Page to Screen: “Sahara” by Clive Cussler

(Dirk Pitt book #11, 541 pages, 1992)
(PG-13, 124 minutes, 2005)



Clive Cussler hadn’t really popped up on my radar before a good friend of mine gave me his collection of novels. I knew that Cussler existed, and that he wrote adventure thrillers, but that’s as far as it went. When my friend piled his collection into my car, he told me that Cussler was what he grew up on and that they were fun but not terribly deep adventures. Before that moment, I had seen the movie version of Sahara, and was eager to read the original novel to see how well they both stacked up.

The premise of the story centers around a rapidly expanding contamination that is threatening the Sahara region and the world. In the book version, this contamination is a red algae bloom that is spreading across the ocean and will absorb the planet’s oxygen supply in short order. Protagonists Dirk Pitt and Al Giordino race to find the source of this algae, which they determine is coming from an underground river system in the Sahara and is being driven by a mad general and a businessman with a solar reactor. Meanwhile, secondary characters Eva Rojas and a UN scientific team are trace a disease stemming from the same contamination source as it ravages the Malian people. The two teams eventually come and chaos ensues. The book is far more complex than the film, and in general, the multiple threads detract from the story. The book deals with the CSS Texas, a buried political conspiracy from the late days of the American Civil War, the mystery of a missing aviator, the red algae, and the Mali illness in conjunction with a corrupt government. The algae/illness thread takes center stage, with Pitt and Giordino driving the story as they uncover the origins and try to stop it. The aviator and the Texas lines take a backseat and are added for spice, with the latter being resolved as a mind-bending (but ultimately hollow) afterthought.

The movie version also centers on Pitt and Giordino, but their motivation is the novel’s tertiary plotline of finding the long-lost American Civil War ironclad CSS Texas. Rojas and Frank Hopper (one of her teammates from the book) are tracking down the same illness, and the movie focuses on trying to resolve that thread while Pitt seeks out the ship. The movie is a straightforward action adventure film with Pitt (played by Matthew McConaughey) and Giordino (played by Steve Zahn) playing Indiana Jones and Sallah seeking treasure. The illness thread comes into play as the pair enter Mali during their search, and Rojas (played by Penélope Cruz) joins Pitt to resolve both plotlines in a rather explosive manner.

The downside to the book is Pitt’s superhero status. He always has the solution to the myriad of situations they land in, quite often making the cinematic James Bond an everyday citizen in comparison. The man is even injured by gunfire, beatings, and severe dehydration, yet always seems to spring back with minor detriment to his skills and abilities. In the movie, he’s still an action star, but he’s a bit more believable with McConaughey’s charm to interpret Pitt’s wit. In both versions, Giordino takes second seat to Pitt, but he’s a slightly better character as a gunslinger in the book rather than the comic relief in the movie. Eva Rojas is a damsel in distress in both instances, but is more empowered in the movie.

The movie drops the Civil War political conspiracy and the missing aviator threads, and also notably drops the book’s cameo by the author. Yes, Cussler wrote himself into the novel for a short period, and the character even shared his name. That moment, which cues the novel version of Pitt into the Texas story, nearly made me set the book down in disgust.

Overall, both versions of the story were fun, but nothing more significant than beach or popcorn fare. I have a soft spot for empty entertainment calories, so that’s not a big hit against either. The book takes a hit from secret agent Super Pitt, where the movie stumbles by changing Pitt’s motivations from ecology to treasure hunting. While the plot of the entire world being in peril is a bit extreme for a maritime ecologist, the movie version seems to be working for NUMA just for the scuba diving. Between the two versions, I prefer the film, although I will continue to read the Cussler novels to further explore Dirk Pitt’s adventures.

Novel rating: 3.0/5
Goodreads rating: 3.92/5

Movie rating: 6.0/10
IMDb rating: 6.0/10

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