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)

1 comment:

North Coast Wetsuits Cornwall said...

VERY WELL PUT.....having seen the film many years ago and recently having come across a pile of old Bond paperbacks I sarted to read them and thorougly enjoyed them. After reading On Her Majestys I went on to You Only Live Twice. Throughout the book I kept thinking that I hadn't seen the film but parts of the book seemed familiar. After finishing the book I thought it would be nice to see the film. A quick look on youtube and the film tralier seemed nothing like the book. I recall the film now having seen the full original trailer. Sadly as you say it is far from the book which is a real disapointment. I was looking forward to seeing Blofelds lair and gardens in technicolour but I guess the only images I'll see will be in my own imagination........thanks for the great explaination...