“The Poseidon Adventure” on film, or “Hey Reverend Bossypants! Stop Yelling!”
After falling rapturously in love with Paul Gallico’s novel “The Poseidon Adventure,” I was crazed to see the 1972 smash hit film adaptation. My husband located it, and we sat down to watch it.
I was so disappointed, and practically heart-broken over what could have been. Honestly, I wish I’d never watched it. In another case of Hollywood gutting all the things that are great about a book, “The Poseidon Adventure” becomes a pretty bland disaster movie, without the grit and brutality of the source novel.
(Warning: There be spoilers ahead.)
Here are just the main five changes that drove me nuts.
1. The Shelbys.
My absolute favorite people in the novel are the Shelby family – Mom and Dad, teenage daughter, and young son. To me, they were the heart of the whole thing, this deeply flawed family trying to survive together. And it’s Jane Shelby, the mother, who remains for me the most memorable character in the entire novel. When, in a dull moment in the middle of their attempt to escape, Jane takes Robin off to use the restroom and winds up losing the boy, only to never find him again and never know what happened to him, it’s the most chilling thing one could possibly imagine. And Jane’s meltdown rant to her husband before she switches gears and realizes she has to go on with the attempt to get rescued, even though it means leaving her little boy behind somewhere in the underwater darkness, is brilliance.
The movie messes this all up. Right from the start – Mom and Dad Shelby aren’t even in the movie, and the teen daughter and younger son are traveling alone. Of course, since it’s Hollywood, they can’t really lose the little kid, so he makes it all the way to the end, precocious as any child actor is expected to be.
In addition, the book has teen daughter Shelby getting raped by a rogue crew member after separating from the crowd, then comforting this terrified sailor dude, letting him go, and carrying that secret of what happened with her all the way til the end. It’s really bizarre and riveting, and of course Hollywood did away with the whole thing, opting instead to have her follow the Reverend around with doe-eyes the whole darn time.
2. Shut up, dudes.
Gene Hackman (as the heroic Reverend who leads the survivors) and Ernest Borgnine (as a cranky cop) were clearly given only one piece of direction: Louder! These two normally quite good actors yell so much throughout the entire film that my husband, who sat down to watch this mess with me, finally couldn’t take it anymore and exclaimed “WHY DO THEY KEEP YELLING? THEY’RE THREE FEET APART!” Then he dubbed Hackman “Reverend Bossypants,” and things went on.
3. Don’t mess with Shelley Winters.
So I’m sure if you know one thing about this movie, it’s that Shelley Winters swims in it. Right? That’s undoubtedly the most famous thing about the film. And that part is totally in the book, and it’s an amazing scene. However, the filmmakers messed with it, leaving the awesomeness of Belle Mason (Ms. Winters role) diminished.
Book: The survivors reach a point where, in order to move on, they have to swim through an underwater hallway to come up inside the next room. This isn’t the best news they’ve gotten, as who knows what lies underwater. Belle Mason, who has until this point been “the fat old lady” at the back of the pack, suddenly steps up and announces that she is a former world record holding swimmer, and can hold her breath underwater for a long time, so she takes the rope, swims the hallway, ties on the line, and returns for the rest of the survivors. All of them make it through, thanks to her. Sadly, Belle dies at the end of the novel, right before they’re rescued, which is a quite a while after the swimming heroics.
Movie: Reverend Gene Hackman Bossypants refuses Belle’s offer to go first, and decides to do it himself. He dives in, and gets tangled underwater. Belle dives in after him to save the day, and pulls him through the tunnels to safety, where she has a heart attack and dies before anyone else gets through the underwater passage.
Dumb. Yes, she saves the big hero, but then she bites it.
Oh well. She got an Oscar nomination for her role, if nothing else.
4. Nonnie (and all the other people on the ship)
Um, The Poseidon is a big-a$$ cruise ship. Which means that, should a disaster strike, the only people on the ship are not likely to all be in one room, regardless of New Years Eve festivities. There would be crew members doing their jobs, there would be kitchen staff…
In the book, when disaster strikes most passengers are in bed in their rooms with seasickness, since the waters have been really rough on the voyage so far.. Only a small number of people (the strong stomach club) are in the grand ballroom when the moment happens, and it’s of them that our main group of survivors comes from. Once these few people have begun their escape attempt, they frequently encounter other – living and dead – people along their way. There’s the wig master for the onboard entertainment who’s out of her mind and falls to her death, there’s a bunch of sailors and crew members, and then there’s a lone English dancing girl named Nonnie, who falls in with our heroes and begins a romance with Martin, the haberdasher from Evanston, IL. (Which gets downright dirty at one point.)
At the end of the book, as our remaining survivors are getting rescued, they see other people who were on board getting into lifeboats as well, which makes them question – Should they just have stayed put? If they had, maybe they wouldn’t have lost the people they lost. It’s a very un-black-and-white ending.
The movie just ignores the fact that there would be other people onboard, other than a scene in a room with a bunch of dead crew members, and a part where Hackman and Co. encounter a group of people going the wrong direction. Here, Nonnie is the singer at the New Years festivities, and gets pulled along with the group by Martin (played by a likable but strangely cast Red Buttons) who falls for her, but in a sweet and innocent kind of way.
In the movie, Nonnie is annoying. She’s not far from the blonde woman in “Night of the Living Dead” who’s so terrified she just stops talking and being at all useful, leaving everyone around her to drag her along and do all the work. The book’s version of Nonnie is more lively. She might be kinda dumb, but by god she’s right in the frey with the rest of them, which makes her much easier to care about. Frankly, while watching the movie, I (out loud) told Mr. Red Buttons to leave her behind more than once.
5. Linda Rogo is not a hooker!
Book: Linda Rogo, the cop’s wife, is a one-time could-have-been movie starlet, who gave up her career to marry her husband, and has resented him ever since. They bicker and are a royal pain in the ass the whole way through, but Linda (just before the end) falls and gets impaled on something and she dies, the end.
Movie: Linda Rogo is a former hooker who married a cop. They still bicker, and they’re still a pain the ass, and she still dies, but yeah – she used to be a hooker. Really, Hollywood?
Sigh. So yeah, there are five major things that annoyed the crap out of me as I watched this movie. In addition, there are things like wondering why the Turkish guy became Irish in the movie, and the lack of urgency about the movie that the book is full of – this ship could sink at any second, maybe we don’t need to have a five minute chat about whatever.
There are a few things about the movie I will applaud, however. Namely, the set designs, which are pretty darn great, and the appearance of Leslie Nielsen as the ship’s captain.
But yeah, as a book-to-movie adaptation, this is such a fail.
Apparently, in the years since it’s release, the movie has gained a camp reputation, with midnight showings at New Year’s, and audiences yelling lines at the screen. This sounds like fun, and I might consider re-watching the movie if I got to see it that way.
NOTE: It has been brought to my attention that there is a 2005 mini-series called “The Poseidon Adventure,” in which the boat sinks because it got blown up by terrorists. Now, this sounds like a horrible idea, right? What if I told you it stars Rutger Hauer, Steve Gutenberg, Adam Baldwin (from “Firefly”) and Alex Kingston (from “Doctor Who.”) Mhmmm. Looks like I’m going to have to watch that, too. Oh, my life. 😉