The Satan Bug (1965)

Movies based on Alistair MacLean's novels tend to be either rare hits (e.g., Where Eagles Dare, TheGuns of Navarone) or far more frequent misses (nearly all others I've watched). The Satan Bug is an intriguing mixture of random plot alterations and well-tuned reproductions of scenes from the book.  

As the film opens, we see that the setting has switched from the English countryside to a Californian desert. That change is easy to digest, as the germ-warfare research center at the center of this tale is believably depicted, with airlock rooms and a dog-patrolled double layer of security fencing. I got an "Uh-oh, here we go again" feeling because this beginning was so different from the book's opening scene, in which a security expert's loyalty is tested; however, that scene arrives soon and is delightfully faithful to the book (despite being on a boat rather than in a dingy office). 

The expert (and former chief of security at the germ factory) is named Lee Barnett, rather than Pierre Cavell as in the book. I'd pictured him as an acerbic, battle-weary man, rather than this insouciant figure slouching about in a trench coat. But the movie character is a good fit for the California milieu. 

Events develop from there in a similar fashion to MacLean's novel (written under the name Ian Stuart, which is how he is listed in the film's credits). Criminals break into the lab, kill a couple of workers, and make off with two types of biological agents: deadly botulinus toxin, and the so-called Satan Bug, which could extinguish all life on earth. The detective work to trace them, and the chase scenes to bring them to justice, continue to alternate between invented and book-derived. It's easy to figure out who the main villain is, and there are a few too many interactions where good guys point their guns at a baddie who then threatens to drop a flask full of deadly germs. Still, the story is diverting in a very 1960s, suits-and-skinny-ties way. 

Some revisions were probably made to simplify the story, which — although it is my second-favorite MacLean novel — I found complex enough to be mildly confusing (see my book review). That may be why Cavell's wife was changed to just a pretty female accomplice. However, one huge alteration left a bad taste: the villain's motivation. In the book, the stolen germs are a red herring within a grander plan; in the film, the bad guy simply wants them so he can achieve some unspecified megalomaniacal aims. At least he meets the same end as his book counterpart. 

Unlike many other films based on MacLean's works, this one lacks established movie luminaries, though a couple of the leads had starred in popular TV series (e.g., protagonist George Maharis in "Route 66"). The only actor I recognized was Ed Asner, sneering his way through the role of an evil henchman. 

Re-setting a movie from an exotic foreign locale to southwestern North America can be done well — for example, remaking The Seven Samurai as The Magnificent Seven. The Satan Bug certainly doesn't deserve to be mentioned in the same breath as those classics, but it does a respectable job of converting an intricately plotted English tale into a slambang California thriller, while remaining surprisingly faithful to Alistair MacLean's vision. While not the best MacLean-based film, it’s definitely worth a look from Alistair aficionados.


(6 out of 10)