Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Book vs. Film: "Moonraker"

--obligatory spoiler alert--

A tale of polar opposites...

This is the third post in this series (part one covered Casino Royale, and part two looked at Live and Let Die).  When it comes to book vs. film, it's actually quite astonishing how different these two works are.

As a novel, Moonraker is wonderful.  In fact it may be the best of the Ian Fleming series.  The story takes place entirely in England, and starts with Bond going into the field with M on what appears to be a simple undertaking: M believes that millionaire Sir Hugo Drax is cheating at the local card club.  He wants Bond to come along and observe the game of bridge and see if he can figure out the truth.  Bond, as we learned in both Casino Royale and Live and Let Die, is a very capable gambler.  This comes from two facets of his personality: he takes great efforts to understand the games and their odds, and he has good intuition when it comes to taking chances.  On top of that, he's good at reading people.

A very brief plot recap (skip if you don't want spoilers):  Bond and M decide that Drax is indeed cheating, though he seems to have no motivation to do so being a millionaire and well-respected member of society. Bond decides to cheat the cheater, and through various means manages to swindle an infuriated Drax.  One thing we get during all this is a very plausible and interesting backstory to the villain, something that the two previous novels also provided.
Drax owns a company that is working to build England's first nuclear missile for defense (based on real-world activities at the time of its writing).  After this card game intrigue, a government overseer at Drax's company is killed, and Bond is sent in to investigate under the guise of being the man's replacement.  This all happens in the days before the missile is due to be tested, and the government wants no delays, so Bond has a very real time pressure.  There's another agent there already working undercover as Drax's assistant, and she and Bond collaborate to try and figure out what has happened.  During all this there are several attempts to get Bond out of the picture, the means employed at least for the most part flirt with realism.
Eventually, Bond uncovers the truth: Drax is going to substitute the missile's trajectory that would take it out harmlessly to sea and instead aim it at London, with a real warhead installed.
The ending is fantastic, and I won't spoil too much of it here, suffice to say there's some very memorable scenes, in particular one where Bond and his love interest hide in the tunnels under the missile silo, only to realize this is where the rocket's exhaust plume will channel during launch.  The bad guys know this too, so instead of trying to find them they simply cover the exits and wait.

This book marks the first time we see M outside his usual office, and it's quite a joy to be party to the conversation M and Bond have over dinner while they wait for the game of bridge to start.  Fleming seems to rise to the challenge of the close and comfortable setting, especially after the jet-setting ways of the previous book.

M being outside his office, by the way, is perhaps the only similarity between this novel and the film called Moonraker (and of course they had to take this tiny detail and AMP IT UP TO MAXIMUM).  Well, that and the villain's name being Hugo Drax.

It's a fine novel and I highly recommend it if you only desire to read one of the Bond books.  Do yourself a favor and go for the audio version read by Simon Vance.  He has become James Bond for me like no screen actor could.

Interesting bit of trivia: The novel was originally published in the USA with the title "Too Hot to Handle."

As for the film.  Ugh.  What a disaster!  This is the 11th film in the series, and if I can give it any kind of pass for it's atrociousness it would be this.  With ten films behind it, and the series penchant to always go a bit more over the top than the last one, they really didn't have much of a choice but to abandon the rather subdued, tight, psychological novel for a completely farcical alternative.

This movie came out shortly after Star Wars had so captivated the world, and the producers apparently wanted to try and capitalize on that.  In fact it wasn't the next book in line for adaptation, but they rushed it ahead and probably read no further than the "Moonraker" title for their inspiration.

So the whole card game business at the beginning, which serves to introduce us to the villain and help us understand the twisted mind Bond will be pitted against, is jettisoned.  Instead it starts with the same premise as Thunderball, except instead of stealing a plane laden with warheads, a couple of comically-conveniently hidden bad guys steal a space shuttle on its way from Drax's California factory to England.  Yes, Drax is head of a company that is building space shuttles for NASA.
The plane carrying the shuttle crashes during the heist.  Later, when the wreckage is found and there's no trace of the shuttle, everyone freaks out and M brings in Bond to investigate.  Start with the wreckage, right? No, no.  Clearly the best thing to do is go to California and see Drax himself, despite no reason to suspect anything!  And Drax, who we learn quickly is a really bad guy (tm), tries to kill Bond twice in the span of 24 hours, while simultaneously allowing him to snoop about (including Bond breaking into Drax's safe).  Bond of course survives, and even shoots one of Drax's men while Drax is standing right next to Bond.  Bond then hands Drax the gun and walks away with a smug grin.

The film only gets worse.  During Bond's "investigation" he happens to spot the name of a glassworks company based in Venice.  Naturally, he goes there next.  This trend continues throughout the film: Bond just casually uncovering a single clue which he immediately follows up on and is led, perfectly, on a trail right to the heart of the matter.
And, of course, in Venice there's a handful of ridiculous attempts on Bond's life, including having a perfectly timed boat coming down a Venice canal with a machine-gun-armed man lying inside a casket that opens just as the boat is about to pass the one Bond happens to be floating by in.
In Venice Bond finds a secret lab where Drax's scientists are working on some kind of lethal gas.  Bond reports this back home and the next day M is on site, along with Q for some reason, as well as the minister of defense.  Bond takes them to see the lab, but it's miraculously gone. Replaced with an ornate office and a "surprised" Drax waiting to greet them. Apologies are offered, and Bond looks like an idiot.
Bond is taken off the case for having screwed up so badly. But during his visit he spotted some crates with the name of a Brazilian company, so -- yep -- off to Brazil!  Upon landing Bond is taken to a fly hotel room by a gorgeous babe who happens to work for the local secret service office.  Naturally he beds her the moment there's a few minutes to spare, then they're off to look into this factory.  Jaws appears again (he was in the opening scene, which took place before all this.  No explanation given for why he was involved in the two unrelated cases). Jaws tries to kill them, but is thwarted by that unstoppable force of a handful of drunken carnival partiers who dance around him.
Oh, and even though Bond is in Brazil on a (nudge nudge, wink wink) vacation, virtually out of nowhere we find that M, Q, and apparently the entirety of the secret service support infrastructure has relocated here to support Bond's mission.

It gets more and more ridiculous from here, so much so that I feel like I'm wasting my keystrokes explaining it point by point.  Suffice to say, the movie is one long string of farcical, over-the-top nonsense.  It's a mess of poorly linked scenes that seem to only serve one purpose: put Roger Moore in situations where he can utter one-liners and frolic with gorgeous women.  It all ends with a "climax" set in space, on a secret stealthy space station Drax has built behind the world's back.  Drax's plan? Launch his lethal gas in pods down to the planet, wait for everyone to die, then repopulate Earth with his own "pure" race.  But once Bond and his 3rd (or was it 4th?) love interest sabotage the radar jamming system, NASA notices the place and of course immediately launches a space shuttle of their own filled with space-warriors.  The two sides even engage in a big laser gun battle in space, awash quite literally in pew pew pew sound effects.  I had to hide behind a pillow during this part, not because of the tension (for none existed) but because I was embarrassed for all involved in this piece of garbage.

And the thing is, I remember liking this movie as a 10 year old kid. I think I must have been its target audience.  Now? Honestly, what Austin Powers is to the Bond film franchise, this film is to the Bond book franchise.  It's painful, especially if you're a fan of the novels.

Novel: A
Film (on its own): F
Film (faithfulness to the source material): F-

Birth of James Bond tropes: None really. This is the third book in the series (per order of publication), and again keeps in the Fleming style of spy thriller that is believable while glamorous.  It's well-paced and builds to a great finale.

As it is the 11th in the film series, I don't think any of the typical tropes associated with Bond started here.  If anything they were all simply dead horses being beaten.  Again and again and again.  It does feature the henchman "Jaws", though I can't recall if this is the first time we meet him.

Next up, Diamonds are Forever.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Book vs. Film: "Live and Let Die"

--obligatory spoiler alert--

What a difference a few decades can make!

In my first of this series I wrote about the differences between the book and (recent) film versions of Casino Royale.  Suffice to say that film tracks admirably to the book, and in fact differs mostly by adding a whole first act that sets up the meat of the novel's story quite well.  The book and the film are gritty, and for the most part Bond is a character of resourcefulness and instinctual, in-the-moment tactics.

Fleming's second Bond novel, Live and Let Die, carries this forward. Bond finds himself on his way to America to investigate why 16th century British and Spanish gold coins are suddenly flooding the pawn shops of New York.  It is known from various sources that a Kingpin of the underworld, going by the nickname Mr. Big (actual name is a mouthful: Buonaparte Ignace Gallia) is the source of this influx, and he is known to have been involved with the Russian spy agencies during WWII (the book was published in 1956 -- worth noting for later discussion of race!).  He sits at the head of a wide-ranging criminal network fronted by a number of legitimate businesses, and is also heavily involved in the voodoo culture.  In fact he is seen by many in these circles as being the "zombie" of voodoo's most revered spirit.  Yes, that's right, this is a zombie novel. Okay, not really, but Mr. Big does dip heavily into this mystique as a means of control.

It's hard to go further without mentioning the racial aspects of this book.  And, again, it's worth remembering when it was written, and by whom.  Much has been said already on this topic, so head over to Wikipedia if you want to dive deeper into it.  At a minimum, modern readers such as myself will no doubt feel uncomfortable, if not outright disgusted, at the constant use of "negro" to describe people of color, and the assertions that certain cultural characteristics, such as the knowledge and respect of voodoo, are absolute across this sector of the population.  It's perhaps a testament to how far we've come that this all seems so ridiculous now, and it's also a rather fascinating peek into the times at which the book was written.  I doubt reviewers back then even mentioned this sort of thing.
Never the less, it's there and acts like a constant ugly thorn, grating against an otherwise quality spy tale.  Though by no means do I advocate ignoring this or giving Fleming a pass, I will say that main affront here comes from the word itself, and if you can simply do a mental substitution for our modern, more culturally sensitive vocabulary, the content itself is fairly benign.  And, to Fleming's credit, he dishes out from all sides--Bond himself gets referred to as a "limey" on at least a dozen occasions.

As with Casino Royale, Live and Let Die is a fairly competent spy thriller.  Though light compared to something like A Perfect Spy by John le CarrĂ©, it does take itself seriously.  Other than one rather unbelievable bit of shtick with a restaurant table that descends through the floor into a hidden room, this book is almost devoid of anything Bond film-fanatics associate with the property.  For the most part the character motivations and backstories are well conceived, notably the information given about how Mr. Big became Mr. Big, how he has ties to the Soviets, and how he uses superstition and the voodoo culture to control his underlings.  Solitaire, Bond's love interest, is simply a woman who has a knack for telling if people are good or bad on a general level.  Mr. Big uses her as a lie detector, though she admits to Bond later that her skill is simply in determining character, but she's happy to let Mr. Big think otherwise.  If she senses someone is bad she tells Mr. Big they're lying, and so on.

One of the common tropes people associate with Bond (well lampooned in Austin Powers) is the villain's seemingly stupid decision near the end to allow a captured Bond and Solitaire to live until the next morning so that they can be killed in a more interesting fashion than by a simple gunshot.  In the book, this is actually well reasoned.  Mr. Big has suffered numerous setbacks thanks to Bond, which has greatly tarnished his reputation as infallible amongst those who see him as voodoo royalty.  To kill Bond where he's captured, in the bowels of a tunnel system inside a small Island, few would know that Big has bested his foe.  So he contrives to have the pair killed the next day, publicly and terribly, to show how much power he has over them, and to regain the supernatural hold he enjoys on his followers.

The film (1972) has no such redeeming quality.  In fact, the film, if I may be blunt, is terrible.

It's technically Roger Moore's second foray as Bond (remember, I'm writing these in order of book publication).  He, and everyone else involved, were saddled with seven movies already released (the book is #2 in the series).  Moore does passably well, but he's simply awash in crappy dialog and absolutely moronic situations.  It seems every single thing Bond says in this film has to be a sardonic one-liner, almost all of which fall flat.  As far as I can recall, only one of these phrases came from the book ("he disagreed with something that ate him"), and in the book it wasn't even Bond who said it.

Similarly, the film has Bond relying on high-tech (read: bullshit) gadgets, specifically a watch that has some kind of electromagnet in it that can be aimed like a beam and pulls things from dozens of feet away straight to the face of the watch.  The book has none of this.

I think the biggest flaws in the movie, however, come from completely stupid and senseless deviations from the book.  Mr. Big is not a soviet spy laundering rare gold coins to fund SMERSH operations in the US, instead he's a drug runner, pretty much pure and simple.  Instead of the voodoo aspect being just a means to control superstitious followers, in the film they decided to basically make it real.  Thus the film version of Solitaire is your stereotypical tarot-card-reading "psychic" who knows everything Bond is doing before he does it -- again, not in the book at all.  Worse, while in the book he and Solitaire share an attraction for one another, they actually wait to sleep together until the end.  The film version has Bond trick her into sleeping with him by stacking her Tarot deck so that every card is "The Lover".  It's the sort of tactic only a complete asshole would resort to, and completely out of character for the man Fleming envisioned.
Of course, they needed a reason for Bond to be in the US taking on a drug-lord, so they concocted this equally stupid backstory that Mr. Big has killed three other agents recently and Bond has come to find out why.  From the moment he sets foot on US soil Mr. Big is trying to kill him (in stupid ways -- a snake in the room?  Really?  And shooting the driver of Bond's car rather than Bond himself?  Why?).  The difference here is Mr. Big's intelligence as to Bond's whereabouts come largely from Solitaire's divinations and a rather hilariously extensive network of spies on the streets who know where Bond is at all times (it feels like literally everyone Bond meets immediately calls Mr. Big to report that, yes indeed, Bond is going exactly where your Psychic already said he was going).  Lacking the Soviet intelligence angle, the only explanation left for Big's flawless operation is voodoo magic, and therefore the movie enters farce territory before the opening vignette is over.

How about that comically over-the-top boat chase, which seems to take half the movie (it really does just go on and on and on)? Not in the book at all.  The obnoxious and terribly written Southern Sheriff who runs around trying (with zero success) to stop said boat chase? Not in the book at all.  The ridiculous New Orleans funeral procession where a British agent is stabbed and then stuffed into an empty casket through a false bottom (of all methods), after which the hundreds of people in the solemn procession break out into dance?  Not in the book, thankfully.  I mean seriously the movie starts with this, and it has to be the dumbest murder scene ever filmed.  It sets the bar low and then fails to leap it.

There's also the aspect of Bond's second love interest, the CIA double-agent really working for Mr. Big.  This character and subplot are not in the book.  In fact, in the book it's Solitaire who is with Bond most of the time after she runs from her boss early on.  Again, the movie deviates for no good reason, so they needed another woman for Bond to charm, I suppose.  It's the very embodiment of a throwaway character, and cast very poorly.

In a way I suppose this is exactly the type of Bond film you'd expect to come from 1972.  If there was ever a film that one could point to and say "ugh, look what happened when the movie people got ahold of it", this is it.  On second, thought, no, it's not.  Because next up is the dreadful, heartbreaking adaptation of Moonraker.

Novel: B
Film (on its own): F
Film (faithfulness to the source material): D-

Birth of James Bond tropes: From the book, once again Bond ends the tale with a leave-of-absence to recuperate and intends to spend it with the woman he saved.  As with Casino Royale, the romance is actually fairly realistic, with Bond on the edge of falling in love.  It's also the second appearance of Bond's CIA friend, Felix Leiter.  Bond is still driving a second-hand Bentley, and living on a government agent's wage.

From the film, I can't recall if the gadgetry started here, but Bond's ridiculous magnetic-beam watch is certainly a prime example of the trope.

Next up--cringe--Moonraker!

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Book vs. Film: "Casino Royale"

-- obligatory spoiler alert --

This may or may not become a series of posts, but I thought it might be interesting to compare films with the books they're based on.  It's often said books are better than their film counterparts, and I'd like to explore that validity of that.  I wonder if it is more often simply due to our imagination being better at visualizing a novel the way we'd want it to be, rather than any actual flaw in the films.

My kind and lovely wife (aka Santa Claus) gifted me a complete set of Bond films on Blu-Ray a few weeks ago, so I've decided to start there.  I'll be reading each Bond book in the order they were published, and then viewing the corresponding movie. Given there are over 20 films, this might take a few years...

Casino Royale is an interesting place to start.  It's the first James Bond novel Ian Fleming wrote, but was only recently made into a proper film (we will ignore the 1967 Val Guest comedy, thank you very VERY much, as well as the TV version that also failed miserably).

I first read the book back in high school, and had forgotten many of the details.  Reading it again now, it's actually quite remarkable to me how closely the 2006 film follows it.  But more than that, it's interesting to experience Bond in his first incarnation again.  I did my best to table all of my previous experiences with the iconic character and look at this with fresh eyes.  That's impossible of course, but I think mentally trying to do so helped.

It's clear from the outset that Fleming meant these books to be serious spy novels, at least at the beginning (we'll see how things progress in later books!).  Bond is only recently of double-O status, but his particular qualification for this mission is simply that he's known within the service as being a capable gambler.   It starts with a fairly straightforward setup: Bond is in France to try and out-gamble a Soviet spy.  The man, La Chiffre, has made mistakes with funds he was supposed to use to further communist purposes in France. He intends to gamble his way back to positive account status before his paymasters back home catch wind of the problem.  Bond's intelligence agency has discovered this, and hatched the plan to simply out-gamble the man, ensuring his operation in France will collapse as a result.

The film deviates from this mostly in the setup.  La Chiffre runs a group that makes money by short-selling stocks on companies they organize terrorist attacks against.  Bond foils such a plot in Miami, forcing La Chiffre to setup a high-stakes Texas Hold 'Em game (instead of Baccarat, presumably because American audiences are unfamiliar with it) in Montenegro where he hopes to recoup the money his terrorist financiers lost in the botched plot.  None of this setup happens in the book.  In the book, we start immediately with Bond arriving at the Casino Royale.  La Chiffre's situation is entirely of his own doing, and Fleming slips the details to us with a deft if sometimes heavy hand.  In my opinion this is one of the rare cases where the film improves upon the book.  We've got a much better handle on who La Chiffre is and why Bond is trying to stop him in the movie version.  On top of that, the scenes lend themselves well to the visual medium, whereas the book's main focus on the gambling events are much better served by the introspective nature of that format.

On the whole I'm struck by two things.  First, Daniel Craig is exceptionally good as James Bond.  I say this as a long-time Sean Connery loyalist.  Craig's portrayal matches the character almost perfectly.  Other than his physical appearance, which differs more from Flemings inspiration of Hoagie Charmichael than any other actor who has played the role, Craig really does capture the essence of the man.  He's cold, calculating, and brutal.  He's also chivalrous despite, in the novel, having inner thoughts often shockingly to the contrary.  And the way he handles himself in moments of violence and pain are very true to the character in the book.  Worth noting: the torture scene from the movie is in the book as well, and is almost exactly as filmed.  I'd completely forgotten about it!

Hoagie Carmichael, the physical inspiration for Ian Fleming's Bond

Most of all, other than some bits in the film that I fear will be very dated in a decade or so (the parkour chase, the use of Texas Hold 'Em instead of the more exotic Baccarat), it matches the seriousness of the book.  The film is dark and brutal, which is very much in vogue right now when it comes to reboots of iconic characters (Batman, Superman, etc.), however here the approach is absolutely the right choice.  The book and the film both leave you with the same feelings, and that is high praise I think for an adaptation.

I enjoyed both the novel and the film very much.  I should also mention that, as is my way, I went with the audiobook version of the novel.  It's read by Simon Vance, who also narrated my own DIRE EARTH books.  As great as Sean Connery and Daniel Craig are, for my money it is Simon Vance who most accurately captures Fleming's secret agent.  It's a remarkable performance, and well worth your time.

Novel: B
Film (on its own): A-
Film (faithfulness to the source material): A-

Birth of James Bond tropes: Almost non-existent in this first novel.  Bond is suave and handsome, and that's about it. He drives an old second-hand Bentley in the book, not the gleaming Aston Martin as is cliche now, has zero reliance on fancy gadgets, and even his relationship with the girl is complex and fraught with miscues and frustrations (the movie also captures this element well).
As for the film, it is of course saddled with the baggage of 20 other Bond films that came before, and audiences expect certain things.  As such, the cars and the gadgets are present in the film version, but not they're not nearly as outrageous as some of the earlier movies. I think the filmmakers did the best they could in this regard.

Next up, Live and Let Die!