Monday, September 22, 2014

Book vs. Film: "Octopussy and The Living Daylights"

--Part 14 of my James Bond re-read / re-watch--

This short story collection is the final entry in Ian Fleming's James Bond series, comprising four tales: Octopussy, The Living Daylights, The Property of a Lady, and 007 in New York.  It's also the only Bond material of Fleming's to be published posthumously.

I'll cover each in turn:

Tale of a retired British soldier who, at the end of WWII, stole some Nazi gold, murdering a Austrian mountaineer in the process. Bond has come to Jamaica many years later to arrest him for that crime. The man now works for a lab in Jamaica, studying fish along a particular reef. There's one octopus there, whom he's named Pussy, hence the title.
The man is basically waiting to die, his life having lost all meaning for him except these sea creatures whom he's come to know as friends over the last two years.
It's rather poetic, and actually one of my favorite Bond stories despite it mostly being about Major Smith.  I love the backstory of how Smith came to be in the situation he's in, and why Bond is the one who finally tracks him down.
This story was, it turns out, not adopted for film.  That's right, Octopussy the movie is not based on this.  Instead it's based on...

A very short and anti-climactic story, involving a Faberge egg being sold at auction as a way for the KGB to pay one of their moles inside the British Secret Service. Bond points out to M that the mole's handler might be present at the auction trying to force the bidding up, and it's a good chance to spot the elusive man. M agrees, and so Bond goes to the auction... and spots the man. The end. It's a decent story that seems more of an excuse to delve into the shady side of affluent auctions than anything else.
The movie Octopussy is odd as an adaptation.  A large portion of the plot comes, more or less, from the short story The Property of  Lady. Yet it gets its title from the story Octopussy.  The actual details of that story are reduced to background for Bond's love interest of the same name. Background, mind you, delivered via a thirty second long, unnecessary and overly complicated bit of dialog.
Confused? Don't worry, this is one of the least confusing things that happened in the course of adapting these works to the screen.
Octopussy holds a crown of nostalgia for me. It's the first Bond film I ever saw in the theater, at the impressionable age of twelve. I'm trying not to let that cloud my judgement, but I do think that it's Roger Moore's best Bond film. In fact overall it's one of the better Bond films, which is a surprise considering how much it strays from the source material (admittedly there wasn't much to go on).  Still it's not without its laugh-aloud moments, and not in a good way. For example when a Jeep full of bad guys appears literally out of nowhere to give Bond someone to fight during a chase. The worst of the lot is the Tarzan bit, though. I found myself hoping someone lost their job for that.
On the plus side, the plot is pretty good and doesn't feel like a bunch of "wouldn't it be cool if?" scenes strung together by Bond following the first clue he comes across (ahem, Moonraker). Somehow they managed to avoid that here, and Bond even does some real spycraft in the process. When the finale comes, and Bond must defuse a nuclear bomb while being chased by a few hundred police officers, the tension is actually palpable. You know he's going to win even if you haven't seen it before, and yet I still found myself completely caught up in the action.
In other words, Octopussy enjoys some excellent direction. The cinematography is also quite good. A few examples:
A rare thing in the movies - Bond actually spying.

The auction, well staged and filmed. Reminds me a bit of Hitchcock

Excellent lighting here... lots of great shots like this throughout

However, this film would have been even better if the climax had been the moment of the bomb diffusion.  Instead, we go back to India for one last battle, and it's so hokey I found myself cringing with embarrassment for all involved, especially when Bond and Q come floating in via an air balloon designed after the British flag.  No need for subtlety when you're a secret agent, I guess.

Berlin.  A British agent is going to be crossing from East to West, and he's unaware that the KGB has discovered the plan. All the KGB knows is roughly when and where the crossing will occur, so they've posted a sniper team to assassinate the agent as he crosses.  Bond is sent in to snipe the sniper.  He's not really happy at the prospect of a mission that is purely murder, but he's a good solider and takes his orders in stride.
As Bond tales go it's perhaps the one that best captures Cold War espionage in Europe.
The story also encapsulates a trait of Bond that is present throughout the books. Bond, despite his playboy lifestyle and tough talk, is a hopeless romantic. While watching the crossing spot for 3 nights in a row, he's taken by the beauty of a cellist whom he sees walking into a concert hall each night. When she eventually turns out to be the enemy sniper, Bond (who is working as part of a team and thus is under scrutiny) deliberately shoots the girl's hand rather than killing her.
"That girl won’t do any more sniping. Probably lost her left hand. Certainly broke her nerve for that kind of work. Scared the living daylights out of her. In my book, that was enough."
He does this mainly because he's invented sort of a fantasy version of what her life must be like, and fallen for this invented version of her.
Another element of Bond's character is revealed here, and it's one that surfaces in the last 4 books or so of the series. Bond seems to be deliberately seeking a way out of his 00 status, and he states it very clearly here when his partner says the act of mercy will go in the official report. In literary circles, Bond is well known as being an exception to the rule that the main character of a story must have an "arc", a change they go through over the course of the story.  Bond is often cited as an exception to this.  He never changes, they say.  Well, I'm not so sure about that anymore. The change is subtle, but I now feel that, at least in literary form, it's there.
This story is adapted fairly well into an early scene of the movie that bears the same name. The rest of the movie is purely the invention of the filmmakers. It's also Timothy Dalton's first outing as Bond. I actually liked Dalton in the role, compared to Moore at least.  And though his portrayal of Bond doesn't really fit with the one his predecessors built up in moviegoers minds, it is fairly close to the Bond that Fleming writes about. Dalton's romance with the cellist is intimate and often quite sweet, more so than any other Bond.  Perhaps too much so, and I think this has a lot to do with why audiences rejected him.  He may have nailed the sweet side, but he never seems tough enough.

Dalton's Bond is the most romantic

This is a bit anti-climactic, as the last story in the last book of Fleming's work, and that's because I didn't read it.  For some reason it's not included in the audiobook I purchased. "No matter," I thought.  The story also appears in the non-fiction book Thrilling Cities Fleming wrote... but only in the US version. I happen to own the UK version.  So, nothing much to say here other than, from what I can gather, it was never adapted into any of the films and is only remarkable because he's one of the few Bond stories featuring a fair amount of humor.  I'll track it down at some point and update this.

Thus concludes my James Bond re-read and re-watch.  I'll post a conclusion and some final thoughts in a separate article.

To sum up this book and the two films made from the material:

OCTOPUSSY - Contains a reasonably faithful adaptation... of a different story.
THE LIVING DAYLIGHTS - Contains a somewhat faithful adaptation of the story, and also captures some of Bond's romantic side.

Up next: Some final thoughts on this whole endeavor...

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