Movies

How Does Greyhound Compare to the World War II Novel by C.S. Forester?

The Good Shepherd's book cover, and Tom Hanks in the movie Greyhound.
Photo illustration by Slate. Images via Penguin Random House and Apple.

This post contains spoilers for Greyhound, The Good Shepherd, and World War II.

Greyhound, the new film from director Aaron Schneider, follows the commander of an American destroyer escorting a convoy across the North Atlantic during World War II, battling U-boats and his own physical exhaustion over the perilous crossing. It’s the first film adaptation of 1955 novel The Good Shepherd by C.S. Forester, also the author of the Horatio Hornblower books and The African Queen.

Star Tom Hanks personally adapted Forester’s novel for the screen, sticking close to the plot, right down to the sonar bearings. But the film and the novel use the same events to say very different things about war and heroism. We’ve rounded up the most significant changes below.

Krause

Krause is the main character of novel and movie alike, and does almost exactly the same things in both media, at least when he’s commanding his destroyer: He gives the same orders, has the same concerns about his crew and the other ships in the convoy, fights the same submarines, crosses the same ocean. But his backstory in the movie, where he’s played by Hanks, has been changed in ways that cast a different light on his actions. In The Good Shepherd, George Krause has had a long and not particularly storied career in the Navy, languishing for years without a command and being passed over for promotions. His career woes ruin his temper, his temper ruins his marriage, and his wife, Evelyn, divorces him to marry a lawyer with whom she’s been having an affair. When Krause finally gets a command as the Navy gears up for World War II, he requests an assignment on the eastern seaboard, because “he could not face the possibility of seeing Evelyn in San Diego or Coronado, or of hearing fragments of gossip about her.” Krause’s guilt and sorrow over his failed marriage are not exactly a constant drumbeat in the novel—there are a lot of U-boats to distract him—but it’s a big part of his character.

In Greyhound, on the other hand, Krause’s memories of home are more in line with Tom Hanks’ public persona. He still has the same undistinguished naval career, but his love life is less of a disaster, judging from the film’s lone flashback involving Evelyn (Elisabeth Shue) in a San Francisco hotel lobby. She is not Krause’s wife, she does not seem to be sleeping with a lawyer, and most importantly, her memory is not a wellspring of shame and anger that Krause tries to avoid. On the contrary, Krause is annoyed he’s been assigned to the Atlantic and asks Evelyn to follow him east to get married, even buying her a train ticket. Evelyn declines, but not unkindly, suggesting they “wait until we can be together,” presumably when the war is over. In less than three minutes of screen time, Krause is established not as “terrible husband running from guilty memories” but “lovesick dreamer putting his life on hold to serve his country.”

Also, George Krause’s first name has been changed to “Ernest” in the movie—Evelyn calls him “Ernie”—perhaps to emphasize Tom Hanks’ earnestness.

The U-Boat Radio Operator

In The Good Shepherd, the Germans do not get any speaking parts, and the novel only singles out two German sailors in the entire encounter: Krause hears over the radio that another ship has captured a survivor and spends a few sentences thinking about a German soldier who managed to fire a final round from a deck gun while his U-boat was exploding all around him. At one point, however, a British officer tells Krause he won’t send an important message over voice radio because “Jerry’s been on this circuit more than once during the night. He has an English-speaking rating who chips in with rude remarks, and I wouldn’t like him to hear this.”

In Greyhound, this throwaway reference has been elevated to a minor plotline, as Krause is bedeviled throughout the battle by a U-boat radio operator (Thomas Kretschmann) who keeps cutting into his voice channel to say things like “The gray wolf is so very hungry!” and howls like a wolf until Krause changes frequencies. It’s not a crucial change to the movie’s plot, but Hanks and Schneider saw the opportunity to include some German-accented wolf howls in the movie and seized it, and good for them.

Windshield Wipers

The windshield wipers on the bridge of Krause’s ship are a recurring motif in Greyhound. There are countless shots where the camera peers out at seas from the bridge with the wipers going full speed, plus a sequence where they freeze up and must be thawed with warm salt water. They give a sense of depth to the shots they’re in, and they’re in a lot of shots. But they’re not in the novel, because Krause’s boat has something even cooler than windshield wipers: a clear view screen. This is a circular disc of glass attached to a motor in the middle of a window that rotates at a very high speed, using centrifugal force to throw water droplets off the glass. Changing the specific technology Krause uses to clean his boat’s windshield does not affect the plot or thematic elements in any way. I just think clear view screens are neat!

The Sea Battles

Despite how closely Hanks and Schneider follow the book’s plot, The Good Shepherd underwent a sea change while becoming Greyhound, and the easiest way to illustrate this is simply to compare a tiny scene from the book and the film. Early in the story, Krause, pursuing a submerged U-boat in a circular pattern, decides to abruptly change direction in hopes of catching the U-boat by surprise. Here’s how it’s rendered in the novel:

Krause took a sudden decision.

“Right full rudder.”

A fifth of a second’s hesitation in McAlister’s reply; the tinniest sharp note of surprise or protest in his tone. It was as if Keeling were breaking off the battle. McAlister was spinning the wheel round clockwise; Keeling lurched, rolled, shipped a hundred tons of water as her circular momentum was abruptly nullified and then reversed.

[…]

Keeling wallowed as she made her turn, shipping green water.

“Contact bearing indefinite,” said the talker.

And here’s how that moment looks on screen:

It’d be a pretty close match, except that those ellipses in the excerpt from the novel are taking the place of more than 800 words, words that explain in great detail what Krause is thinking, what he’s trying to accomplish with his maneuver, the performance characteristics of his boat and the German U-boat that are relevant to his decision, the political considerations inherent in commanding a multinational convoy, and previously unmentioned biographical facts about Krause’s athletic career, all chosen to drive home the point that Krause is an extremely cool and methodical thinker under pressure. It goes on for five paragraphs. Here are two of them:

There was a further consideration that might have influenced Krause; it might have influenced him but it did not. He was handling his ship, so to speak, under the eyes of the battle-hardened crews of the Polish destroyer and the British and Canadian corvettes. They had fought a dozen actions and he had never fought one. They would be keenly interested in the standard of the performance the Yank would put up, especially as mere chance had put them under his command, especially as he had called them off one pursuit already. They might be amused, they might be contemptuous, they might be spiteful. Some temperaments might have given some consideration to this side of the matter. It is a fact that Krause gave it none.

To analyze in this fashion all the tactical elements of the situation, and then the moral factors which led to Krause’s uttering the order for right rudder, would take a keen mind several minutes, and Krause’s decision had been reached in no more than one or two seconds without any conscious analysis at all, as the child running round the table suddenly reverses his course without stopping to think. A fencer’s parry changes into a riposte in the tenth of a second, in the fiftieth of a second; that comparison might have additional force because (although it was not often remembered now) eighteen years before, and fourteen years before, Krause had been on the Olympic fencing team.

Whatever you think of the effect Forester is going for here, none of the tools he’s using to get there are available to Hanks or Schneider, and anyway, they’re not really interested in the same things. The Good Shepherd is about Krause’s thinking and temperament much more than it’s about a destroyer crossing the North Atlantic, and most of the ways filmmakers can show an audience what’s going on inside a character’s head (voice-over, flashbacks, CGI avatars for the main character’s emotions voiced by Amy Poehler) would kill Greyhound’s mood entirely. In The Good Shepherd, Krause’s training and traumas and the patterns of thought they create—“severe and logical discipline … reinforcing an undeviating Christian spirit that already knew little of compromise,” as Forester describes it—are the whole point.

Philosophy of War

In Greyhound, it’s not what Krause thinks but what he does that matters. He’s more of a cipher than Hanks’ character in Saving Private Ryan, and the two movies seem to have similar theories about heroism in World War II: Ordinary people put their lives aside and found the strength to do extraordinary things when history demanded it. The Good Shepherd, in contrast, is about a man who has become deeply unordinary on purpose, over a period of many years, stacking decades of military training atop a foundation of Protestant self-discipline and Protestant self-hatred. (And there’s a lot of that self-hatred: Krause thinks of himself at one point as “the wriggling worm, the weak and sinful creature which was Commander Krause, spineless in the presence of temptation and untrustworthy in the presence of an opportunity to err.”) The result is that Krause tries and mostly succeeds in transforming himself into “a machine that did not know emotion … a machine that did not know fatigue” once the battle starts. These are not really compatible visions of war or heroism or masculinity, and however stoic Krause looks on screen, you never get the sense he’s carrying around the same baggage as is his counterpart in the novel.

Although watching Greyhound and reading The Good Shepherd are very different experiences, the book and movie have one very important thing in common, and it might be the most important thing of all: The Nazis end up at the bottom of the ocean.