|Alan Arkin in The Russians Are Coming The Russians Are Coming|
The movie was adapted from a novel with a much shorter title, The Off-Islanders by Nathaniel Benchley, published in 1961. Benchley never quite achieved the stature of his father, Robert, or his son, Peter, but he did inherit some of the former's famous wit while possessing some skill at developing tension, which he must have passed on to his son, the author of Jaws. The Off-Islanders may have been his best book, although it is all but forgotten today. I read it again recently, then watched the movie for the first time in several years. I loved them both, but they are quite different.
The Norman Jewison film maintains the spirit of the novel, mostly a comedy but with a significant measure of suspense. In both a Russian submarine runs aground on an island off the New England coast. Some seamen come ashore to try to get a boat big enough to pull the sub off the rocks without alarming the local population and starting World War III. Once ashore, details of the story begin to diverge with some different characters and different plotlines. The Whittaker family, featuring Carl Reiner and Eva Marie Saint, are not in the novel, nor is Alison, the baby-sitter who falls in love with Kolchin, the handsome young Russian. But the young American who, prodded by his girlfriend, climbs aboard the submarine and tries to find a way to sink it, is missing from the movie. The novel is a bit more violent than the film version. The movie, meanwhile, has more comedy and more sentiment.
One thing that remains consistent in both is the comic spread of rumor and panic among the islanders. What we imagine to be true, such as a Russian invasion, is usually worse than what actually is true, in this case a ship, albeit a foreign warship, run aground. That human trait of imagining the worst is what both the novel and the movie make us laugh at.