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).

Monday, April 7, 2014

Book vs. Film: "Dr. No"

While the sixth book in Ian Fleming's series, Dr. No was the first to be adapted for film.  In some ways this makes sense.  It was the most recently released when they optioned it, and so it was the one the fans were talking about.  Besides, the Bond novels are rather self-contained affairs, only very rarely -- and very casually -- referencing past events.  As such, I can't really fault them for starting here.  The novel serves for as good an introduction to the character as any, especially when you consider the fact that Bond breaks the main 'rule' of a great character: he has no arc. He never changes.  Amusing that he's become one of the greatest characters (certainly one of the most iconic and well known). 

However, starting with Dr. No did have a somewhat negative effect on the film series in my opinion.  After the five previous books, Fleming had to notch things up to keep readers excited.  As I've noted in many of the prior articles in this series, this made the earlier books somewhat difficult to adapt, most notably From Russia With Love, which is perhaps the most subdued of the novels and yet followed Dr. No to the screen.  It meant they had to tweak the material to keep ahead of what audiences had seen in Dr. No, and of course once the deviations begin, many things start to unravel.

As a novel, No continues to escalate Fleming's trend of disfigured villains.  Dr. No has a variety of physical oddities that definitely lean into the absurd side of things.  Fleming, deft as ever, somehow manages to explain all this in a believable way.  He's very tall.  He has mechanical pincers for hands.  He has a trait called dextrocardia: his heart is on the right side of his chest, not the left.  Bond describes him as "a giant venomous worm wrapped in grey tin-foil."

Not much of a worm on screen

The book starts with Bond recovering from the poison Rosa Klebb injected him with at the end of From Russia With Love, which has to be one of the least satisfying conclusions to a cliffhanger ending I've ever read.  Like a few of the prior books, No starts with Bond being given an easy task, something to do while recovering from previous difficulties.  Bond resents this but follows orders.  As you can guess, things don't turn out to be so easy.

The trope of trying to kill Bond in creative ways starts here.  There's a deadly centipede left to roam his hotel room.  There's a basket of poisoned fruit which Bond notices has needle injection holes just before eating.  This is not happening because Dr. No is being dramatic, as the film suggests.  It's because No has already had one British agent assassinated (Bond is there to investigate this). No doesn't want Bond snooping around, but knows if he has him shot or something it would only lead to more scrutiny.

Fleming also shows his skill at explaining implausible things with the name, Dr. No.  It is an assumed name, but not chosen because it sounds cool or sinister. No studied medicine to learn how to keep himself alive as long as possible and also change his appearance.  He chose the same Julius No because Julius was his father's name and No represents that he does not want to be anything like his father.

One subtle but important change between book and film is the obstacle course. Dr. No decides to kill Bond by running him through a carefully devised course designed to inflict pain.  It's essentially a ventilation shaft with a bunch of traps, each more nasty than the previous one.  Important to note: Bond is escaping by crawling through a ventilation shaft, which is of course a classic trope, but here it's happening on purpose.  No tells him about the course, and expects Bond to try getting out rather than just sitting in a cell and dying quietly.  No studies pain, and finds putting people through this course is an interesting way to see how far they can get before dying.  Bond only barely survives because he stole a steak knife and a lighter before going in. The scene going through the course is extremely well written.  It's terrifying and extremely claustrophobic.  I'll get to why the film version fails in a minute.
The failing here is that No, after all his talk about wanting to observe Bond's pain tolerance and use his death as another datapoint to help refine the obstacle course, doesn't stick around to watch what happens. It's unbelievable that he would go to all this chatter about being interested in pain and interesting means of killing someone and then not stick around to watch.  Worse, he devises a nasty death for Bond's love interest as well, and doesn't even stick around to watch her die, either.

The film version tracks to the book fairly well, and that's a good thing.  Sadly, few of the changes made serve to improve upon the book. In fact they suck a lot of the sinister nature right out of it.  The geologist Bond meets is in league with Dr. No (instead of simply his snooping secretary).  Worse, halfway through the film this man visits Crab Key to check in with his ominous boss. It's a creepy scene, very well filmed, but I found getting this early peek at the Dr.'s lair killed much of the momentum from the scene when Bond finally makes his way there. We already know what Bond is getting into, so everything leading up to it seems a bit of a chore.

Another change is in the general lack of explanation as to how Dr. No came to own Crab Key, and what finally leads to Strangways (the murdered agent Bond is in Jamaica to investigate) snooping around in the first place.

The biggest change, in my view, is the obstacle course. In the book Dr. No goes into great detail about the manner of death he's chosen for Bond. He's created an obstacle course inside his island, and puts captives through it to see how far they can get, tweaking things a little each time. He's genuinely excited to see what Bond can do.  So Bond is placed in a cell and begins to crawl through a ventilation duct purpose built for this endeavor, with all sorts of nasty traps along the way, finally ending in an insane fight against a giant squid that somehow comes across quite believable thanks to Fleming's writing style and some excellent narration by Simon Vance (audiobook version, remember).  What's so harrowing about this scene is that Bond knows that around every corner Dr. No has devised something more heinous than the last, and yet he has no choice but to keep going.
In the film? Bond is simply placed in a cell.  The ventilation duct is a conveniently overlooked escape route.  Bond runs into a few of the less dangerous traps seen in the book, and then winds up free and in the heart of No's secret underground base. Ta-da!

The particulars of the two stories diverge from there, and even if the end result is the same, I found the film version a little too convenient, a little too slick. Bond goes through hell in the book. It's a brutal series of chapters. The movie version seems like just a mild inconvenience for him, leading to a rather dull scene at the end where Bond sabotages Dr. No's grand scheme by standing around lamely in the oh-so-convenient disguise of a hazmat suit.

Another change in this part of the film that grated on me is that Bond, during all this craziness, finds and frees Honey. She's tied down on a stone platform, about to be drowned.  In the book, she's tied to the mountainside where hordes of crabs are known to come every night. Dr. No explains in great detail how the last woman he tied out there was eaten from the ankles up, and he's curious to see if Honey will last longer.  Critically, she escapes on her own, mainly because she is not afraid of the crabs so they don't pay attention to her.  Eventually she finds Bond and they work together.  The film opts for the "damsel in distress" trope in almost throwaway fashion, and it's a huge let down compared to the book.

Honeychild Rider becomes simply Honey Rider, which perhaps gave a kick-in-the-proverbial-pants to the film series as ever more ludicrous female character names (and the quips that come with them) abound later on. And, of course, in the book Honeychild Rider has a great explanation for her name -- as does Dr. No -- but that is never mentioned here, so viewers are just left to think it's deliberately chosen to sound sexy and/or cool.

Overall the film is one of the more enjoyable in the franchise.  Connery is excellent as Bond, and most of the cliche stuff is absent in this first film outing.  I enjoyed watching it again after so many years, but having just finished listening to the book the day before, I once again found the book superior, especially where the two diverged.

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

Birth of Bond tropes: There's a few places in the film where Bond utters a sardonic one-liner. Audiences must have liked this a lot considering how ridiculous they get with it in later films.

Also, an additional scene is added near the beginning, when we first meet film-Bond. I suppose they did this to establish his character, but it's a bit clumsy. Bond is gambling, high stakes and winning (in the books Bond is a civil servant with the sort of low salary you'd expect - a gambler yes, but only if a mission requires it). Simultaneously he's flirting with a beautiful woman, and they make a date for the next day. Later, after getting his mission briefing from M, Bond returns home to find the woman somehow inside his apartment, dressed only in one of his shirts. He, a top agent of the British Secret Service, seems completely untroubled that this woman has managed to break in to his flat. And of course he ignores M's orders to depart immediately for Jamaica so that he can bed her. It all implies Bond doesn't care about security, and would disregard M's orders simply to get a little last-minute casual sex. I found it a prime example of the movie people not really understanding the character, and unfortunately the whole business sets a precedent for the rest of the movies.

Some trivia: The book started life as a television pitch called "Commander Jamaica", with a main character named James Gunn.  Fleming later turned it into this book, originally with the title The Wound Man.

Next up, Goldfinger.

The previous posts in this series, in order:
Casino Royale
Live and Let Die
Diamonds are Forever
From Russia With Love