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!

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