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!


Roman lesnar said...
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Brandon Gregory said...

Unfortunately, your last statement is false because (like the novel) there are no gadgets in the film. Not even one.

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Jason M. Hough said...

There are fewer and they're far less outrageous than other films, but I disagree that there's "not even one." The specialized laptop he plugs the phone's SIM card into (which is more the software than the hardware, granted), M's flip up computer, the Aston Martin's slide out gadget and weapons trays, the funky funds-transfer briefcase, etc.