Both the book and the movie start exactly the same way, Rambo (Sylvester Stallone) is a drifter and when passing through a small rural community he is rousted by the town’s sheriff for vagrancy. The movie adds an extra bit where Rambo is looking for the last surviving member of his outfit from Vietnam only to discover he has died of cancer. This is the first instance of getting the audience on Rambo’s side and screenwriters proceeds to lay on more and more reasons for us to cheer on Rambo, while the book spends much more time and effort balancing where the reader’s sympathies lie.
Johnny comes marching home.
“If you want some friendly advice, get a haircut and take a bath.”
“Hey. If you’re looking for trouble, you’ve come to the right place buddy.”
A close shave.
We find out in the novel that Rambo has been rousted from fifteen towns and he’s sick of it, he admits to himself that this Sherriff wasn’t near as bad as the previous fifteen but that doesn’t matter, he’s through taking it anymore. So basically the town Madison, Kentucky just drew the lucky last straw.
Both book and movie has Teasle and his men chase Rambo up into the hills but in the movie Rambo, as mentioned he accidently kills Galt and then proceeds to use his Green Beret training to take out his pursuers, but with non-lethal means. In the book Rambo acquires a nice rifle from a moonshiner and it’s with that he shoots and kills the police sharpshooter in the helicopter which also results in the pilot panicking and crashing the copter into the cliff face. Adding two more deaths to his score card.
Book Rambo then proceeds to shoot and kill all the dogs hunting him, the civilian dog handler, and a cop holding some of the dogs. As a storm moves in Rambo begins to pick off the rest of the hunting party. This section of the book reads more like a horror movie than a heroic action flick as Rambo merciless hunts and kills all the policemen with only Teasle barely escaping with his life. Death toll now at thirteen.
Stallone’s Rambo is the underdog, a man unjustly persecuted by the authorities, and one who can use his superior skills to win out against the odds. Book Rambo even outnumbered, with a broken rib and a fever, is a terrifying force to be reckoned with. Teasle scrambling through the brush, his men all dead, and with Rambo on his trail is more akin to a Jason in Friday the 13th than today’s typical action heroes.
Now Book Rambo isn’t actually a monster like Jason Voorhees, he berates himself for killing all those cops when he should have used that time to get away, his pride and anger got the better of him. He just really wanted to show them who they were fucking with. Throughout the book we are party to Rambo’s tortured logic and reasoning as he argues with himself, trying to justify the horrible things he has done and is continuing to do.
Pride is the sin that permeates this story. It was pride that wouldn’t let Teasle wait for the State Police to arrive and resulted in a dozen dead friends just as it was pride that kept Rambo fighting. Teasle and Rambo are very much alike in the book as both given sympathetic traits that swing into one camp then the other. The reader wants Rambo to escape but when he is stalking Teasle you are totally on the side of the Sherriff because asshole or not he doesn’t deserve to die.
The biggest change from book to movie is the ending. A change so upsetting that when it happened Kirk Douglas, who was hired to play Colonel Trauhtman, left the picture and was replaced by Richard Crenna. In the both the movie and the book Rambo eventually returns to the town to wreak havoc and “let slip the dogs of war” and kill Teasle but in the book Rambo dynamites a gas station, the police station and the court house as distractions so he can make his escape, but he’s on Teasle’s turf this time and the Sherriff anticipates his moves and he cuts off Rambo’s escape, the two begin a grim cat and mouse game, that is if both cats where horribly wounded and on the brink of death. At this point Rambo is just going for an honorable death, suicide may land him in Hell (he’d briefly thought of blowing himself up with his remaining dynamite), and so with shaky hands he shoots at Teasle, giving away his position with the assumption that Teasle will than be able to fire the killing blow and end Rambo’s pain, but no “good” deed goes unpunished as Rambo, to his complete surprise, actually hits Teasle. Now too weak to even blow himself up he collapses, but is then surprised when his head explodes. Colonel Trautman had blown the top of Rambo’s head off with a shotgun. Traughtman returns to tell Teasle it’s over just in time to see the Sheriff die, and strangely enough Teasle’s last thoughts being of actual affection for Rambo.
“God didn’t make Rambo, I made him!”
“It wasn’t my war! You asked me, I didn’t ask you!”
So basically the book and the movie are two different animals, one is a dark tale of two men hell bent on destroying each other while the other is the beginning of the Modern Hollywood Action Hero. Both good on their own merits and well worth checking out.
SPECIAL NOTE: If director Ted Kotcheff had ended the movie the way the book did there never would have been a Rambo franchise and Stallone’s career would have been quite different because other than the Rocky movies his box office results were rather poor at the time. Rambo: First Blood Part II was screenplay was written by Stallone and James Cameron and funny enough the novelization was by none other than David Morrell himself and contains one of the best authors notes ever, “In my novel First Blood, Rambo died. In the film, he lives.”