Ice Station Zebra (1963) Alistair MacLean
Trade paperback, 255 pages
(mild spoilers for the book, bigger spoilers for the movie)
A few years ago, I learned that Ice Station Zebra (1968) was one of Howard Hughes’s favorite movies, a piece of information which gave me no small amount of discomfort, since I’ve always enjoyed the film as well. Yet even from my first viewing many years ago, the film’s weaknesses were glaringly apparent: it’s overlong, moves at a glacial pace (pun clearly intended), and contains some laughable goofs, the worst being the almost balmy conditions atop the Arctic (even though it’s clear the actors are on a soundstage). Despite the film’s problems, I still enjoy it, but something told me that reading the book might make for a better experience.
If you’re familiar only with the John Sturges movie, know that several characters from the film don’t appear in the book (and vice versa), and even some that do have different names. (Even the submarine has different names.) Yet the bare essentials are the same: the USS Dolphin (the USS Tigerfish in the movie) has been ordered on a rescue mission to what’s left of the fire-ravaged Drift Ice Station Zebra, a British meteorological station built on an ice floe in the Arctic Sea. The novel’s narrator, Dr. Carpenter (Mr. Jones in the film, played by Patrick McGoohan), is sent aboard the Dolphin to help treat the the station’s survivors, but both the reader and the sub’s Commander Swanson (Commander Ferraday in the movie, played by Rock Hudson) know Carpenter’s hiding something. Maybe he’s concealing his true purpose on the sub or his real mission upon arrival at Ice Station Zebra, or both.
With Dr. Carpenter as our narrator, we’re initially left to wonder (as we are in the film) whether he’s meant to be a hero or a villain, but it’s not much of a spoiler to reveal that he’s one of the good guys. Carpenter can’t disclose much of what he knows to Swanson, which creates suspicion and some rather passive responses from the commander, yet the underlying tension between the two men runs throughout the book, especially in moments of crisis. One such moment occurs when the sub reaches Ice Station Zebra (much earlier than in the movie) to find survivors, which opens up several speculations: Can any of the survivors tell Swanson and Carpenter what (and who) started the fire? Did they notice anything suspicious beforehand? Did some of the men die by something other than fire? (Spoiler: they did.) And perhaps the most important question: can the survivors be trusted?
In the film version, Ice Station Zebra contained no survivors, but in the novel, the presence of survivors - who could either clear up the mystery or destroy them all - delivers a delicious amount of tension and suspense. A sense of anxiety accumulates throughout the book. MacLean’s description of the treacherous hike from the sub to the station fills every step with danger and peril, whereas the same journey in the filmed version seems like a cakewalk. Fall through a thin spot in the ice in MacLean’s version, and you’re done. Twist an ankle (or worse) and just try to make it three or four miles back to the sub. The much-shorter trip in the film comes across as a casual stroll.
Once the survivors (in various states of health) are taken to the sub, “accidents” begin to happen. We see only one of these in the film, but the book contains several, all of which force the reader to re-think which characters might be responsible for trying to sabotage the Dolphin.
We all know books and movies are each unique formats and work differently, but MacLean’s levels of tension and anxiety far surpass those of the screenplay. In essence, MacLean’s Ice Station Zebra becomes something of an Agatha Christie locked room mystery, complete with the requisite gathering of everyone for the denouement. The Sturges version is primarily a Cold War espionage film that (even at two-and-a-half hours) rushes through various story elements and explanations, creating massive plot holes leading to a heavy-handed and unsatisfying ending. Had the film’s producers stuck with the MacLean structure, the characters of the Russian defector Vaslov (Ernest Borgnine) and Marine Captain Anders (Jim Brown) - to say nothing of an entire unit of Marines - would’ve been completely unnecessary. In fact, their presence in the film alerts the viewer to the fact that one of these guys (or perhaps both) is going to wreak havoc.
Yet the novel is far from perfect either. According to many Alistair MacLean fans, it’s not even one of his best works. Too often Swanson acts as Johnny-on-the-spot, an almost omnipresent character who seems to appear out of nowhere in critical (or non-critical) situations to answer Carpenter’s questions about the workings of nuclear submarines. The novel’s climax in which the killer(s?) is revealed seems a little too much like a gathering led by Christie’s Hercule Poirot or Miss Marple. But give MacLean credit: he knows how to write a compelling, page-turning story that entertains and engages. In fact, several of his other novels have been adapted to film, including The Guns of Navarone (1961), The Secret Ways (1961), Where Eagles Dare (1968), Puppet on a Chain (1971), Fear is the Key (1972), Breakheart Pass (1975), and more.
John Sturges’s Ice Station Zebra is still enjoyable, despite its faults and missed opportunities, which make themselves even more manifest after reading the novel. It's a film I will continue to watch and enjoy, but I fear its weaknesses may hinder my future enjoyment. Perhaps it’s unfair to compare the movie to the book. Most cinephiles would agree that movies should stand or fall on their own merits, but often reading the source novel makes you wish the filmmakers had been more faithful to the author’s original intent. It certainly does in this case.
Although I highly recommend the book, the Sterling Publishing (owned by Barnes & Noble) trade paperback edition contains at least a dozen errors, including incorrectly-placed quotation marks, run-on words printed without a space, and even misspellings. Finding an older edition of the book, or waiting for the HarperCollins (intentional run-on words) reprint in February 2020 might be your best bet.