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The Survivor
cast: Robert Powell, Jenny Agutter, Joseph Cotten, and Ralph Cotterill

director: David Hemmings

87 minutes (15) 1981
widescreen ratio 2.35:1
Brit Films TV DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 6/10
reviewed by Ian Sales
Sometimes when novels are adapted for the cinema, it's hard to recognise the source text in the final result. The author and director have different interpretations of the story - if indeed, it is the story they've chosen to adapt. Some alterations are necessary given the nature of the medium - a novel, for example, has zero for an effects budget, but it can manage better special effects than any film...

David Hemmings' film The Survivor bears many resemblances to James Herbert's original novel. The basic premise is the same. A Boeing 747 crashes laden with passengers, and its pilot miraculously survives. Accident investigators soon determine that the crash was caused by a bomb. The pilot, who has no memory of the crash, is instrumental in discovering who placed the bomb, and why, and how he survived, and why. The cast too are mostly the same. The pilot is David Keller (Robert Powell), promoted from co-pilot in the book to captain in the film. And the book's captain is promoted yet higher to airline's owner. And right there the stories of The Survivor the film and The Survivor the book begin to diverge...

Herbert set his novel in Eton and Windsor, and the famous school played a small part. Hemmings has moved the story to Australia and no school is mentioned. The plane crash is described in the prologue of the novel. Wisely, Hemmings has chosen to expand it to fill the first 15 minutes of his film. It is shot at night, which forgives a multitude of sins. The crash itself is none too impressive, but the subsequent explosion and fire are extremely effective. It's certainly a more shocking start to the story than that of the book.

However, the film's elision of a subplot from the book makes nonsense of one aspect of the story. In Herbert's novel, one of the crash victims was a notorious British fascist and Nazi sympathiser called Goswell. His desire for revenge from beyond the grave causes the gruesome deaths of several of Eton's residents. His possession of a medium who visits Keller goes a long way to persuading the pilot of the medium's bona fides. But Goswell is not in the movie, and those few of the Australian town's residents who do die under mysterious circumstances are disposed off during a ten-minute sequence. Several of the book's victims are also conflated into single individuals.

Then there's the medium - a man in the book, but played by Jenny Agutter in the film. Herbert's Hobbs is instrumental in resolving the plot. He guides Keller to the villain and the crash's explanation. Agutter, on the other hand, seems to simply float through the film's story. The opening credits show her watching a group of children at play in a park; as do the closing credits. In between, she contributes very little to the plot.

As if this weren't enough, Hemmings - or perhaps David Ambrose, the screenwriter who adapted the novel - throws out Herbert's ending all together. The villain of the piece is entirely different. True, story mechanics differ between silver screen and printed word. Herbert's novel, to be frank, is not very good, and relies excessively on 'flashbacks'. They certainly won't play in the cinema. The book's villain is introduced some two-thirds of the way through, and his actual identity only revealed near the end. That too won't work on film. Like Chekhov's famous gun, the villain needs to be visible in the movie from the first act. Rather than drag in the somewhat peripheral motivation for the planting of the bomb used in the novel, the film plumps for something much closer to the heart of the narrative. It works. Although without the visceral horror of Herbert's prose.

Which in effect makes The Survivor the film a different beast, altogether, than The Survivor the novel. Herbert relies on the 'supernatural' powers of Goswell for shocks, as well as graphic descriptions of burned bodies brought back to ghostly life. Hemmings has gone for chills. The film plays as a drama, with Hobbs helping Keller regain his memories of those fateful minutes. Joseph Cotten, as the local priest, adds some small defence against what little of the supernatural is actually deployed in the film.

The film makes a better fist of Herbert's story than Herbert did. From the extended plane crash sequence through to the reveal of the villain, it's a more coherent and tighter story. Perhaps some of the book's raison d'être has been ditched along the way, but the movie is better for it. Admittedly, it drags in parts, Powell plays his part on two notes - blank-faced, or hair-trigger emotional outburst - and Agutter mostly drifts about looking pretty. The villain, of course, gets the best lines, and he gives them all a good chew. There are perhaps some small similarities with Nicolas Roeg's Don't Look Now, although The Survivor is not in the same league. But this film is better than James Herbert's novel, I think.
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