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.

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