main character died in the end. Giving the people what they want, the ending was re-shot to have Rambo survive.
The author of First Blood, David Morrell, would go on to write sequels to his novels. When he originally sold the rights to his book to Hollywood, it came with the provision that he alone could write additional books about Rambo. This actually gave him quite a bit of leverage. Novelizations were popular aspects of movie marketing in the early 1980s (Rambo: First Blood Part II came out in 1985) but the studio was required to go with Morrell or nothing. Morrell negotiated that he would write the book, but only if he was allowed to deviate, as he felt appropriate, from the screenplay. The studio reluctantly agreed and a series of novels were also launched. Naturally, the book Rambo had to have come back alive, but if Morrell could handle that then so can we.
When I began my reading of the book, my immediate comparison was not with the movie, but with today’s military-veteran-turned-hero book genre, which is now quite popular. Following decades of war in the Middle East, there seem to be plenty of authors who themselves have had military experience, spawning a genre that thrives on meticulous detail. Morrell, by contrast, is a Canadian-born English professor, lacking military experience. My first clue was his reference to the “Congressional Medal of Honor,” a phrase I would expect those with familiarity with the honor to avoid. He also has describes the firearms to which Rambo has access in the language of someone unfamiliar with firearms. In both these cases, I may just be applying 2020 sensibilities to 1970 mentality – the military crowd of the Vietnam generation was less meticulous about all the tech-specs than even the keyboard warriors of today. Nonetheless, the book comes off as a decently researched, but not first hand, description of the guerrilla warrior.
Morrell has elaborated on some of his intended themes in interviews*. The idea came from seeing a juxtaposition of television footage from the Vietnam War and domestic images from the Civil Rights -related unrest. It occurred to him that it was difficult to distinguish the two and it got him thinking about what it would be like if the Vietnam War came home to America. At the same time, as a professor, he spoke to students who had been in the war and began to appreciate the mental trauma they had brought back with them – what we would now call manifestations of PTSD. The book sprung from an desire to dramatize these thoughts. Perhaps intentionally, the “war,” in his case, is but a single soldier. Yet, this single, trained warrior brings many deaths and out-sized destruction to small town America.
When it came to the film, star Stallone objected to the murderous nature of the character. He demanded the screenplay be rewritten so that John Rambo was responsible for only a single, and unintentional, death. By contrast, the Rambo of the book, once he begins to kill his adversaries, takes to it like a fish returning to the water. Stallone wanted his character, the misunderstood veteran, to be unambiguously sympathetic. In the book, however, Rambo and his nemesis Police Chief Teasle, are treated more equitably. Both make mistakes and yet both are military heroes in their own right and are intended to be equally deserving of our sympathy.
Morrell uses the dual characters of Rambo and Teasle to compare and contrast America’s past with its (then) present. Teasle is a hero of Korea, an early Cold War conflict and a war fought, in many ways, as an extension of World War II. In Vietnam, the United States began its path through repeated involvements in asymmetric warfare; wars fought by very different rules. Rambo, the insurgent, understands Teasle’s rules but Teasle struggles to understand Rambo. The individual struggle symbolizes America’s post-World-War-II struggle to find its place in the world – a struggle that remains relevant today.
Those ideas aside, reading this book made me think about one more of my recent themes from this site. It strikes me as unreasonable when books from nearly a century ago are available only for an order-of-magnitude above their original cost (or entirely out-of-print), locked up by some mega-publisher, making profits at the expense of readers and the work of a dead author. Yet here is an example of a writer who continues to actively market his work, albeit a 50-year-old work. Do any of us begrudge him earning a living from his efforts? I’d say no, although that makes it difficult take a stand on intellectual property protections. There are either rights, which can be bought, sold, held, and exploited or there are not. Or is there a middle ground?
*One such interview is printed in the back of the newest pressing of the book.