Sunday, August 31, 2014

Book vs. Film: "You Only Live Twice"

(part of my series comparing the James Bond novels to their film counterparts)

The situation is... complicated.

Fleming wrote this novel as a follow up to On Her Majesty's Secret Service, where Bond finds himself married, and then hours later, tragically, single once again. Worse, the killers -- Blofeld and his right-hand Erma Blount -- get away. At the start of the novel version of Twice he's depressed, distracted, and performing poorly at work and in his private life. He's ready to resign as soon as M asks him too, which Bond is convinced will happen at any moment.
First edition cover, 1964

The movie producers made two choices here that get things off on the wrong foot.  First, they decided to produce a movie based on You Only Live Twice before On Her Majesty's Secret Service. Given that these novels feature a rare thing for the series -- plot continuity -- we have a problem. Bond's mindset, and indeed the entire purpose of his mission to Japan, is related to the life situation he's found himself in. And, ultimately, the evil he must face in Twice is the very same evil that killed Bond's spouse.

Well, guess what happens when they film these out of order? That's right. They lose all of that. And how do they make up for this? With crap.

I mean, if you're going to stray from the source material, you should not only have a damn good reason, but also an idea of your own that is, if not equal to the source material, at least in the spirit of it. Right?

Let me talk about the book first. A quick synopsis to set the stage: M sends depressed-Bond on a mission he hopes will revive his spirit. Something tough, but something devoid of action and gunplay. It's a diplomatic mission to try and get the Japanese secret service to share intelligence with the British rather than the CIA. M fears the CIA is filtering the information, or worse, withholding key things.

So Bond heads for Japan, and while much of this portion of the book reads rather slow and cliche, there are plenty of interesting insights as well. Remember that this was written and set in the 60's, perhaps twenty years after the end of WWII. As with all of these novels it amounts to a window into a different era, and different mindsets.

Things get moving when Bond is given a task by the head of Japan's secret service: Go assassinate this rogue ex-pat Swiss botanist for us and we'll start sharing information with your boss.

While much of the rest of the book is good but never great, an equal portion of it is weak but never terrible. The end result is a middle-of-the-pack Bond novel. I can see the desire to amp it up a bit for film.

(spoiler alert!)

The novel ends with Bond taking two vicious wounds to his head, and when he's finally pulled from the water by his love interest, he's lost his memory. Something unexpected happens then, and I found this perhaps the most interesting aspect of the book.  Kissy Suzuki, the girl, decides not to tell Bond who he really is or why he's there.  Instead she tries to keep him for herself, pretending they're lovers and that the little island she lives on is their entire world. She hides Bond from all the various people that come looking for him. And, somewhat delightfully, she succeeds. She keeps Bond in this fictional life for months. So long, in fact, that M and everyone else has assumed Bond died in the final battle. The book ends with Bond trapped in this idyllic life until he has the first jog to his memory: spotting the word "Vladivostok" in a newspaper clipping Kissy missed (she makes sure he doesn't see anything with English words). The word means something to Bond, and when he finds out it's a city in Russia he wants to go visit it. She reluctantly lets him go.

During all this, M writes an obituary for Bond which is "included in full". I got a huge kick out of this because it's written as if Bond and M are real people, even going to far as to mention that a caricature of Bond was portrayed in a series of novels, and that "if these works had been of higher quality" the Ministry of Defense might have done something about them. Fun to see Fleming could be self deprecating, and doing so in style by having his own character, M, saying bad things about the novels and their author.

Also mentioned is the epitaph chosen for Bond's gravestone, which I thought was actually rather poetic and a great summation of Bond's character:

"I shall not waste my days in trying to prolong them. I shall use my time."

(spoilers end)

As for the film... do I have to?

Okay, fine.  But here's the key thing to take away from this: You Only Live Twice is the first of the film adaptations to stray wildly from the book, and we've seen how well that's worked out in almost every previous post in this series.

It starts with this nonsense:

"What the hell is this?" you wonder? Why, it's a mystery rogue spaceship swallowing an American space capsule. Remember: it's the Mid 60's. This stuff was all the rage back then. "How can we work space travel into this story?" the producers must have asked themselves. They'd ask the same question with Moonraker, apparently not learning their lesson the first time around. At least they don't have Bond traveling into space here, but things get damned close to that.

I'll cut to the chase.  The gambit is that Blofeld, and therefore SPECTRE, are stealing space ships.  First they steal an American one, which the Americans naturally blame the Russians for.  Then later they steal a Russian one, because of course the Russians will blame the Americans. Why?  Because obviously this will result in a nuclear war! Let me just hammer this home: The evil plot is that Blofeld will develop--in secret--an entire space program, run out of a fake volcano in Japan, and what he plans to do with his amazing technological accomplishment is hijack American and Russian space capsules... because clearly that will send the two superpowers over the brink of nuclear armageddon. To what end? It's not obvious? Because once they've destroyed each other, SPECTRE will rise to take their places as the de-facto post-apocalyptic worldwide bad-ass regime!
Diabolical! Overly complicated! Very low chance of success! As long as that meddling Bond doesn't catch wind of it...

Equally corny, in my view, is Bond's opening scene that comes right after this. Bond is killed in Hong Kong (while bedding an Asian woman, of course!). There follows an elaborate funeral ending with Bond's burial at sea. His corpse drifts down to the seabed, only to be picked up by a submarine, where he is discovered (try to contain your shock here) to be alive. He makes a now-customary quip and we're off. The death was faked to give Bond adequate cover for going on a mission to Japan. A mission that starts, by the way, with him being fired out of a torpedo tube as a means of getting from the submarine to shore. I can only assume this whole bit of wretched shtick was to give the title some meaning, because the book gets the title from a haiku that Bond writes. (You only live twice. Once when you are born, and once when you look death in the face.)

Surprisingly, some of the corny bits in the movie are in the book this time. The ninjas. The idea that Bond can be physically transformed to pass for Japanese. The corny tilting-floor slide trap. All in the novel. None of these things come across quite as cheesy in the book, but they are there. What the movie adds on top of this is the aforementioned fake funeral, the spacecraft hijacking, Bond being launched from a torpedo tube, "rocket guns", and the kicker: Bond, in order to truly pass for Japanese, must be married, leading to a fake wedding to go with the fake funeral. This scene is pointless and just goes on and on and on.  It also reduces Kissy Suzuki's rather interesting character into just another woman for Bond to conquer. Gah.

Book: C
Film: D
Faithfulness to the source material: D-

Up next: The Man with the Golden Gun, Fleming's final Bond novel (but not the last Bond story, there's still a collection after that)

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Book vs. Film: "On Her Majesty's Secret Service"

(part of my series comparing the James Bond novels to their film counterparts)

On Her Majesty's Secret Service was the first novel to be published after Bond became a film sensation. I don't know if Fleming wrote it before Dr. No's theatrical release, but it stands to reason he was at least in the process of editing it during that time.

If he felt any pressure or influence from the movie, it doesn't show. This book proves to be very consistent with Bond's previous adventures.  It revolves around one of the more devious plots in the Bond-villain catalog of devious plots: using hypnotherapy to get unwitting civilians to spread animal and crop diseases.

Surrounding this, Bond is also faced with a devious plot of a different kind: marriage. He's fallen in love with a girl named Tracy, who happens to be the daughter of a major organized crime boss.  Her father tries to force Bond into wedlock from the outset as a way to save his reckless daughter's life, but Bond insists she get psychiatric help first. Only then will he consider courting her.

Later, after Bond makes a harrowing (and extremely well written) escape from the villain's lair high in the alps, it's Tracy who magically and coincidentally arrives to save him.  I rolled my eyes at this bit of luck, but then Fleming did something that I advise aspiring writers often: turn your coincidences into conspiracies. In this case, Tracy reminds Bond that he'd asked her father to try and discover the location of Ernest Blofeld (the villain Bond is hunting), and that her father had done just that, but couldn't get ahold of Bond to relay the information. Tracy learns the location from her dad, and reasoned that Bond might already be there looking for the man, so she comes in search of him. It's still rather convenient, but at least plausible. 

I won't spoil the third act. All in all this is one of the better entries into the Bond series.  As an author I keep trying to put myself into Fleming's mindset. With all the hoopla going on over the film Dr. No, it's impressive to me that he was able to keep his cool and write something that seems so naturally at home with the rest of the novels. Perhaps the pressure is counterbalanced by the desire to up one's game, in such a scenario.  I'm not sure.  I hope to have the good fortune to find out for myself someday.

The film version has the distinction of being the only Bond film to star George Lazenby, who landed the role after Sean Connery's departure.  Lazenby serves as a passable as Bond.  He's certainly no Connery or Craig, but I would have preferred he stay with the role in favor of Roger Moore. Unfortunately Lazenby, who was an unknown when cast, decided during filming that he would only do one Bond movie.

"This never happened to the other fellow," Bond says, then glances knowingly at the camera, punching a Frank-Underwood-sized hole in the fourth wall.
From a plot standpoint, it follows the book rather well.  However, key elements of the chronology gets mucked with, and I'm not quite sure why. Some of these tweaks had the effect of changing Bond's relationship with Tracy into something more along the lines of a gangster forcing Bond into the deal, rather than a spur-of-the-moment proposal as in the book.  It amounts to yet another head-scratching change to Bond's personality, I can only imagine because so much of the impetus for this comes through Bond's internal dialog, whereas in the film the best moment to set this up (I suppose) is when Bond is first approached by the gangster.

Seinfeld called, he wants his puffy shirt back

Lazenby is a much softer man than Connery.  A lot of that cruelty Fleming describes and embodied by Connery is lost, replaced with a bright smile and aloof charm.  I would have thought these reasons alone would have been enough to avoid casting him in the first place, but these traits were clearly something the filmmakers eagerly sought given the choice of Roger Moore that came next and lasted so long. If anything Moore takes the character farther in the wrong direction. Nothing against Roger Moore by the way, he was excellent as The Saint. I just think he's miscast as Bond, not to mentioned hampered by the writing and direction.

As a film this is one of the stronger entries. The cinematography is at times excellent. The action sequences, while a bit repetitive, are at least of a much more frenetic pace than the Connery era, and the ski chases are very well filmed (except when Lazenby or Savalas are shot against a green screen). Many scenes are lifted almost exactly from the book, including the final, tragic end.

However, the filmmakers tinker, and once again I'm frustrated by the effect these choices have on the main character.   Some examples:

  • Book: Bond has decided he'll flee from Blofeld's mountaintop lab the next morning.  So he spends a lot of time plotting his route, and finding the things he'll need to survive the frigid mountainside. He steals gloves, he cons the headmistress into bringing him some ski goggles, he scopes out the storage room where the snow gear is stored, and so on.
    • Film: The above is reduced to a sudden flight with very little thought or preparation. Bond shifts from careful, calculating spy, to something more like a superhero.
  • Book: Bond is going to enter Blofeld's lab undercover as an expert in heraldry, because Blofeld has submitted paperwork requesting that he be recognized as a Count.  So Bond spends a great deal of time studying for this cover, because he's going to need to know what he's talking about.
    • Film: Bond is already an expert in heraldry. He steps right into the role, and seems to just bluff his way through it. He's no studious spy, he's just ridiculously smart. (Curiously, this bites him in the ass, as he makes a mistake that Blofeld catches, thus blowing his cover)
  • Book: As if the above example wasn't enough, when Bond visits M at M's home, his boss (in the novel) is studying some flowers. Bond doesn't know anything about them and it's M who gives him a bit of education.
    • Film: M is studying butterflies, and Bond takes one glance at the specimen currently on the table and rattles off the latin name. Butterfly expert? Of course! He knows everything!
  • Book: Bond throws a knife at a calendar to impress on Draco how deadly he can be. And it's a damn good throw, but he misses the current date by one day. Still, it's good enough to let the man know he's no amateur.
    • Film: Bond misses the day by one.  When Draco comments on this, Bond says he always thinks a day ahead.
Taken as individual changes, these things are pretty innocent.  Perhaps the writers can't see the forest for the trees, however, because when you add them all together (along with a dozen or so others I left out) you get a Bond with superhuman abilities. Which is part of the reason I think the films lack the intensity of the books. I never really believe Bond is in trouble in the movies.  Worse, Bond always feels like he's just sort of sliding from one situation to the next (this is at its worst in the Moore films). Literally everything is easy for him. And as a result the detective aspect, the spycraft, is lost almost entirely.

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

Up next: You Only Live Twice

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Book vs. Film: "The Spy Who Loved Me"

(part of my series comparing the James Bond novels to their film counterparts)

Now we come to one of the most interesting Bond novels, because it's not written from James Bond's POV. In fact he's barely even in the book.

Fleming includes a forward, which I'll quote here verbatim:

I found what follows lying on my desk one morning. As you will see, it appears to be the first person story of a young woman, evidently beautiful and not unskilled in the arts of love. According to her story, she appears to have been involved, both perilously and romantically, with the same James Bond whose secret service exploits I myself have written from time to time. With the manuscript was a note signed 'Vivienne Michel' assuring me that what she had written was 'purest truth and from the depths of her heart'. I was interested in this view of James Bond, through the wrong end of the telescope so to speak, and after obtaining clearance for certain minor infringements of the Official Secrets Act I have much pleasure in sponsoring its publication.

So what we have here is a first-person novel supposedly written by one Vivienne Michel, who is also the main character and supposedly had an adventure/romance that involved real-life James Bond.  Yet we know this is really Ian Fleming writing.  Perhaps he just wanted to do something different.  Perhaps he wanted to explore a Bond story from another character's POV.  I can respect that.

At the very least it's quite a jarring way to start a book, especially the 8th in a series.  Critics did not react well from what I understand, and Fleming supposedly only allowed a film to bear the name when promised the book's plot would not be used.  Which means this post is sort of dead before it starts, I suppose.

Still, there's some interesting things to discuss.

First off, I listened to the audiobook.  All the others are narrated by the insanely talented Simon Vance.  This one appropriately gets a female narrator by the name of Nadia May, and she's wonderful. There's a more recent version with a new narrator (one of the actresses from the movies), but I purchased the earlier version and that's okay, I found it to be excellent.

As I mentioned, the novel spends a great deal of time with the protagonist 'Viv'.  She details her professional life and her love life, leading to a messy breakup with her German boss and a trip to Switzerland to get an abortion.  She leaves for Canada after that, intent on doing a Vespa-powered road trip across the American continent.  This is all well and good, and honestly a fine story in its own right.  It's also very much a departure for Fleming, however it has very little to do with the rest of the book.

Viv rather quickly she finds herself in a nasty situation, holed up in an upstate New York lodge at the end of vacation season with a couple of gangsters who are there to burn the place down as part of an insurance fraud scheme.  She's a captive of these men, until there's a knock at the door and James Bond arrives. Again, this is roughly 2/3's of the way through the book.  You can probably guess what happens from here on out, so I'll refrain from further spoilers.

To Fleming's credit, the novel really does read like someone else wrote it. If that is what he'd hoped to accomplish, he succeeded.  But on the whole the book actually suffers from Bond's appearance.  I would have been much happier if Viv had worked herself out of this ugly situation.  She certainly seemed capable, and has the attitude for it, at least in glimpses.  The arrival of Bond felt too much like the knight-in-shining-armor moment, and of course adds an element of sexism that the story didn't need.  If Bond had never appeared, Viv had solved her own problem, and Fleming had published this under a pen name, it would have been a quite good (if short) crime novel.  With the weird addition of James Bond, the book suffers.  And as a Bond novel, it's definitely unsatisfying.

As for the film? It has nothing to do with the book. It's a 1977 pile of cheese and you should avoid it.  Bleh. The kicker is that, as I mentioned, Fleming specifically said they could only use the title. So in a way I think he deserves some of the blame for the film.

This book was an experiment for Fleming. I find it very interesting that it was released in 1962, the same year that the first film, Dr. No, came out. I can't help but wonder if there was some regret on Fleming's part that he'd tried to do something fresh and different with the books at the same time the Dr. No was setting the world on fire.

Looking back on this series of posts I realize I've been pretty hard on the films.  I'm okay with that.  The books are better in almost every case, so far.  Four more left!

As for the ratings on this one:
Book: C
Film: not rated because it has nothing to do with the book (on its own... F)

Next Up: Yet another oddball - On Her Majesty's Secret Service

Friday, August 8, 2014

Book vs. Film(s): "Thunderball"

(part of my series comparing the James Bond novels to their film counterparts)

This is an interesting one.

Thunderball (published 1961) is unique* in the Bond universe because it was adapted twice for the silver screen. First as Thunderball (1965), starring Sean Connery, and second as Never Say Never Again (1983), starring... Sean Connery.

* I'm not counting the 1967 Casino Royale comedy. It doesn't exist. Nope. Never heard of it.

Why, you ask, would they choose to remake a Bond film but try to pass it off as a new Bond film? Why not come up with an original story? It's quite simple, really: Lawyers.

Turns out Fleming had some help crafting the story for this one, and one of those collaborating writers battled for years in court to get the right to adapt the novel to screen. He eventually won, and Never Say Never Again is the movie that resulted. It's the only Bond film that falls outside of the Broccoli production team who otherwise enjoy a vice-like grip on the rights to the property.  It also lured Sean Connery out of Bond-retirement.

As a kid I never realized this about the film.  Watching it now, you still might not realize it.  The most glaring indicator is the lack of the classic Bond theme music.

Plot-wise Never Say Never Again tracks pretty closely to the novel, more so than the first film. And while it does have some cheesy moments, the 18 year gap between the two films allows it to benefit from some of the maturation the filmmaking art enjoyed during that stretch.

Klaus Brandauer is awesome as Max Largo. In fact I'd go so far to say he's my favorite film-universe Bond villain. His mannerisms are delightfully creepy without dipping into caricature. Kim Basinger, on the other hand, was not the best casting choice ever made. She's a fine actress in her own right, but for me at least fails to capture Domino's character from the book.

Minor bit of trivia: there's several moments in Never when you can hear the Voight-Kampf Machine sound effects from Blade Runner. What can I say? A geek like me notices such things.

Perhaps the worst part about Never is the silly video game battle, taking place of the Baccarat sequence. In the 80's, 14-year-old me thought this was pretty cool.  But now it's just incredibly dated.  The only thing salvaging it is Klaus Brandauer's creepy delight in both giving and receiving pain.

Thunderball, on the other hand, is simply a mediocre film. That is, once you get past the ridiculous opening sequence (A jet pack? Why why WHY?!?!). There's some excellent cinematography and set design, particularly in the SPECTRE headquarters scene early on. However, the film once again amplifies the wrong aspects of Bond as a character. Bond as we know him in the novels is certainly a Man's Man, very much a british Don Draper. It's impossible to argue for, let alone justify, the misogyny present in Flemings's books. I guess I sort of look at it as a lens into a different era, and indeed into a different mindset within that era. The novels are often uncomfortable to read, but personally I don't believe in avoiding works that make me uncomfortable. As an author I find value in getting into a mindset different from my own, and books are the best place to do this.
Why the filmmakers decided to ratchet up this aspect is beyond me. As far as I can recall Bond never forces himself on a woman in the novels. But in the early films this happens with disturbing frequency, and Thunderball sadly is no exception.
This film suffers in other ways, too. The biggest problem, though, is that everyone feels like they're just going through the motions. There's very little tension, the acting is wooden, and the wide shots make it hard to connect with any of the supporting characters. I often found myself bored, and that is the kiss of death for an action film.

Novel: B
Film attempt #1: D
Film attempt #2: C

Next up, another oddity in the Bond universe: The Spy Who Loved Me.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

One Day at Comic Con (a very short story)

A 140 word story for the GISHWHES scavenger hunt
As requested by team Quackles Loves Multiple Bison Loves Soups Natural Loves Geekwhes

Boba Fett blocked my path. He stood beside Darth Vader, posing for pictures and blocking the already clogged aisle.

I wanted to shout. “Don’t you know who I am? I’m Misha Collins, star of Supernatural!”  I’m not, of course. Well, I am. However dressed as the Queen of England in drag no one would know.

I shouldered Boba Fett aside. “Make way for the Queen!” I roared. Laughs from the crowd.

A tentacle suddenly draped across my shoulder. It belonged to the most astounding costume in the convention center: an Elopus. Half elephant, half octopus. “Picture with you?” a gibbering voice asked.

“Sure,” I stammered.

The cosplayer leaned in and snapped a selfie. “Thank you, Misha,” it whispered.

I whirled, surprised. “How did--”

The elephant’s mouth parted. Inside was the actual Queen of England. She winked, turned, and slithered off.

(If you don't know what any of this means... don't worry, neither do I)