Based on a book of the same name by Paul Gallico, The Poseidon Adventure concerned the attempt at survival of 10 passengers whose cruise ship has been overturned by a tidal wave. The ship now being upside down, the people had to climb upwards to the “bottom” of the ship in order to meet any rescuers who might be there.
Inspiration for the novel came from a boat trip the author was on once in which the sea was so rough, it nearly capsized the ship! He envisioned what it would be like had that actually happened and worked from there.
The protagonist of the story, Reverend Scott, was portrayed in the book as a blonde, handsome, very athletic type of man (who went by the nickname “Buzz!”) With no harm intended to Gene Hackman, who did a wonderful job in the film, this is not exactly the way the character translated to the screen. Other character differences from the source novel include the following: Susan and Robin Shelby’s parents, Dick and Jane, were on board with them, not awaiting their arrival at the end destination. Nonnie was a chorus dancer, not a singer. The Rosens were delicatessen owners, not hardware store proprietors. Mr. Martin, far from being a lonely man, was having an affair with widow Wilma Lewis. Additional followers of the Reverend included ever-boozing Tony “The Beamer” Bates and his girlfriend Pamela, mild-mannered bookkeeper Mary Kinsdale and playboy Hubie Muller.
Linda Rogo, one of my favorite characters in the movie (played by Stella Stevens) was far more nasty and antagonistic in the book. She was basically irredeemable and when Irwin Allen asked Stevens to take the role, he emphatically asked her not to read the book, as he wanted the character to be less horrible. Stevens still had many snarky and mouthy lines, but was able to temper her characterization with unscripted bits of consideration and remorse.
Shelley Winters got miles of publicity out of the fact that she gained weight to play Belle Rosen. She claimed to have put on 30 pounds, though Carol Lynley was quoted shortly after as remarking that she “always weighed that much.” Truth is, though Winters did gain a bit of weight for the part, she nonetheless was padded further! This somewhat explains the bizarre goings on under her skirt during the underwater rescue sequence. See the attached picture of Winters showing off her true shape sans the padding that was usually under her dress.
Winters was taught to swim (and one can only imagine what else) by Johnny Weissmuller and so had no qualms about that aspect of her role. She did, however, burst an eardrum during filming. Most of the cast did his or her own stunt work whenever they could and that resulted in several injuries along the way. Carol Lynley was afraid of heights and so virtually all of her long shot scaffold scenes were performed by a double.
Though director Ronald Neame basically dismissed any notion of it as poppycock, the film unquestionably has Biblical overtones to it. He claims that they were merely setting out to make an entertaining adventure film and never gave any thought to symbolism. However, one look at Hackman carrying the overturned Christmas tree on his shoulder while disbelieving passengers look on is all anyone should need to see the obvious Christ/cross carrying imagery. The only way anyone in the movie can survive is to believe in the Reverend. Each survivor must endure a trial by fire and a baptism. Of course, the Reverend also makes the ultimate sacrifice in order to deliver his people to the promised land and still, only faith in what he was saying, will get them out.
Stevens’ character, an ex-prostitute in the film, has a sort of Mary Magdeline presence and is often shown with Hackman more than she is her own husband. Her husband, as portrayed by Ernest Borgnine, is an unyielding “Doubting Thomas” until finally being won over. Isaiah 11:6 contains the oft-used phrase “and a little child will lead them” and Reverend Scott continuously takes the advice of 10 year-old Robin Shelby regarding the escape route. People have occasionally complained that most of the people who survive the film are boring and colorless. “The meek shall inherit the Earth” anyone? (Okay, so maybe that’s a bit of a stretch!)
For all the success of the film and the rabid, cult-like following it has engendered, Hackman almost completely refuses to discuss it. Stevens says that he was and is miffed at the way his hair is styled (ratted up and teased into a comb-over) and has never gotten past it. Whatever the reason, he has never taken part in any of the many fan events or participated in interviews or extras prepared for cable or DVD. It should be noted, also, that he refused to play Lex Luthor as bald all of the time (or for even much of the time!) in the Superman movies, so perhaps Stevens is on to something with Gene and his hair…
Burt Lancaster had been offered the role initially, perhaps due to his Elmer Gantry-esque background, but turned it down. Other considerations include Sally Kellerman as Linda Rogo, Petula Clark as Nonnie and Esther Williams as Belle Rosen. The latter seems like a no-brainer, though there’s no way she could possibly have had the same impact that Winters ultimately did. Williams claimed in her autobiography that then-husband Fernando Lamas wouldn’t allow her to accept the part. Ms. Clark, by nixing the role, also passed up the chance to record what would have been another hit song for her, the Oscar-winning "The Morning After." (Clark also turned down Jacqueline Bisset's role in Airport, demonstrating either a supreme lack of or surplus of sense, depending on one's point of view!)
The whole message of the novel seems to have been shifted in preparation for the screen. For example, in the book, the surviving passengers, who followed the Reverend through every torturous obstacle, emerge half-naked, oil-soaked and almost dead from lack of oxygen only to find that other people have escaped from another location with barely a scratch or scuff! The film, however, firmly asserts that the only people to make it are the ones who steadfastly followed the Reverend’s commands. This does make for a far more heroic figure and reinforces that what the people went through was ultimately worth it.
Though I heartily recommend reading the book, it is a far darker tale involving vivid depictions of grime, gore, flatulence (yes!) and even rape and unexpected death. The two renditions, while inexorably bound, are not precisely the same tale in the end. They make interesting parallel treatments of the same basic story and compliment each other in some ways. Needless to say, I do NOT endorse the 2005 TV miniseries, nor the 2006 big screen remake, and, while the 1979 sequel Beyond the Poseidon Adventure is pathetically ridiculous, I can’t help but accept it as a hopeless orphan since it was the product of Irwin Allen and came to life in that glorious, but short lived, age of the all-star disaster film.