After I watched Alien and Aliens for the first time a few years ago, I was immediately asked the question: which one do you prefer? For me, the answer was Alien, hands down. No contest. Aliens was good and fine, but it was typical of its genre. It didn’t surprise me.
Only a few days later did I realize that Aliens was so influential that those characters and lines and moments that felt derivative all these years later were, in fact, the first of their kind. Everything in the genre that came after was inspired, in some way, by Aliens. It’s almost impossible now to see Aliens with fresh eyes, as it would have been seen in its day. It was the first of its kind, genre-defining - and now the genre is so familiar it’s hard to recognize the original.
So, too, it’s hard to read Eye of the Needle in 2016 and understand why this book is considered to be such a classic. It’s a spy book. It’s a decent spy book. But it’s hard to see what distinguishes it from all the others out there, or why it caused such a sensation. I’m not a big fan of the “thriller” genre in general, which is not Follett’s fault. This is definitely a good articulation of the genre. But that’s about it. Spy spies. Spy murders to protect his cover. Spy tries to flee England (an island, thus it’s tricky). Government agents pursue spy. Inevitable conflict ensues.