The Action Adventure Hero Grows Up
One of my favourite genres in literature is the Action Adventure. This genre goes way back to the beginning of literature with Homer’s Ulysses (The Odyssey) and Apollonius of Rhodes Voyage of Argo or Jason and the Argonauts. Many of Shakespeare’s plays have the aura of the action adventure about them and to me Robert Louis Stevenson’s two books Kidnapped and Treasure Island are two great action adventures.
Just before World War One the action adventure came into its own with two of my all-time favourite books The Riddle of the Sands and The Thirty Nine Steps. The Riddle adds three new features to the action adventure: romance, the spy story and the detective story. The hero of The Riddle of the Sands, Davies, meets a girl and falls in love but the girl’s father is a German spy so Davies is in a dilemma, he has to do the right thing by the girl and at the same time he has to do the right thing by his country. Patriotism was a new feature of the action adventure and has been a big component ever since but personally I do not think that it is an essential element. When I write my action adventures old fashioned drum bashing patriotism is left out, I write more about the people, as in my first action adventure Shakespeare on the Roof. Jack Hamma is the all singing and dancing hero but he is much more than that and Kashmere is the beautiful but at times over zealous heroine. In Bed with Jane Austen, another Jack Hamma adventure features Anastasia, she is a girl in the process of becoming a woman, and I tell the story of Jack, Kashmere and Anastasia through the action.
One element that is very important in the action adventure is the hero. He (read he/she whichever you prefer) must be credible, a good guy, at least at some level, and an action man. The hero doesn’t need to go around shooting people but he must set the plot spinning. Richard Hannay, in The Thirty Nine Steps, is one of the greatest heroes of action adventures, he is resourceful, rugged, has incredible stamina, he can fight, he leads the charge and in later novels he even gets romantic, slightly.
The Thirty Nine Steps is a patriotic pre World War One adventure but after this time writers, in the shape of Sapir with his hero Bulldog Drummond, wrote about the collapse of society as a result of the psychological damage done to the fabric of society during World War One. Sapir, to me, fails for two reasons. One, the best action adventure such as The Thirty Nine Steps and my own Jack Hamma series, set their hero in incredible landscapes and the geography and location play a significant role in the story, not so Bulldog Drummond, the stories are set in a rather flat landscape. The second weakness is that to continue to write the Bulldog Drummond books Sapir lets his villain escape every time and, to me, this is just a little bit limp.
Action adventures have the ability not only to dovetail into the geography of the location but also into the politics of the day. So when the Nazis took over Germany Eric Ambler was inspired to write his spy stories that involved international politics and of course German spies. Ambler’s heroes have changed, they are no longer super heroes but ordinary people caught up in world events. In the book Appointment with Death the hero is a rather ordinary engineer who has a rather ordinary wife back home, he gets into a tight spot, through no fault of his own, and gets out by the skin of his teeth, a sort of everyman type hero.
After World War Two the Nazis were beaten and a new enemy arose for our action adventure hero to fight. The communists, Russians and the KGB were now the enemy and a powerful enemy they made. This political situation, The Cold War, called for an especially brilliant super hero and Ian Fleming’s naval commander James Bond took up the challenge. James Bond represented all that communism was seen not to be, he was resourceful, he was a playboy, he was a go getter who enjoyed all the pleasures of western civilisation as against the ruthless but rather dreary Russian spies.
Both the action adventure and the spy story, which had been closely allied after The Riddle of the Sands, suddenly faced steep competition from a fairly new genre, the whodunit. The whodunit became so popular that the action adventure heroes became private eyes and policemen. The action adventure hero has also headed off into space, isn’t Doctor Who an action adventure? And the action adventure has also returned to the world of fairies and myths, The Lord of the Rings is an action adventure par excellence. The action adventure has come full circle, it emerged from mythical tales of super heroes and has re-immersed itself in a mythical world of super heroes.
So where is the action adventure going now? The answer is that today the patriotic hero who risks all for king and country is dead, the modern hero has to be a caring sharing free thinking, good looking, fit and ready for action, action man. He has to be considered a bit of a hunk by the ladies but the James Bond sleaze bag is long dead. We live in a world where loyalties transcend national boundaries, the action adventure man has to be the defender of a united humanity rather than the patriot fighting bad people from a bad country. The action adventure hero is no longer fighting for the status quo, no longer defending the ruling classes, he fight for the poor and down trodden, he can be an environmental warrior or he may defend an individual against an intrusive and all powerful government. In short the modern action man, such as my hero Jack Hamma in Shakespeare on the Roof, is a complex character with contradictions and weaknesses, he is of the common man and the defender of humanity. The action adventure hero has come of age.