Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Book vs. Film - The Bond series, final thoughts

Last December my wife gave me a fantastic gift: The Complete James Bond series on Blu-Ray.

I’ll be honest here.  In the past a gift like that, as awesome as it was, would have wound up on my DVD shelf and probably never taken out of the shrink wrap.  Such things are more of a collectors item to me than a thing to actually consume, especially given most of the films are available on streaming.  Also, I have so little free time these days it’s tough to justify spending time revisiting old favorites.  There’s too much great new stuff out there begging for attention.

This is what I usually tell myself, at least.

But around the same time this disc set landed on my lap, I also noticed a sale of James Bond audiobooks at — each book only 6 bucks.  The same pang of nostalgia I felt when looking through the Blu-Ray box hit me when I saw all these Bond covers splayed out before me, cheaply priced and beckoning.  The idea hit me to re-read and re-watch the entire series, in order of book publication.  You can read them all here.

It took ten months.  The endeavor gave me a newfound appreciation for Ian Fleming’s writing, filled me with nostalgia for my adolescence, and often made me wonder just what the fuck was I thinking during those formative years.  What any of us were thinking, really.

Let’s start with that.  The bad.  The movies.  Though there are exceptions, taken as a whole they’re simply not that good.  Campy, sloppy, outrageously over-the-top, and very frequently bearing little resemblance to the books they supposedly relate to.  Fleming's slick, economic, wonderfully fun spy stories are often barely recognizable.  His character of James Bond is transformed into some kind of superhero, a caricature of the man we get to know in the books.  Worse, the wrong aspects of his personality are often the ones the filmmakers chose to amplify.

I can see why twelve-year-old me enjoyed the films. They have explosions and cool cars and scantily clad women.  Occasionally some spying even happens.  I was the target audience.  But it’s not like 007's popularity was limited to teenage boys.  The Bond franchise is perhaps the most successful in film history, so it’s hard to argue that the appeal was not, or is not, insanely broad.  Yet watching them again, it’s a struggle to comprehend why.  Take Bond out of the equation in virtually any of these movies and you’d be left with a campy, almost satirical “spy” film that doesn’t merit a second thought.  Yet somehow the mythos of the man changes our perception, at least in the era they were released.  We’re clearly willing to forgive a lot — a lot — in order to go along with Bond on one more zany adventure.

Perhaps a predictable conclusion from the outset, but nevertheless it must be said: the books are better than the movies.

Generally speaking I don’t like to use this phrase.  It’s too easy to toss out there without a second thought.  As far as I’m concerned, films should be judged on their own merits and not be expected to equal the novels they’re adapted from.  There’s a lot of reasons why, but chief among them is that there is no budget involved when it comes to imagination.  A novelist has no logistical or monetary restrictions on what goes on the page. I’m not saying this means we can or should go crazy and write a scene where all raindrops are replaced with Hope Diamonds or something.  No, the point is simply that we don’t have to consider the things that a film crew must deal with.  We never think “someone’s going to have to build this set”, nor should we (unless we’re specifically writing something we hope will be adapted, but it’s dangerous to work that way).

Given that, you might think the Bond books are actually the over-the-top monstrosities, and that it was the films had to reel that shit in in order to come in at a reasonable budget.  You’d be wrong.

You see, there’s another facet here.  Well, a handful of things compounded together.  First is that much of what happens in a book is internalized. We as readers are treated to the internal deliberations, the thought processes.  This is critically important when it comes to a spy who almost always works alone.  Bond becomes an entirely different creature when you are treated to what’s going on upstairs.  Short of adding voiceover, the filmmakers have to find other ways to develop the character. Most often this is with action or dialog that still relays the same general information.  And herein lies the trap they set for themselves.  You see, there is this desire that each film be more than the last. More in every sense. More action, more romance, more humorous.  Once you have Bond utter a silly catchphrase, you’ve opened this door that you can’t close again.  You have to have two next time, or four, or eight, and so on.  Oh, Bond flew a helicopter in the last film? Well this time he needs a jetpack!  A jetpack you say? This time we’ll put him in space!

They started off with Dr. No, the sixth book, and did a reasonably faithful adaptation.  But then they had no choice but to go back, all the way to the 2nd book, From Russia With Love.

Somewhat amazingly, especially in this day and age, Fleming resisted the oneupmanship desire. His Bond novels are even keel, pretty much the whole way through.  They're astonishingly consistent.  And so my usual theory on film adaptations, the budget of the imagination, doesn't actually apply.  The situation is, in fact, reversed.

You see the filmmakers, instead of showing the restraint Fleming did, built this house of cards, starting with Russia.  Their first mistake, in my view, is that they filmed the books out of order.  Fleming does have a progression that occurs over the course of the series, although it’s quite subtle.  Follow that road, with perhaps some embellishments, and they would have been fine.  But they started with the sixth book, roughly halfway through the series, and then proceeded to jump all over the place.  It didn’t matter where the book came in Fleming’s timeline, they slotted it in after whatever they’d made previously and then figured out how to amp it up above that waterline.  Thus we’re left with atrocities like Moonraker, where the 3rd and rather subdued novel (perhaps the best in the series) is adapted into this insane farce of a movie (the worst of the lot).  Things really started to get bad when they began to borrow only he barest details from the books.

The second mistake the filmmakers made in this process is that, when deciding what to do to raise Bond above his previous outing, they almost always picked poorly.  They invented the character Q to build Bond more and more ridiculous gadgets.  They continually have Bond’s support staff showing up in the most inane locations to help him at some crucial moment (which, oddly, hurts the superhero character they’re so keen to create). They make him progressively more chauvinistic to the point that we’re often in the inexcusable territory of rape. They make him more and more of a know-it-all.  Jack of all trades, master of all trades, too.  He’s like an RPG character who goes up a level with each movie and gets to spend ability points willy-fracking-nilly.  They take every opportunity to have him quip a sardonic one-liner.  And the worst part is, I can see how no one could stand in their way.  It’s hard to argue with success, as they say.

With hindsight, however… I don’t know what else to say other than I definitely fell out of love with the movies during this re-watch.  Three or four of them are decent.  In virtually every case though the books are more deserving of your time.

As for 007 himself, the question that always comes up is “who is the best Bond?”.  People fall into the various camps like they fall into the various religions — it’s usually the one you grew up with that you prefer.

Sean Connery, George Lazenby, Roger Moore, Timothy Dalton, Pierce Brosnan, Daniel Craig… which one captures the character best?

My choice? Simon Vance.


Simon narrates the audiobooks (or, at least, he recorded the entire set during the 2000’s… they were recently re-released with a bunch of celebrity narrators, but Simon’s are superior).   Coupled with the fact that the books really are just better, it’s Vance’s Bond that I think absolutely captures the character as Fleming intended him.  Simon’s performances are consistently excellent, absolutely worth a listen.  Find a sample.  Give it a few minutes.  I think you’ll agree pretty quickly.
Full disclosure: Simon also narrates my audiobooks, along with hundreds of others.  He’s my favorite narrator, and it was a wonderful surprise to find he narrated the Bond novels.  So I may be biased.  A bit.

But, fine, that answer a bit of a cop out.  If I have to pick from the film actors, I’d say Connery has the look down, but it is Daniel Craig who best captures the personality.

Overall I greatly enjoyed reading the books again, in fact I felt kind of depressed that there were no more to pick up after the last.  They're engrossing, well written, and briskly paced.  Compared to the tomes we write today, they're also quite short.  I think authors today, myself included, can learn something from Fleming's economy of words.  They feel just as full of colorful locations, well-drawn characters, and intricate plots as books with double the word count.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Scrivener Bootcamp!

Just in time for NaNoWriMo, I've recorded a 1.5 hour tutorial on using Scrivener.

If you've never tried Scrivener and don't understand what all the fuss is about, hopefully this will be useful!

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Meet the Character - Blog Tour

My friend M. Todd Gallowglas called on me to participate in this blog tour thingy, so here goes!

1.What is the name of your character?

Nigel Proctor

2. Is he/she fictional or a historic person?


3. When and where is the story set?

It's set in Sydney and Darwin, Australia, circa 2278.

4. What should we know about him/her?

Nigel is a high-end locksmith, sent to open a hotel safe in Sydney in order to prove to the hotel that it should install a better model. However he's hired away at the last minute by some unsavory characters, while outside the world seems to be dipping into some sort of calamity.

5. What is the main conflict? What messes up his/her life?

Well, there's this whole apocalypse thing...

6. What is the personal goal of the character?

He gets involved with some less-than-reputable people, and realizes his career is over for doing so. But then the world ends, and he seizes the chance to reinvent himself. My fans will know him as Prumble.

7. Is there a working title for this novel, and can we read more about it?

It's called THE DIRE EARTH, a novella that serves as a prelude to my novel THE DARWIN ELEVATOR.

8. When can we expect the book to be published or when was it published?

November 18th!

To continue this blog tour thing, I call out Michael J. Martinez, Teresa Frohock, and Karina Cooper!

Announcing THE DIRE EARTH, a novella

Hey all!

My new novella, THE DIRE EARTH, will be released on November 18th (North America).

Here's the cover:

Set in 2278 against the backdrop of the SUBS outbreak, this tells the stories of how most of the main characters from the DIRE EARTH trilogy found their way to Darwin as the world fell apart.

It's about 125 pages long, and for the time being is an ebook-only release. I'm hoping to hear confirmation of an audio version any day now.

Links to preorder at most major ebook sellers can be found on this Random House page.  Happy reading!

Monday, September 22, 2014

Book vs. Film: "Octopussy and The Living Daylights"

--Part 14 of my James Bond re-read / re-watch--

This short story collection is the final entry in Ian Fleming's James Bond series, comprising four tales: Octopussy, The Living Daylights, The Property of a Lady, and 007 in New York.  It's also the only Bond material of Fleming's to be published posthumously.

I'll cover each in turn:

Tale of a retired British soldier who, at the end of WWII, stole some Nazi gold, murdering a Austrian mountaineer in the process. Bond has come to Jamaica many years later to arrest him for that crime. The man now works for a lab in Jamaica, studying fish along a particular reef. There's one octopus there, whom he's named Pussy, hence the title.
The man is basically waiting to die, his life having lost all meaning for him except these sea creatures whom he's come to know as friends over the last two years.
It's rather poetic, and actually one of my favorite Bond stories despite it mostly being about Major Smith.  I love the backstory of how Smith came to be in the situation he's in, and why Bond is the one who finally tracks him down.
This story was, it turns out, not adopted for film.  That's right, Octopussy the movie is not based on this.  Instead it's based on...

A very short and anti-climactic story, involving a Faberge egg being sold at auction as a way for the KGB to pay one of their moles inside the British Secret Service. Bond points out to M that the mole's handler might be present at the auction trying to force the bidding up, and it's a good chance to spot the elusive man. M agrees, and so Bond goes to the auction... and spots the man. The end. It's a decent story that seems more of an excuse to delve into the shady side of affluent auctions than anything else.
The movie Octopussy is odd as an adaptation.  A large portion of the plot comes, more or less, from the short story The Property of  Lady. Yet it gets its title from the story Octopussy.  The actual details of that story are reduced to background for Bond's love interest of the same name. Background, mind you, delivered via a thirty second long, unnecessary and overly complicated bit of dialog.
Confused? Don't worry, this is one of the least confusing things that happened in the course of adapting these works to the screen.
Octopussy holds a crown of nostalgia for me. It's the first Bond film I ever saw in the theater, at the impressionable age of twelve. I'm trying not to let that cloud my judgement, but I do think that it's Roger Moore's best Bond film. In fact overall it's one of the better Bond films, which is a surprise considering how much it strays from the source material (admittedly there wasn't much to go on).  Still it's not without its laugh-aloud moments, and not in a good way. For example when a Jeep full of bad guys appears literally out of nowhere to give Bond someone to fight during a chase. The worst of the lot is the Tarzan bit, though. I found myself hoping someone lost their job for that.
On the plus side, the plot is pretty good and doesn't feel like a bunch of "wouldn't it be cool if?" scenes strung together by Bond following the first clue he comes across (ahem, Moonraker). Somehow they managed to avoid that here, and Bond even does some real spycraft in the process. When the finale comes, and Bond must defuse a nuclear bomb while being chased by a few hundred police officers, the tension is actually palpable. You know he's going to win even if you haven't seen it before, and yet I still found myself completely caught up in the action.
In other words, Octopussy enjoys some excellent direction. The cinematography is also quite good. A few examples:
A rare thing in the movies - Bond actually spying.

The auction, well staged and filmed. Reminds me a bit of Hitchcock

Excellent lighting here... lots of great shots like this throughout

However, this film would have been even better if the climax had been the moment of the bomb diffusion.  Instead, we go back to India for one last battle, and it's so hokey I found myself cringing with embarrassment for all involved, especially when Bond and Q come floating in via an air balloon designed after the British flag.  No need for subtlety when you're a secret agent, I guess.

Berlin.  A British agent is going to be crossing from East to West, and he's unaware that the KGB has discovered the plan. All the KGB knows is roughly when and where the crossing will occur, so they've posted a sniper team to assassinate the agent as he crosses.  Bond is sent in to snipe the sniper.  He's not really happy at the prospect of a mission that is purely murder, but he's a good solider and takes his orders in stride.
As Bond tales go it's perhaps the one that best captures Cold War espionage in Europe.
The story also encapsulates a trait of Bond that is present throughout the books. Bond, despite his playboy lifestyle and tough talk, is a hopeless romantic. While watching the crossing spot for 3 nights in a row, he's taken by the beauty of a cellist whom he sees walking into a concert hall each night. When she eventually turns out to be the enemy sniper, Bond (who is working as part of a team and thus is under scrutiny) deliberately shoots the girl's hand rather than killing her.
"That girl won’t do any more sniping. Probably lost her left hand. Certainly broke her nerve for that kind of work. Scared the living daylights out of her. In my book, that was enough."
He does this mainly because he's invented sort of a fantasy version of what her life must be like, and fallen for this invented version of her.
Another element of Bond's character is revealed here, and it's one that surfaces in the last 4 books or so of the series. Bond seems to be deliberately seeking a way out of his 00 status, and he states it very clearly here when his partner says the act of mercy will go in the official report. In literary circles, Bond is well known as being an exception to the rule that the main character of a story must have an "arc", a change they go through over the course of the story.  Bond is often cited as an exception to this.  He never changes, they say.  Well, I'm not so sure about that anymore. The change is subtle, but I now feel that, at least in literary form, it's there.
This story is adapted fairly well into an early scene of the movie that bears the same name. The rest of the movie is purely the invention of the filmmakers. It's also Timothy Dalton's first outing as Bond. I actually liked Dalton in the role, compared to Moore at least.  And though his portrayal of Bond doesn't really fit with the one his predecessors built up in moviegoers minds, it is fairly close to the Bond that Fleming writes about. Dalton's romance with the cellist is intimate and often quite sweet, more so than any other Bond.  Perhaps too much so, and I think this has a lot to do with why audiences rejected him.  He may have nailed the sweet side, but he never seems tough enough.

Dalton's Bond is the most romantic

This is a bit anti-climactic, as the last story in the last book of Fleming's work, and that's because I didn't read it.  For some reason it's not included in the audiobook I purchased. "No matter," I thought.  The story also appears in the non-fiction book Thrilling Cities Fleming wrote... but only in the US version. I happen to own the UK version.  So, nothing much to say here other than, from what I can gather, it was never adapted into any of the films and is only remarkable because he's one of the few Bond stories featuring a fair amount of humor.  I'll track it down at some point and update this.

Thus concludes my James Bond re-read and re-watch.  I'll post a conclusion and some final thoughts in a separate article.

To sum up this book and the two films made from the material:

OCTOPUSSY - Contains a reasonably faithful adaptation... of a different story.
THE LIVING DAYLIGHTS - Contains a somewhat faithful adaptation of the story, and also captures some of Bond's romantic side.

Up next: Some final thoughts on this whole endeavor...


Have a look at the Czech cover for Darwinský výtah!

Monday, September 15, 2014

Book vs. Film: "The Man with the Golden Gun"

Or, The Man with the Phallic Phallus.

This, the last of the Bond novels, continues Bond's story from You Only Live Twice. Such continuity is rare in the series, but the last three take this approach.

(spoilers ahead...)

Bond has returned home from Japan via Russia, his amnesia gone only to be replaced by Soviet brainwashing. Bond actually tries to assassinate M, but M outwits him and, still holding out hope for the broken man, sends Bond off for shock treatment.

After successful treatment, M gives Bond a mission of little national security importance to try and see if he's still "got it". So he's sent out to kill an infamous assassin named Paco "Pistols" Scaramanga.  In the book, Scaramanga uses a gold-plated Colt 45, firing bullets with a gold core because they cause more internal damage. He grew up as a trick shot in the circus, then fled after killing a policeman. On the run, he winds up spending most of his time as a killer for the Spang Brothers of Diamonds are Forever fame - basically the Vegas mob. He's a caricature American gangster, and not especially deep as Fleming villains go.  But he does have great sexual prowess.  This point gets made frequently.

After a week of travel without success, Bond winds up finding Scaramanga in Jamaica.  The Caribbean is comfortable ground for Fleming, who lived there. As such it's easy to see why he chose the location.  The movie trades this locale for Southeast Asia -- Thiland and Macau, perhaps to avoid the repetition of returning to Jamaica once again, perhaps because the Cuban situation had changed significantly by the time the film came out (the politics of the region, in the Cold War sense, were very much centered around Cuba at the time the novel was written).

On the topic of Scaramanga: This is one of those occasions where the film improved on the books. Scaramanga is a more interesting character by far in the movie, and comes across as much more of a challenge for Bond to defeat. Unfortunately everything else in the movie is so bad it doesn't really matter.

The plot in the book is rather simple, and relies perhaps more than any other Fleming novel on coincidence. Bond just happens to spot a letter posted for Scaramanga in the airport, detailing where and when the man will have a meeting. Then Bond just happens to bump into Scaramanga at a brothel (Bond is there because he's nostalgic for "old Jamaica" and thinking about buying the place, not realizing what goes on there but not really shocked either). Scaramanga hires bond to be his assistant for this big meeting he's about to have, a trope Fleming also used in Goldfinger (interesting, both "Gold" named books). Felix Leiter just happens to be undercover at the same hotel where the meeting is taking place. And, one of the people coming to the meeting just happens to be a top KGB agent who is out to kill Bond.  They say that readers will forgive an author one coincidence, and Fleming is definitely pushing things well past the limit here.

It's a short, mediocre Bond novel adapted into an awful movie.

Film Scaramanga, purported to be this insanely good assassin, lives on an island China has given him, where he's constructed (in addition to an awesome house) a circus-inspired maze.  With the help of his sadistic personal assistant, Scaramanga lures other famous assassins to this maze and then "hunts them". The quotes there are important because there's nothing sporting about it. I think the point of this was supposed to be that Scaramanga is pitting his skill against potential rivals, purely to see who is better, but this is rendered completely moot by the fact that the opponent has to go through this crazy, over-the-top circus maze.  Scaramanga hides inside, knowing all the secrets, blindspots, and cover points. Then he shoots his opponent when they're at their most confused.  How the hell is that a battle of assassin skills? And really, why bother with all that nonsense?  None of this was in the book, at all. There's a passing mention of Scaramanga learning to shoot as a trick-shot in the circus, but that's it. As it stands, although everything else that happens points to this man being a top, if not thee top, assassin, the maze bit implies he cannot hope to beat his competition without massive external assistance. For me this killed all the other character building going on.

We see this maze in the opening scene and, inside, at the end of the contraption, is a wax model of James Bond -- telling us in bludgeoning-hammer-fashion that Scaramanga's ultimate rival is 007. I suspect at least 90% of viewers figure out in this opening minute that the movie will end with the real James Bond pretending to be the wax model in order to get the upper hand on Scaramanga.  And that is, of course, exactly what happens.
Psychedelic! The kids are into that, right? Right?

The film is one of the weakest in the franchise. A string of concocted situations, loosely connected to one another. Two absolute groaners stand out to me.

  • Bond is captured by his enemy and specifically ordered killed.  They've got him right there, and they have weapons.  How do they go about this execution? A bullet in the back of the head? Strangle him? No, no... what they do is put him up for the night in a sumptuous karate dojo, surrounded by beautiful women who cater to his every whim.  As morning arrives, Bond is treated to watching some of the warriors spar with each other, and then.. of course, Bond is invited to come out and fight their best man.  So that that man can kill Bond.  Because that's a slam dunk.  No possibility Bond will win!  No chance of escape! WAIT, BOND IS A KARATE EXPERT? SHIT! HUH?! HE DOVE THROUGH A PAPER WINDOW AND FLED?! AFTER HIM! WHAT? THE GOOD GUYS WERE WAITING RIGHT OUTSIDE TO PICK HIM UP? THAT LIMEY GENIUS!
  • And then there's the dreaded Sheriff. Perhaps the worst character in all the movies, Sheriff Redneck (I can't be bothered to look up the actual character name, but this tells you all you need to know) from Live and Let Die makes his triumphant return to the silver screen here.  I had forgotten about this fact until he appears--erased it from my mind you might say, and I found myself groaning that he was on screen for 10 seconds to deliver a dumb line. A cameo? Well, okay. I guess I can stomach it.  But then he comes back.  And doesn't leave.  Now he and Bond are in a car together, chasing the enemy.  Working together like some buddy cop duo.  For endless minutes of sheer cringe-inducing antics.  It boggles my mind that someone out there in movieland thought "We need to bring that Sheriff back. And... AND!!!... get him and Bond working together!" Hey guys, for this character, how about less "Live" and more "Let Die"?
Tonight on ABC, another hilarious episode of Bond and the Redneck!

There are plenty of other problems, but they're more forgivable.

One highlight is the gigantic MI6 field office hidden inside the half-sunken wreck of the Queen Elizabeth.  Despite being completely ridiculous as a secret base (I'm well past the point of expecting any actual spycraft to occur in these movies), it's a very cool set.

An entire secret base inside a ship listing at 45 degrees
Also, what is it with the filmmakers and their obsession with having M, Q, and Moneypenny showing up in the field where Bond is working?  It's like the entire secret service support staff travels with him, and yet Bond always seems surprised to stumble upon them.

In summation, what we have this time 'round is a mediocre book adapted (and I use the term loosely) into a forgettable movie.  You can safely put both of these near the bottom of you reading and viewing list.

Book: C-
Film: F+
Faithfulness to the source material: Well he has a gun, and it is gold...

Next up, and the last entry in the series, a short story collection:  Octopussy and The Living Daylights

Friday, September 5, 2014

Blurb Policy

You can safely skip this post unless you're a writer.

I feel bad having to do this, but I've had something of a flood of requests recently and so I think stating an official policy will be useful. I'm shamelessly stealing the basics for this from John Scalzi.

So, my blurb policy is as such:

  • I'm very happy to read stuff with an eye toward blurbing it, especially for debut authors...
  • ...but those requests must come from your editor/publisher or agent, ideally sent to my agent, Sara Megibow. She knows how busy I am, she knows what my deadlines are, and she can also weed out things that might be... inappropriate.

No matter how well you know me, please don't ask me directly. Don't email me your manuscript or send me a printed book in the mail unsolicited.  Send it through your publisher, or your agent, and don't tell me it's coming. If I have time, I'll read. If you don't get a blurb back, don't take it personally. The most likely reason, by far, is simply that I don't have time. That's the honest truth.

This is basically standard etiquette for authors. Read Scalzi's post on the topic if you want more insight from someone who gets truly inundated with this sort of thing daily.

If you're a soon-to-be-published author, your editor will likely ask you at some point for a list of authors you think might be willing to blurb. That's the best time and place to drop my name. My advice? Drop a ton of names. One thing you'll learn very quickly is that you need to use a shotgun approach when it comes to this sort of thing. I sought blurbs from all my favorite authors for DARWIN (asking none directly), and you know what? Not a single one of them came through. I'll admit I took this kind of personally at the time, but now that I'm on the other side of things I can see why that's the wrong reaction. And anyway I still wound up with a slew of great blurbs from amazing authors. You will, too.  So don't fret, don't take it personally, and please don't put me (or any of the authors you love) in the position where we have to tell you that we're not going to blurb, or even that we couldn't clear our schedule to read your book. It's no fun for anyone.

Right then! Back to fun stuff...

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Book vs. Film: "You Only Live Twice"

(part of my series comparing the James Bond novels to their film counterparts)

The situation is... complicated.

Fleming wrote this novel as a follow up to On Her Majesty's Secret Service, where Bond finds himself married, and then hours later, tragically, single once again. Worse, the killers -- Blofeld and his right-hand Erma Blount -- get away. At the start of the novel version of Twice he's depressed, distracted, and performing poorly at work and in his private life. He's ready to resign as soon as M asks him too, which Bond is convinced will happen at any moment.
First edition cover, 1964

The movie producers made two choices here that get things off on the wrong foot.  First, they decided to produce a movie based on You Only Live Twice before On Her Majesty's Secret Service. Given that these novels feature a rare thing for the series -- plot continuity -- we have a problem. Bond's mindset, and indeed the entire purpose of his mission to Japan, is related to the life situation he's found himself in. And, ultimately, the evil he must face in Twice is the very same evil that killed Bond's spouse.

Well, guess what happens when they film these out of order? That's right. They lose all of that. And how do they make up for this? With crap.

I mean, if you're going to stray from the source material, you should not only have a damn good reason, but also an idea of your own that is, if not equal to the source material, at least in the spirit of it. Right?

Let me talk about the book first. A quick synopsis to set the stage: M sends depressed-Bond on a mission he hopes will revive his spirit. Something tough, but something devoid of action and gunplay. It's a diplomatic mission to try and get the Japanese secret service to share intelligence with the British rather than the CIA. M fears the CIA is filtering the information, or worse, withholding key things.

So Bond heads for Japan, and while much of this portion of the book reads rather slow and cliche, there are plenty of interesting insights as well. Remember that this was written and set in the 60's, perhaps twenty years after the end of WWII. As with all of these novels it amounts to a window into a different era, and different mindsets.

Things get moving when Bond is given a task by the head of Japan's secret service: Go assassinate this rogue ex-pat Swiss botanist for us and we'll start sharing information with your boss.

While much of the rest of the book is good but never great, an equal portion of it is weak but never terrible. The end result is a middle-of-the-pack Bond novel. I can see the desire to amp it up a bit for film.

(spoiler alert!)

The novel ends with Bond taking two vicious wounds to his head, and when he's finally pulled from the water by his love interest, he's lost his memory. Something unexpected happens then, and I found this perhaps the most interesting aspect of the book.  Kissy Suzuki, the girl, decides not to tell Bond who he really is or why he's there.  Instead she tries to keep him for herself, pretending they're lovers and that the little island she lives on is their entire world. She hides Bond from all the various people that come looking for him. And, somewhat delightfully, she succeeds. She keeps Bond in this fictional life for months. So long, in fact, that M and everyone else has assumed Bond died in the final battle. The book ends with Bond trapped in this idyllic life until he has the first jog to his memory: spotting the word "Vladivostok" in a newspaper clipping Kissy missed (she makes sure he doesn't see anything with English words). The word means something to Bond, and when he finds out it's a city in Russia he wants to go visit it. She reluctantly lets him go.

During all this, M writes an obituary for Bond which is "included in full". I got a huge kick out of this because it's written as if Bond and M are real people, even going to far as to mention that a caricature of Bond was portrayed in a series of novels, and that "if these works had been of higher quality" the Ministry of Defense might have done something about them. Fun to see Fleming could be self deprecating, and doing so in style by having his own character, M, saying bad things about the novels and their author.

Also mentioned is the epitaph chosen for Bond's gravestone, which I thought was actually rather poetic and a great summation of Bond's character:

"I shall not waste my days in trying to prolong them. I shall use my time."

(spoilers end)

As for the film... do I have to?

Okay, fine.  But here's the key thing to take away from this: You Only Live Twice is the first of the film adaptations to stray wildly from the book, and we've seen how well that's worked out in almost every previous post in this series.

It starts with this nonsense:

"What the hell is this?" you wonder? Why, it's a mystery rogue spaceship swallowing an American space capsule. Remember: it's the Mid 60's. This stuff was all the rage back then. "How can we work space travel into this story?" the producers must have asked themselves. They'd ask the same question with Moonraker, apparently not learning their lesson the first time around. At least they don't have Bond traveling into space here, but things get damned close to that.

I'll cut to the chase.  The gambit is that Blofeld, and therefore SPECTRE, are stealing space ships.  First they steal an American one, which the Americans naturally blame the Russians for.  Then later they steal a Russian one, because of course the Russians will blame the Americans. Why?  Because obviously this will result in a nuclear war! Let me just hammer this home: The evil plot is that Blofeld will develop--in secret--an entire space program, run out of a fake volcano in Japan, and what he plans to do with his amazing technological accomplishment is hijack American and Russian space capsules... because clearly that will send the two superpowers over the brink of nuclear armageddon. To what end? It's not obvious? Because once they've destroyed each other, SPECTRE will rise to take their places as the de-facto post-apocalyptic worldwide bad-ass regime!
Diabolical! Overly complicated! Very low chance of success! As long as that meddling Bond doesn't catch wind of it...

Equally corny, in my view, is Bond's opening scene that comes right after this. Bond is killed in Hong Kong (while bedding an Asian woman, of course!). There follows an elaborate funeral ending with Bond's burial at sea. His corpse drifts down to the seabed, only to be picked up by a submarine, where he is discovered (try to contain your shock here) to be alive. He makes a now-customary quip and we're off. The death was faked to give Bond adequate cover for going on a mission to Japan. A mission that starts, by the way, with him being fired out of a torpedo tube as a means of getting from the submarine to shore. I can only assume this whole bit of wretched shtick was to give the title some meaning, because the book gets the title from a haiku that Bond writes. (You only live twice. Once when you are born, and once when you look death in the face.)

Surprisingly, some of the corny bits in the movie are in the book this time. The ninjas. The idea that Bond can be physically transformed to pass for Japanese. The corny tilting-floor slide trap. All in the novel. None of these things come across quite as cheesy in the book, but they are there. What the movie adds on top of this is the aforementioned fake funeral, the spacecraft hijacking, Bond being launched from a torpedo tube, "rocket guns", and the kicker: Bond, in order to truly pass for Japanese, must be married, leading to a fake wedding to go with the fake funeral. This scene is pointless and just goes on and on and on.  It also reduces Kissy Suzuki's rather interesting character into just another woman for Bond to conquer. Gah.

Book: C
Film: D
Faithfulness to the source material: D-

Up next: The Man with the Golden Gun, Fleming's final Bond novel (but not the last Bond story, there's still a collection after that)

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Book vs. Film: "On Her Majesty's Secret Service"

(part of my series comparing the James Bond novels to their film counterparts)

On Her Majesty's Secret Service was the first novel to be published after Bond became a film sensation. I don't know if Fleming wrote it before Dr. No's theatrical release, but it stands to reason he was at least in the process of editing it during that time.

If he felt any pressure or influence from the movie, it doesn't show. This book proves to be very consistent with Bond's previous adventures.  It revolves around one of the more devious plots in the Bond-villain catalog of devious plots: using hypnotherapy to get unwitting civilians to spread animal and crop diseases.

Surrounding this, Bond is also faced with a devious plot of a different kind: marriage. He's fallen in love with a girl named Tracy, who happens to be the daughter of a major organized crime boss.  Her father tries to force Bond into wedlock from the outset as a way to save his reckless daughter's life, but Bond insists she get psychiatric help first. Only then will he consider courting her.

Later, after Bond makes a harrowing (and extremely well written) escape from the villain's lair high in the alps, it's Tracy who magically and coincidentally arrives to save him.  I rolled my eyes at this bit of luck, but then Fleming did something that I advise aspiring writers often: turn your coincidences into conspiracies. In this case, Tracy reminds Bond that he'd asked her father to try and discover the location of Ernest Blofeld (the villain Bond is hunting), and that her father had done just that, but couldn't get ahold of Bond to relay the information. Tracy learns the location from her dad, and reasoned that Bond might already be there looking for the man, so she comes in search of him. It's still rather convenient, but at least plausible. 

I won't spoil the third act. All in all this is one of the better entries into the Bond series.  As an author I keep trying to put myself into Fleming's mindset. With all the hoopla going on over the film Dr. No, it's impressive to me that he was able to keep his cool and write something that seems so naturally at home with the rest of the novels. Perhaps the pressure is counterbalanced by the desire to up one's game, in such a scenario.  I'm not sure.  I hope to have the good fortune to find out for myself someday.

The film version has the distinction of being the only Bond film to star George Lazenby, who landed the role after Sean Connery's departure.  Lazenby serves as a passable as Bond.  He's certainly no Connery or Craig, but I would have preferred he stay with the role in favor of Roger Moore. Unfortunately Lazenby, who was an unknown when cast, decided during filming that he would only do one Bond movie.

"This never happened to the other fellow," Bond says, then glances knowingly at the camera, punching a Frank-Underwood-sized hole in the fourth wall.
From a plot standpoint, it follows the book rather well.  However, key elements of the chronology gets mucked with, and I'm not quite sure why. Some of these tweaks had the effect of changing Bond's relationship with Tracy into something more along the lines of a gangster forcing Bond into the deal, rather than a spur-of-the-moment proposal as in the book.  It amounts to yet another head-scratching change to Bond's personality, I can only imagine because so much of the impetus for this comes through Bond's internal dialog, whereas in the film the best moment to set this up (I suppose) is when Bond is first approached by the gangster.

Seinfeld called, he wants his puffy shirt back

Lazenby is a much softer man than Connery.  A lot of that cruelty Fleming describes and embodied by Connery is lost, replaced with a bright smile and aloof charm.  I would have thought these reasons alone would have been enough to avoid casting him in the first place, but these traits were clearly something the filmmakers eagerly sought given the choice of Roger Moore that came next and lasted so long. If anything Moore takes the character farther in the wrong direction. Nothing against Roger Moore by the way, he was excellent as The Saint. I just think he's miscast as Bond, not to mentioned hampered by the writing and direction.

As a film this is one of the stronger entries. The cinematography is at times excellent. The action sequences, while a bit repetitive, are at least of a much more frenetic pace than the Connery era, and the ski chases are very well filmed (except when Lazenby or Savalas are shot against a green screen). Many scenes are lifted almost exactly from the book, including the final, tragic end.

However, the filmmakers tinker, and once again I'm frustrated by the effect these choices have on the main character.   Some examples:

  • Book: Bond has decided he'll flee from Blofeld's mountaintop lab the next morning.  So he spends a lot of time plotting his route, and finding the things he'll need to survive the frigid mountainside. He steals gloves, he cons the headmistress into bringing him some ski goggles, he scopes out the storage room where the snow gear is stored, and so on.
    • Film: The above is reduced to a sudden flight with very little thought or preparation. Bond shifts from careful, calculating spy, to something more like a superhero.
  • Book: Bond is going to enter Blofeld's lab undercover as an expert in heraldry, because Blofeld has submitted paperwork requesting that he be recognized as a Count.  So Bond spends a great deal of time studying for this cover, because he's going to need to know what he's talking about.
    • Film: Bond is already an expert in heraldry. He steps right into the role, and seems to just bluff his way through it. He's no studious spy, he's just ridiculously smart. (Curiously, this bites him in the ass, as he makes a mistake that Blofeld catches, thus blowing his cover)
  • Book: As if the above example wasn't enough, when Bond visits M at M's home, his boss (in the novel) is studying some flowers. Bond doesn't know anything about them and it's M who gives him a bit of education.
    • Film: M is studying butterflies, and Bond takes one glance at the specimen currently on the table and rattles off the latin name. Butterfly expert? Of course! He knows everything!
  • Book: Bond throws a knife at a calendar to impress on Draco how deadly he can be. And it's a damn good throw, but he misses the current date by one day. Still, it's good enough to let the man know he's no amateur.
    • Film: Bond misses the day by one.  When Draco comments on this, Bond says he always thinks a day ahead.
Taken as individual changes, these things are pretty innocent.  Perhaps the writers can't see the forest for the trees, however, because when you add them all together (along with a dozen or so others I left out) you get a Bond with superhuman abilities. Which is part of the reason I think the films lack the intensity of the books. I never really believe Bond is in trouble in the movies.  Worse, Bond always feels like he's just sort of sliding from one situation to the next (this is at its worst in the Moore films). Literally everything is easy for him. And as a result the detective aspect, the spycraft, is lost almost entirely.

Book: B+
Film: B-
Faithfulness to the book: B-

Up next: You Only Live Twice

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Book vs. Film: "The Spy Who Loved Me"

(part of my series comparing the James Bond novels to their film counterparts)

Now we come to one of the most interesting Bond novels, because it's not written from James Bond's POV. In fact he's barely even in the book.

Fleming includes a forward, which I'll quote here verbatim:

I found what follows lying on my desk one morning. As you will see, it appears to be the first person story of a young woman, evidently beautiful and not unskilled in the arts of love. According to her story, she appears to have been involved, both perilously and romantically, with the same James Bond whose secret service exploits I myself have written from time to time. With the manuscript was a note signed 'Vivienne Michel' assuring me that what she had written was 'purest truth and from the depths of her heart'. I was interested in this view of James Bond, through the wrong end of the telescope so to speak, and after obtaining clearance for certain minor infringements of the Official Secrets Act I have much pleasure in sponsoring its publication.

So what we have here is a first-person novel supposedly written by one Vivienne Michel, who is also the main character and supposedly had an adventure/romance that involved real-life James Bond.  Yet we know this is really Ian Fleming writing.  Perhaps he just wanted to do something different.  Perhaps he wanted to explore a Bond story from another character's POV.  I can respect that.

At the very least it's quite a jarring way to start a book, especially the 8th in a series.  Critics did not react well from what I understand, and Fleming supposedly only allowed a film to bear the name when promised the book's plot would not be used.  Which means this post is sort of dead before it starts, I suppose.

Still, there's some interesting things to discuss.

First off, I listened to the audiobook.  All the others are narrated by the insanely talented Simon Vance.  This one appropriately gets a female narrator by the name of Nadia May, and she's wonderful. There's a more recent version with a new narrator (one of the actresses from the movies), but I purchased the earlier version and that's okay, I found it to be excellent.

As I mentioned, the novel spends a great deal of time with the protagonist 'Viv'.  She details her professional life and her love life, leading to a messy breakup with her German boss and a trip to Switzerland to get an abortion.  She leaves for Canada after that, intent on doing a Vespa-powered road trip across the American continent.  This is all well and good, and honestly a fine story in its own right.  It's also very much a departure for Fleming, however it has very little to do with the rest of the book.

Viv rather quickly she finds herself in a nasty situation, holed up in an upstate New York lodge at the end of vacation season with a couple of gangsters who are there to burn the place down as part of an insurance fraud scheme.  She's a captive of these men, until there's a knock at the door and James Bond arrives. Again, this is roughly 2/3's of the way through the book.  You can probably guess what happens from here on out, so I'll refrain from further spoilers.

To Fleming's credit, the novel really does read like someone else wrote it. If that is what he'd hoped to accomplish, he succeeded.  But on the whole the book actually suffers from Bond's appearance.  I would have been much happier if Viv had worked herself out of this ugly situation.  She certainly seemed capable, and has the attitude for it, at least in glimpses.  The arrival of Bond felt too much like the knight-in-shining-armor moment, and of course adds an element of sexism that the story didn't need.  If Bond had never appeared, Viv had solved her own problem, and Fleming had published this under a pen name, it would have been a quite good (if short) crime novel.  With the weird addition of James Bond, the book suffers.  And as a Bond novel, it's definitely unsatisfying.

As for the film? It has nothing to do with the book. It's a 1977 pile of cheese and you should avoid it.  Bleh. The kicker is that, as I mentioned, Fleming specifically said they could only use the title. So in a way I think he deserves some of the blame for the film.

This book was an experiment for Fleming. I find it very interesting that it was released in 1962, the same year that the first film, Dr. No, came out. I can't help but wonder if there was some regret on Fleming's part that he'd tried to do something fresh and different with the books at the same time the Dr. No was setting the world on fire.

Looking back on this series of posts I realize I've been pretty hard on the films.  I'm okay with that.  The books are better in almost every case, so far.  Four more left!

As for the ratings on this one:
Book: C
Film: not rated because it has nothing to do with the book (on its own... F)

Next Up: Yet another oddball - On Her Majesty's Secret Service

Friday, August 8, 2014

Book vs. Film(s): "Thunderball"

(part of my series comparing the James Bond novels to their film counterparts)

This is an interesting one.

Thunderball (published 1961) is unique* in the Bond universe because it was adapted twice for the silver screen. First as Thunderball (1965), starring Sean Connery, and second as Never Say Never Again (1983), starring... Sean Connery.

* I'm not counting the 1967 Casino Royale comedy. It doesn't exist. Nope. Never heard of it.

Why, you ask, would they choose to remake a Bond film but try to pass it off as a new Bond film? Why not come up with an original story? It's quite simple, really: Lawyers.

Turns out Fleming had some help crafting the story for this one, and one of those collaborating writers battled for years in court to get the right to adapt the novel to screen. He eventually won, and Never Say Never Again is the movie that resulted. It's the only Bond film that falls outside of the Broccoli production team who otherwise enjoy a vice-like grip on the rights to the property.  It also lured Sean Connery out of Bond-retirement.

As a kid I never realized this about the film.  Watching it now, you still might not realize it.  The most glaring indicator is the lack of the classic Bond theme music.

Plot-wise Never Say Never Again tracks pretty closely to the novel, more so than the first film. And while it does have some cheesy moments, the 18 year gap between the two films allows it to benefit from some of the maturation the filmmaking art enjoyed during that stretch.

Klaus Brandauer is awesome as Max Largo. In fact I'd go so far to say he's my favorite film-universe Bond villain. His mannerisms are delightfully creepy without dipping into caricature. Kim Basinger, on the other hand, was not the best casting choice ever made. She's a fine actress in her own right, but for me at least fails to capture Domino's character from the book.

Minor bit of trivia: there's several moments in Never when you can hear the Voight-Kampf Machine sound effects from Blade Runner. What can I say? A geek like me notices such things.

Perhaps the worst part about Never is the silly video game battle, taking place of the Baccarat sequence. In the 80's, 14-year-old me thought this was pretty cool.  But now it's just incredibly dated.  The only thing salvaging it is Klaus Brandauer's creepy delight in both giving and receiving pain.

Thunderball, on the other hand, is simply a mediocre film. That is, once you get past the ridiculous opening sequence (A jet pack? Why why WHY?!?!). There's some excellent cinematography and set design, particularly in the SPECTRE headquarters scene early on. However, the film once again amplifies the wrong aspects of Bond as a character. Bond as we know him in the novels is certainly a Man's Man, very much a british Don Draper. It's impossible to argue for, let alone justify, the misogyny present in Flemings's books. I guess I sort of look at it as a lens into a different era, and indeed into a different mindset within that era. The novels are often uncomfortable to read, but personally I don't believe in avoiding works that make me uncomfortable. As an author I find value in getting into a mindset different from my own, and books are the best place to do this.
Why the filmmakers decided to ratchet up this aspect is beyond me. As far as I can recall Bond never forces himself on a woman in the novels. But in the early films this happens with disturbing frequency, and Thunderball sadly is no exception.
This film suffers in other ways, too. The biggest problem, though, is that everyone feels like they're just going through the motions. There's very little tension, the acting is wooden, and the wide shots make it hard to connect with any of the supporting characters. I often found myself bored, and that is the kiss of death for an action film.

Novel: B
Film attempt #1: D
Film attempt #2: C

Next up, another oddity in the Bond universe: The Spy Who Loved Me.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

One Day at Comic Con (a very short story)

A 140 word story for the GISHWHES scavenger hunt
As requested by team Quackles Loves Multiple Bison Loves Soups Natural Loves Geekwhes

Boba Fett blocked my path. He stood beside Darth Vader, posing for pictures and blocking the already clogged aisle.

I wanted to shout. “Don’t you know who I am? I’m Misha Collins, star of Supernatural!”  I’m not, of course. Well, I am. However dressed as the Queen of England in drag no one would know.

I shouldered Boba Fett aside. “Make way for the Queen!” I roared. Laughs from the crowd.

A tentacle suddenly draped across my shoulder. It belonged to the most astounding costume in the convention center: an Elopus. Half elephant, half octopus. “Picture with you?” a gibbering voice asked.

“Sure,” I stammered.

The cosplayer leaned in and snapped a selfie. “Thank you, Misha,” it whispered.

I whirled, surprised. “How did--”

The elephant’s mouth parted. Inside was the actual Queen of England. She winked, turned, and slithered off.

(If you don't know what any of this means... don't worry, neither do I)

Monday, July 14, 2014

San Diego Comic-Con 2014!

Here's my final schedule for SDCC.  If you're attending be sure to say hello!

  • Thursday, July 24th at 11am - PANEL: Science Fiction and Fantasy Literature, Room 5AB
  • Thursday, July 24th at 12:30pm - AUTOGRAPH SESSION in the sails pavilion AA09
  • Friday, July 25th at 1pm - SIGNING at Del Rey's booth 1514
  • Saturday, July 26th at 12pm - PANEL: Sci-fi, Robots, and AI, Oh my!, Room 7AB
  • Saturday, July 26th at 1:30pm - AUTOGRAPH SESSION in the sails pavilion
  • Sunday, July 25th at 11am - SIGNING at Del Rey's booth 1514

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Attack on Novel

Yesterday I wrote "the end" on the new book!  Woohoo!

This does not, however, mean it is finished.  Far from it.  But it is a nifty milestone, especially for me, because pounding out the first draft is the part of this job that feels the most like work.  It's not especially fun.  For me, the real joy comes in the editing process.

Have you ever left a conversation only to later think of something brilliant you should have said?  Well, editing is like that, except you get to go back and say it.  Every stinkin' time!  It's your chance to look at every moment in your novel and ask yourself "is this the coolest goddamn thing that could have happened here?  Is there a better way to do this?"  You get to meticulously review every line of dialog your characters say and ask yourself, "what would be smarter here?  what would have more punch, or more humor, or more heart?  What would reveal more about this person?"

I've talked about all this before.  Suffice to say, editing is very rewarding to me.  And now that I'm about to embark on the process again, I thought I'd share my plan of attack.  I have 5 weeks until the manuscript is due, so I've lumped my various tasks into 1-week buckets, each requiring a full pass through the novel.

Week 1: Timeline & Detail capture

  • Timeline issues - The first task is to go through the whole novel and map it out on a timeline.  Without spoiling anything, time is rather critical in this new novel, and I want to make sure every last hour is accounted for.  Also, when I'm writing a first draft I will occasionally "forget" what time of day it was supposed to be.  I may start a chapter with the sun having just set, but later (remember, it could be days later in terms of my writing) I'll mention they've just eaten lunch and sun is high in the sky.  A simplified example, but you get the idea.  The more common scenario is that I start a chapter at one time of day, but half-way through writing it I realize it would work better if it occurred at another time.  I never derail myself with these decisions.  I simply leave a note to go back and fix the previous portion, and move ahead.  Read my Scrivener tutorial to get an idea of how I use notes and comments.
  • Glossary - I'll also do a quick pass through the novel this first week and make a list of all my invented words.
  • Character list - Similarly, I want to make a note of every single character, with a quick sketch or bio.
  • Atlas - Again, every place that's mentioned needs to be captured.  The point of these last three?  Well, it's a good exercise, and will help later when the audiobook narrator has pronunciation questions, but for various reasons this novel is going to require a "world bible". I need to catalog all this stuff, so this is a good time to do it.  Plus I can make sure everything is consistent and decide if I want to tweak things (I will).
Week 2: Plot & Consistency
  • During the second week I'll go through all my notes looking for issues with plot or consistency, and work on fixing all of them. Basically, I want to get the story straight before I move on.  This is the part where major rewrites occur.  It'll probably take more than a week, but that should be okay.
Week 3: Character building
  • Now that the plot is all fixed up, I'll go back through again with a focus on the characters.  Some I'm happier with than others.  Those that need love will get a makeover here, with each line of dialog, each introspective thought, and their body language reviewed and improved.  I'll also make sure the characters have a solid arc, and ensure their motivations are as clear as is required.  One thing I learned when I started working with my editor on THE DARWIN ELEVATOR is that I often breeze past moments of significant emotional impact.  "This is a major event, and he just shrugs and moves on?" my editor would comment.  So I make sure to look for these sorts of problems now.
Week 4: World building
  • At this point the major issues are resolved, and this pass is basically just an additional layering of world detail.  Anything that feels ill-defined or simply lacks visual oomph, I'll be plugging in more details.  Colors, sounds, smells.  Cultural detail.  Fashion.  All of it.  This is not to say these things are absent in the first draft.  They just tend to be overly terse or, in many cases, simply lacking in imagination.
Week 5:  Read-aloud, final proof
  • During the last week I'll read the entire book aloud and fix any phrasings that trip me up, as well as correct any errors I find.  One trick that helps me during this phase: Using my computer's built-in text to speech function.  I often find mistakes or weird phrasings that my own brain corrects subconsciously while I read, or the types of things a spelling/grammar checker would miss.
So there's my plan for attacking this draft.  I think it'll come out roughly equal to its current word count (I'll cut as much as I add, in other words), which puts the final product at around 115k words. A bit shorter than DARWIN.

Right then! Into the breach!

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Phoenix Comicon!

Here's my complete schedule for Phoenix Comicon, coming up this weekend.  Complete as in: what their website says plus other activities --

  • Friday June 6th at 5:30pm, booth 640 (Del Rey)
  • Saturday June 7th at 4:30pm, booth 640 (Del Rey)
  • Sunday June 8th at 10:30am, booth 640 (Del Rey)

  • Improbable Dystopias? : A look at dystopian fiction-what makes some worlds believable, and others not? Join our panelists as they explore these questions.   Panelists: Janni Lee Simner, Jason Hough, Laini Taylor, Pierce Brown, Seanan McGuire/Mira Grant
    • When: Fri, 10:30–11:30AM  Room: North 131
  • The Taco Council : The Taco Council convenes to give its mandates and rulings for 2014. Really, hang out with some awesome authors while they hang out with each other.   Panelists: Brian McClellan, Chuck Wendig, Delilah S. Dawson, Jason Hough, Kevin Hearne, Leanna Renee Hieber, Sam Sykes
    • When: Fri, 3:00–4:00PM  Room: North 127ab
  • Using Zombies or Something Like Them : Authors who make use of zombies or creatures like them discuss their take on the creatures.   Panelists: David Wellington, Jason Hough, Joseph Nassise, Seanan McGuire/Mira Grant, Tom Leveen, Weston Ochse
    • When: Sat, 10:30–11:30AM  Room: North 126bc
  • Close to Home: Stories of the Solar System : Join authors Pierce Brown and Jason Hough as they chat with astronomers Phil Plait and Patrick Young about our solar system and how it inspired their work.   Panelists: Jason Hough, Patrick Young, Phil Plait, Pierce Brown
    • When: Sat, 12:00–1:00PM  Room: North 127ab
  • Worldbuilding: Economics : Or who pays for all those horses and rockets anyway? A crucial part of building a credible world is to create a believable working economy. Join some of our author guests as they share their secrets for doing just that.   Panelists: Jason Hough, L.E. Modesitt Jr, Pierce Brown, Scott Lynch
    • When: Sat, 3:00–4:00PM  Room: North 126bc
  • Drinks With Authors : Join our author guests for a glass or two in an informal setting.  There will be door prizes and other giveaways from our participating publishers.    Panelists: Kevin Hearne, Myke Cole, Sam Sykes & many others
    • When: Sat, 8:00–11:00PM  Room: Renaissance Salon 5-8

Pretty much any other time I'll be at Table 2423 (shared with Django Wexler).

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Book vs. Films: "For Your Eyes Only"

This is a bit of a bit of a departure from the first seven entries in this series, because For Your Eyes Only is not a Bond novel, but rather a collection of short stories.

The five stories included therein were made into four films, with varying success and faithfulness to the source.
Here's the breakdown:

From a View to a Kill: Nice, tidy little story where Bond investigates the murder of a signal dispatch rider in France. It's a fairly simple tale, and one where Bond is saved in the end by the woman he's been flirting with throughout.  All in all, nothing particularly special.  It does contain the types of things you'd never see in a Bond film -- for example, Bond sitting dressed in camouflage in a tree all night just to try and catch the killer returning to the scene of the crime.

Bond also rides the same dispatch route (with an empty mail bag) in order to try and lure the murderer to come after him.  It's a very cool scene.  Unfortunately nothing remotely like it was included in the film.  Actually nothing in the film could be described as a "cool scene".
The film in fact has only one tie to the story: its title A View to a Kill.  It's a terrible movie that even an extremely psychopathic Christopher Walken and a Duran Duran title track couldn't save.

For Your Eyes Only: A fairly straightforward story where Bond is sent by M to kill some unpleasant men who are hiding in America.  They murdered some old friends of M's in Jamaica, but for a variety of reasons are above the law now.  Bond agrees to go and do this as a personal favor, but when he gets there the daughter of the murdered couple is also on-site to accomplish the same task.  They team up, and Bond actually plays second fiddle to her bow-and-arrow slaying of the main boss.  It's a nice little story, satisfying but not particularly compelling.
The story is more or less adapted as-is for the film, albeit reduced to a single moment in a much larger caper.  As such, the simplicity of the story is largely lost in the much grander moments of the film.  More on that below.
One thing to note: if I'm not mistaken, the scene towards the end where Bond and Melina are dragged along a reef behind a boat is lifted almost exactly from the novel Thunderball. I'm curious now if the film version of Thunderball includes the same scene.  It seems odd they would reuse it.  We'll find out in the next blog entry.  According to Wikipedia, the producers lifted elements from three other Bond novels to stitch this plot together, and it shows.  It's sort of a James Bond sample platter.  You have to hand it to Sheena Easton, and curse her name to the sky above.  It's been a week since I watched it and that infuriatingly catchy theme song refuses to get out of my skull.

Quantum of Solace: Quite an odd departure, here.  This is in fact not a Bond story at all.  Bond is having an after-dinner conversation with the Governor of the Bahamas, and the man tells him the story a local couple that started out fairy tale perfect, and ended in a rather ruthless and messy divorce.  The explanation of the name, quantum of solace, is pretty neat. It refers to the theory the Governor has that a couple can remain together through anything as long as there is a minimum level of common decency, a quantum of solace, afforded each.  Once either stops holding that for their partner, the relationship will die.  Bond is not involved in this story at all, he simply hears it told, which is an interesting literary mechanism.
As the film shares only the title, I'll not even attempt to compare them.  It's funny how this film is considered bad by so many, sandwiched between the great Casino Royale (which I loved) and Skyfall (which I didn't care for, but seems to be popular among fans).  The thing is, compared to most of the earlier films, even this weak entry into the Daniel Craig era is practically a masterpiece.  If anything it says a lot about how far we've come in the cinematic arts.  The pace, the production quality, plus the lack of shtick that plagues earlier Bond films, all make for a much more enjoyable experience.  It has nothing to do with the short story of course, but then in this case that makes sense since the story had nothing to do with Bond.  The title is cool, though, and I'm glad they used it.

Risico: This story chronicles Bond going after an Italian drug smuggler only to find that the informant who originally put him onto the trail is the one smuggling drugs.  The man Bond is after ends up helping Bond track down the original informant.
It's told more or less exactly as written during the second half of the film For Your Eyes Only, and this disjointed use of two unrelated short stories contributes a lot to the film's rather vague plot.  In fact, near the end of the movie when Bond and Melina descend in a submarine to find a crashed ship I was finally reminded what the hell their goal was the whole time.  In the space of just 90 minutes I'd already forgotten the opening setup.  In a weird way it reminded me of playing Dungeons and Dragons where, after weeks of Friday night games that led us from adventure to adventure, we'd suddenly come to the awkward moment when nobody save the DM could remember what the hell we were supposed to be doing.  If this movie suffers from anything, it's the lack of occasional reminder as to what Bond's mission is.  I will admit I was perhaps confused because the grander mission in the film's plot was not the same as either of the short stories. Still...
The movie did have some great scenes. In particular the climb up to the mountaintop base was well filmed and very tense. It also had some amazing groaners, chief among them the "chat" Bond has with Margaret Thatcher at the end, during which I wanted to hide behind my pillow out of embarrassment for all involved.  Oh, and holy crap did the music suck!
One last thing on this: Roger Moore was quoted as saying that Quantum of Solace (the film) was good but the cuts were too vague, the story too hard to follow.  He should know, I guess, given that's the main problem that plagues most (if not all) of his Bond films.  No fault of Moore's, mind you, but I found it interesting that he would remark on this of all things.

The Hildebrand Rarity:  Bond is in the Seychelles, with a week to kill before his boat arrives to take him back to civilization (ahhh, travel in 1959!). He ends up going along on a wealthy man's expedition to find a rare fish (where the title comes from).  You'd think Bond would stumble into some much larger evil plot, but no, this really is just a short story that involves an abusive husband who gets his due in rather spectacular fashion, with Bond in the middle of the argument but plays almost zero part in the resolution.
Some aspects of this story were woven into the 1989 film License to Kill, the second and last entry of the unpopular Timothy Dalton era. I guess they thought the title wasn't bad-ass enough?  The film is forgettable, and the elements borrowed from this story were minor.

What did we learn from all this?  Well, the main thing in my mind is that the movie producers were definitely scraping the bottom of the barrel when they started using these stories as the basis for Bond movies.  Not that there's anything wrong with the stories per say, but none on their own provide enough material to adapt as is.  They must have been either culturally (in the sense that fans demanded it) or legally bound to use Fleming-penned material in the Bond movies.  In the case of Quantum of Solace, which came out after there'd been a handful of non-Fleming Bond films released, it seems they simply liked the title. I can't think of any other literary property so completely tapped for adaptation that such a bottom trawling occurred. Anyone?

Next up, Thunderball... the novel, the film, and the second attempt at the film, Never Say Never Again.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Book vs. Film: "Goldfinger"

It's the seventh post in this series and I've come to something of a revelation now.  I'll share that right away for those not interested in the minutia of Goldfinger's adaptation from novel to screen.

James Bond is, we can all agree, a cultural icon.  But probably 98% of the world knows the movie version of the character, and the movie version is not quite the secret agent described in the books.  I've pointed out a number of the deviations in these posts, but it's finally dawned on me what an fascinating parallel this is of how history transforms into myth.  It's cleansed, it's amplified, it's outright changed to suit the whims of the "historian" (or in this case, the film producers).

Let's take the opening scenes of both versions as an example.

Novel: We start in a bar at the Miami airport.  Bond sits alone, drinking.  He's a wreck, coming down off the emotional trauma of having to kill a man with his bare hands in an alley in Mexico just hours earlier.  He wars with himself over how automatic, how ruthless, his actions had been.  And he's basically decided that, thanks to a delayed flight, he's going to get truly drunk for the first time in years just to escape from the memory.

Film: Look at how this opening is translated to screen.  We start with a ridiculous looking bird moving across water at night, which then rises to reveal itself as a decoy attached to the top of Bond's SCUBA hood.  Because, you know, if you're sneaking into an enemy facility by water at night, being under the surface of said water is just too invisible.  You need a bird on your fucking head to really sell it.  I digress.  Bond is sneaking into a refinery of some sort.  He enters a concealed room and lays out some shaped plastic explosive, plants a timer and leaves.  We cut to him entering a seedy tavern.  He checks his watch, waits one second, and there's a distant fiery explosion.  Bond smiles, satisfied even as all the other patrons panic and flee, then he follows the bar's exotic dancer into the back-room for, presumably, a quick after-mission romp.

Bird-head Bond

I mean, seriously, you'd never know these two things were related.

Now, I realize Bond is not a historical figure.  The point I'm getting at is simply how his character works as an example of what can happen when a story, real or not, is retold.  It's why history books are so fraught with inaccuracies, and also why we get the saying "history is written by the victors."  With the exception perhaps of Daniel Craig in the latest films, it's hard to imagine the scene as written in the novel making its way onto screen.  Such looks into Bond's psyche, on the PTSD-like toll his work takes on him, appear throughout the books.  On screen, again perhaps the latest films being a notable exception, Bond is always the slick, sardonic, womanizing soldier most people think of when they think of James Bond.  His "real" self, the man as written by Fleming, is largely gone from the public consciousness today, replaced after only one iteration by the caricature we get in the films.  For better or worse I'm not interested in right now, I just think it's fascinating to see so clearly how this skewing can happen when we have truly accurate material to compare, something that virtually never happens when studying history. The psychological ramifications are essentially the same, in my view, and so I think it makes an interesting way to study the phenomenon itself.

Right then.  To the specifics!

The novel starts with elements of Moonraker and Diamonds are Forever.  Once again, Bond's involvement begins with another coincidental meeting.  A minor character from Casino Royale recognizes him in that Miami airport and begs Bond to help him figure out how a man named Goldfinger is cheating at cards.  Moonraker had a similar setup.  This part is fine.  What makes it coincidental in a rather unbelievable way is that a month later Bond is put on the case of investigating the gold smuggling antics of, you guessed it, Goldfinger.

In some ways the film improves upon this.  Bond is specifically ordered to observe Goldfinger (strangely, he gets those orders from M via Felix Leiter, as if the movie producers were looking for a way to insert the CIA man into the movie).  Bond catches Goldfinger at cheating, pretty much exactly as in the book, and then returns to England for his real briefing.

Bond learns then that Goldfinger is somehow smuggling gold out of England.  This part is similar to Diamonds are Forever.  It must be interesting as an author to reach the point where you can draw on your own works for material to be inspired by (ahem).

So Bond heads to a golf course that Goldfinger mentions frequenting, intending to find out more about the man.  In the book we get a lot of detail here about the plan.  Bond is going to maintain his cover as an import/export executive who is unhappy in his current job, in hopes of at least earning something of a friendship with Goldfinger, if not an outright job offer.  As usual, Fleming has all this stuff well sorted out, and it's great to get so much context and insight.  As often happens, the film loses most of this.  In fact with Goldfinger I found it extremely frustrating how little background or insight is given to the viewer.  Once again Bond seems to just be sort of drifting from one convenient moment to another.  There's nothing carefully or cleverly planned about any of it.  More fuel on the altered history fire I started above.

The golf scene is very similar in the novel and the film, with two notable differences.  In the book, the scene spans multiple chapters and, honestly, just goes on and on.  Far more detail about the sport is given than is required.  I applaud the filmmakers for tidying this up and simplifying it.  However, they don't get a pass because of another change to the Bond character that grates on me now.  In some ways it's sort of the opposite of the 'Han shoots first" Star Wars controversy.

You see, in the film Goldfinger is looking for a ball that has gone into the rough.  He pretends to find the ball, which is in fact conveniently dropped out of the pant leg of his caddy.  Bond knows it's not Goldfinger's ball because he himself is standing on the real one.  It's clever and cool and gives a nice exclamation point on Bond's personality.  The thing is, in the novel it's Bond's caddy who gets the idea to stand on the ball, and Bond is the one left to be impressed at the clever and rather sinister trick.  Again, cast this as if the events were something from history -- accurate in the novel, and then fudged a bit in the film's retelling in order to make the hero seem that much better.  A foot soldier's action later attributed to the commander.

A minor note for you car-geeks like me.  This marks the first book where Bond drives an Aston Martin.  It's a DB3 with some modifications, like reinforced bumpers and a gun hidden below the passenger seat. Note that Bond borrowed the car from the Secret Service's motor pool, to shore up his cover story of being a successful import/export man.

In the novel Bond is captured by Oddjob and placed on a table where a large saw is set in motion toward his naughty bits.  Bond refuses to talk, and indeed tries to kill himself simply by holding his breath just to avoid the pain of the sawblade.  Inexplicably Bond is not just spared but retained in Goldfinger's service, along with the book's love interest Tilly Masterton.  Instead of killing them, Goldfinger puts them in charge of doing his secretarial work during the Ft. Knox heist.  I could understand wanting Bond there to assess the other crime bosses, after all he sussed out Goldfinger's card-cheating scheme early on, but I don't see how Goldfinger would trust his answers, much less his work on the papers. Once again, Bond is given long monologue's by the villain on the specifics of the plan "since you're going to die anyway". I would much rather prefer the secret service agent FIND this information rather than be told it so blatantly.

There's another part I have to mention.  Bond, and thus Fleming I must assume in this case, has a rather embarrassing diatribe on homosexuality that grates more than any other bit of unpleasantness in the previous books.  I'm not sure how much of this can be forgiven due to the era in which it was written.  It's bigoted nonsense no matter what year it was written.  Some would probably boycott Fleming as a result (if they hadn't already with the racial aspects in earlier books), and I can understand that, but I'm going to soldier on because I'm the forgiving sort, I guess.

Overall this is one of the weaker books in the series. Started off rather good, but loses virtually all its steam when Bond is kept alive by Goldfinger and allowed to sit in on so much of the heist planning.

As for the film, well... on the whole I felt lost early on. There's little explanation given for anything going on.  Like the horrid film version of Moonraker, Bond seems to sort of stumble from one convenient clue to the next.  Having read the book helped immensely, but if I try to put that knowledge aside it just feels so thin.

I do think there's a few areas the film improves on the book, and that is a rarity so far in this series.  There's the aforementioned streamlining of the golf game.  Later, Bond actually spies (gasp) on the meeting between Goldfinger and the crime bosses, instead of sitting there as Goldfinger's secretary.  The crime bosses, who are basically being invited to participate in the Ft. Knox heist in the book, are actually already working for Goldfinger in the movie, having taken care of various aspects of the prep work without knowing what's really going on.  I found this more believable.

There's plenty of flaws, however.  First on my mind is that, even though I just finished watching it a few days ago, I cannot for the life of me remember what happened to Tilly Masterton.  Maybe I blinked at some point but as far as I can recall she simply disappears when Bond is taken to the US by Goldfinger.  In the book Tilly remains Bonds counterpart throughout, but in the film that role shifts to Pussy Galore at this point.  That doesn't happen until the very end in the book (and it's lame in both cases, honestly).

Beyond that, the main flaw is simply that Goldfinger would keep Bond alive through all this, and even chain him to the nuclear bomb at the end, leaving one hand free mind you, where Bond can still have one last chance to turn the tables.  It's hard to fear these villains as the geniuses they're described as being when they do this sort of thing.

Overall: D+, one of the weaker entires in both the book and the film stables.
Book: D
Film: C

Birth of Bond tropes: Finally, the Aston Martin arrives!

The next post will be an interesting one, looking at For Your Eyes Only, which is actually a collection of short stories.  Three were "adapted" into films (adapted in quotes because I suspect very little, if any, of the source material was used).