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.


Unknown said...

It is all can't expect anything sensible to occur. That is Bond..a chance to escape reality!!!

Jrgatl said...

It is all can't expect anything sensible to occur. That is Bond..a chance to escape reality!!!