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

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