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

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