Review: Patriot Games (book)

by Tom Ingram

The Hunt For Red October, Tom Clancy’s first book, was a sprawling and brilliant battle of wits. The movie, starring Alec Baldwin and Sean Connery, has become a classic of the action genre. That movie’s sequel, Patriot Games (which replaced Baldwin with Harrison Ford), was almost as good—fast-paced, tightly plotted, everything an action movie should be. So it should go without saying that Patriot Games the book measures up to its predecessors, shouldn’t it?

Apparently not. Although Clancy claimed that the movie had “nothing to do” with the book, the two are actually quite similar. Where they differ, the movie’s version of events is usually better. It gave the villain a believable motive. The famously chilling satellite scene, where CIA agents crowd around a TV and watch as a special forces team sneaks into a terrorist camp and kills the occupants, is made into a central part of the plot rather than a forgettable aside. It removes many extraneous characters and streamlines just about everything. The reactionary American conservative strains that lie just beneath the surface in Clancy’s writing are removed, probably in an effort to have broader appeal, so in the movie the story is about what it’s about, whereas the book is about why liberals are bad people.

While on vacation in London, CIA agent Jack Ryan coincidentally gets caught in the middle of an assassination attempt on the Prince of Wales by a splinter faction of the IRA. Ryan tackles one of the terrorists, takes his gun, and fights off the attackers. This earns him an honorary knighthood, a visit from the Queen, and the eternal hatred of the IRA faction, which is apparently strong enough to cause them to put their operations on hold, take a plane across the pond, and try to strike back at him. Each attempt is larger and more conspicuous, which is surprising for a group that supposedly kept its existence a secret for years. Their final, most desperate attempt is almost successful, but it’s foiled by an Air Force colonel with a shotgun.

The “about the author” page says that in researching this book Clancy met with British counterterrorism specialists. I cringe in sympathy for them. Tom Clancy is apparently one of those people who is endlessly amused by minor cultural differences between America and Britain—these people say “boot”, “chap”, and “solicitor”, and they drive on the wrong side of the road. How wacky! The few British people in The Hunt For Red October were only around for a moment, so there was precious little of that, but since Patriot Games is about the IRA, there’s no such luck.

Clancy’s usual quirks—every character has been in the military at some point, everyone is hyper-conscious of ethnic origins*, gross caricatures and outright misrepresentations of what communists and left-wing people in general are like, moralizing that is equally unconvincing and unconvinced—are fairly easy to look past when he writes at his best, but here the senseless main plot and incessant comedy-club guffawing serve only to magnify and spotlight them.

While the plot of Red October was certainly large-scale, it was at least fairly grounded in reality. There was action, but most of the book was about cleverly evading the enemy. It didn’t go in for a mere shoot-em-up, which why it’s so appealing. Patriot Games, on the other hand, ends in a massive firefight between IRA terrorists and a sizeable contingent of British police guards, American Secret Service personnel, and FBI agents with helicopters, and involving the use of heavy machine guns, rocket launchers, and man-portable surface-to-air missiles. And the terrorists win.

The book can’t even sustain this tone of overblown action. At the end, the characters steal one of the terrorists’ speedboats and use it to flee to Annapolis, where Ryan’s Marine and Navy friends hop in another boat and chase down the terrorists to place them under arrest. A more realistic ending than the movie’s, perhaps, but not very exciting (certainly not nearly as exciting as a realistic ending could have been) and bizarrely out of step with the earlier scene of cartoonish carnage on Ryan’s front lawn.

After the terrorists are captured, Ryan has one of those bog-standard, should-I-kill-him-or-not, What You Are In The Dark moments and ultimately comes to the triumphant conclusion that murdering people in cold blood is not all right. This astounding moral revelation is meant to be impressive, but I can’t help but channel Chris Rock: not murdering people is what you’re supposed to do. What do you want, a cookie? This sort of moral “dilemma” is patronizing to the readers, who have most likely worked out the sixth commandment for themselves, thank you very much. I hate to say it, but the movie’s solution of harpooning the villain and crashing his speedboat into a rock with a fiery explosion is infinitely more elegant.

The movie has quite a bit going for it that the book does not, and aside from explaining offhand references to Ryan’s honorary knighthood and British friends, this book doesn’t affect the continuity of the series (it’s a prequel, dontcha know). My advice is to give it a miss and see the movie instead.

You can find Patriot Games online at McNally Robinson

* I think of Clancy as the kind of person who will ask you someone’s name and then say, “That’s a Polish name, isn’t it?” and goes on to talk about his Polish friend who has no connection to the person you’re talking about and you know he’s just making conversation but you still get uncomfortable because you just know that the next thing he says will be a joke involving doctors, tractors, and ditches. He does this with all his recurring characters–there’s one guy in Red October (Scott Glenn in the movie) who nobody ever mentions without also noting that he’s of Italian descent.

I also found it amusing that Clancy imagines that the Queen thinks of “Irish-American” as a meaningful phrase. [return]