I suspect this potboiler would’ve been entirely forgotten by now if not for the classic 1972 disaster movie it inspired.
While the film followed the book’s plot fairly closely — the screenplay shuffles around a few major events and pares away some characters — the two properties are very different in tone. Gallico presents us with a group of unlikable characters who are all, to one degree or another, the last person with whom you’d want to be trapped in a life-and-death struggle. It isn’t merely a case of these people being flawed and having to find their individual strengths or rise above their weaknesses, which is how the movie presented them. These people are genuine jerks, in particular the vacationing police detective Rogo (played by Ernest Borgnine in the movie) and even the ostensible hero, the Reverend Frank Scott (Gene Hackman in the movie). Scott is an especially frustrating character because the reader never fully learns what it is that’s driving him. There are some hints, things that the movie expanded upon, but on the page he remains a cypher. As for Rogo, he has some redeeming, humanizing moments toward the end, but it comes across as too little, too late, especially as those moments are counteracted by one sneering comment he makes in the final pages.
In addition to the obnoxiousness of the characters, the book fairly drips with anti-Semitism, misogyny (lots of “don’t worry your pretty little head” types of attitudes), and homophobia. Possibly this simply reflects the attitudes of the time — it was first published in 1969, the year I was born — but it’s difficult going for the modern reader.
As for the writing, well, Gallico’s style is serviceable at best. There are occasional glimmers of poetry, nice images here and there, but there’s also a whole lot of clunky prose and info-dumps in between them. And the dialog is incredibly stilted.
And yet, I have to confess that the book held my interest. It was a genuine pageturner infused throughout with an authentic tension and claustrophobic feeling, as well as a sense of relief when our survivors are rescued at the end, followed by a sadness at their realization that they’ll likely never see each other again. For that emotional response alone, I’m giving the book a positive rating. If you’re a fan of the movie, it’s worth a look to see where the film came from.
But believe me, this is the rare case where the movie was better than the book.