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).


Skyline Spirit said...

pretty nice blog, following :)

Anon User said...


So the movie is different from the book. Is that a crime? I guess it gives the "purists" something to talk about.

Volcano-Cat on Youtube said...

Anon User says 'Lame' - I say 'Well done' - the review was precise and exact in details and I think you capture the spirit of the thing rather well. Personally, I'm glad they fixed the plot a bit; the original would have seen Goldfinger's harrassed Chinamen lugging bars onto sagging, creaking trucks until sometime last week. Zapping it with a nuke seems a bit more like it (I've heard the blast would have liquified the gold and changed it's chemical substance), and the 'making Bond his Secretary' bit has gone, thankfully. I shall follow this blog with interest...

Jason M. Hough said...

Thanks for that!