Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Book vs. Film - The Bond series, final thoughts

Last December my wife gave me a fantastic gift: The Complete James Bond series on Blu-Ray.

I’ll be honest here.  In the past a gift like that, as awesome as it was, would have wound up on my DVD shelf and probably never taken out of the shrink wrap.  Such things are more of a collectors item to me than a thing to actually consume, especially given most of the films are available on streaming.  Also, I have so little free time these days it’s tough to justify spending time revisiting old favorites.  There’s too much great new stuff out there begging for attention.

This is what I usually tell myself, at least.

But around the same time this disc set landed on my lap, I also noticed a sale of James Bond audiobooks at — each book only 6 bucks.  The same pang of nostalgia I felt when looking through the Blu-Ray box hit me when I saw all these Bond covers splayed out before me, cheaply priced and beckoning.  The idea hit me to re-read and re-watch the entire series, in order of book publication.  You can read them all here.

It took ten months.  The endeavor gave me a newfound appreciation for Ian Fleming’s writing, filled me with nostalgia for my adolescence, and often made me wonder just what the fuck was I thinking during those formative years.  What any of us were thinking, really.

Let’s start with that.  The bad.  The movies.  Though there are exceptions, taken as a whole they’re simply not that good.  Campy, sloppy, outrageously over-the-top, and very frequently bearing little resemblance to the books they supposedly relate to.  Fleming's slick, economic, wonderfully fun spy stories are often barely recognizable.  His character of James Bond is transformed into some kind of superhero, a caricature of the man we get to know in the books.  Worse, the wrong aspects of his personality are often the ones the filmmakers chose to amplify.

I can see why twelve-year-old me enjoyed the films. They have explosions and cool cars and scantily clad women.  Occasionally some spying even happens.  I was the target audience.  But it’s not like 007's popularity was limited to teenage boys.  The Bond franchise is perhaps the most successful in film history, so it’s hard to argue that the appeal was not, or is not, insanely broad.  Yet watching them again, it’s a struggle to comprehend why.  Take Bond out of the equation in virtually any of these movies and you’d be left with a campy, almost satirical “spy” film that doesn’t merit a second thought.  Yet somehow the mythos of the man changes our perception, at least in the era they were released.  We’re clearly willing to forgive a lot — a lot — in order to go along with Bond on one more zany adventure.

Perhaps a predictable conclusion from the outset, but nevertheless it must be said: the books are better than the movies.

Generally speaking I don’t like to use this phrase.  It’s too easy to toss out there without a second thought.  As far as I’m concerned, films should be judged on their own merits and not be expected to equal the novels they’re adapted from.  There’s a lot of reasons why, but chief among them is that there is no budget involved when it comes to imagination.  A novelist has no logistical or monetary restrictions on what goes on the page. I’m not saying this means we can or should go crazy and write a scene where all raindrops are replaced with Hope Diamonds or something.  No, the point is simply that we don’t have to consider the things that a film crew must deal with.  We never think “someone’s going to have to build this set”, nor should we (unless we’re specifically writing something we hope will be adapted, but it’s dangerous to work that way).

Given that, you might think the Bond books are actually the over-the-top monstrosities, and that it was the films had to reel that shit in in order to come in at a reasonable budget.  You’d be wrong.

You see, there’s another facet here.  Well, a handful of things compounded together.  First is that much of what happens in a book is internalized. We as readers are treated to the internal deliberations, the thought processes.  This is critically important when it comes to a spy who almost always works alone.  Bond becomes an entirely different creature when you are treated to what’s going on upstairs.  Short of adding voiceover, the filmmakers have to find other ways to develop the character. Most often this is with action or dialog that still relays the same general information.  And herein lies the trap they set for themselves.  You see, there is this desire that each film be more than the last. More in every sense. More action, more romance, more humorous.  Once you have Bond utter a silly catchphrase, you’ve opened this door that you can’t close again.  You have to have two next time, or four, or eight, and so on.  Oh, Bond flew a helicopter in the last film? Well this time he needs a jetpack!  A jetpack you say? This time we’ll put him in space!

They started off with Dr. No, the sixth book, and did a reasonably faithful adaptation.  But then they had no choice but to go back, all the way to the 2nd book, From Russia With Love.

Somewhat amazingly, especially in this day and age, Fleming resisted the oneupmanship desire. His Bond novels are even keel, pretty much the whole way through.  They're astonishingly consistent.  And so my usual theory on film adaptations, the budget of the imagination, doesn't actually apply.  The situation is, in fact, reversed.

You see the filmmakers, instead of showing the restraint Fleming did, built this house of cards, starting with Russia.  Their first mistake, in my view, is that they filmed the books out of order.  Fleming does have a progression that occurs over the course of the series, although it’s quite subtle.  Follow that road, with perhaps some embellishments, and they would have been fine.  But they started with the sixth book, roughly halfway through the series, and then proceeded to jump all over the place.  It didn’t matter where the book came in Fleming’s timeline, they slotted it in after whatever they’d made previously and then figured out how to amp it up above that waterline.  Thus we’re left with atrocities like Moonraker, where the 3rd and rather subdued novel (perhaps the best in the series) is adapted into this insane farce of a movie (the worst of the lot).  Things really started to get bad when they began to borrow only he barest details from the books.

The second mistake the filmmakers made in this process is that, when deciding what to do to raise Bond above his previous outing, they almost always picked poorly.  They invented the character Q to build Bond more and more ridiculous gadgets.  They continually have Bond’s support staff showing up in the most inane locations to help him at some crucial moment (which, oddly, hurts the superhero character they’re so keen to create). They make him progressively more chauvinistic to the point that we’re often in the inexcusable territory of rape. They make him more and more of a know-it-all.  Jack of all trades, master of all trades, too.  He’s like an RPG character who goes up a level with each movie and gets to spend ability points willy-fracking-nilly.  They take every opportunity to have him quip a sardonic one-liner.  And the worst part is, I can see how no one could stand in their way.  It’s hard to argue with success, as they say.

With hindsight, however… I don’t know what else to say other than I definitely fell out of love with the movies during this re-watch.  Three or four of them are decent.  In virtually every case though the books are more deserving of your time.

As for 007 himself, the question that always comes up is “who is the best Bond?”.  People fall into the various camps like they fall into the various religions — it’s usually the one you grew up with that you prefer.

Sean Connery, George Lazenby, Roger Moore, Timothy Dalton, Pierce Brosnan, Daniel Craig… which one captures the character best?

My choice? Simon Vance.


Simon narrates the audiobooks (or, at least, he recorded the entire set during the 2000’s… they were recently re-released with a bunch of celebrity narrators, but Simon’s are superior).   Coupled with the fact that the books really are just better, it’s Vance’s Bond that I think absolutely captures the character as Fleming intended him.  Simon’s performances are consistently excellent, absolutely worth a listen.  Find a sample.  Give it a few minutes.  I think you’ll agree pretty quickly.
Full disclosure: Simon also narrates my audiobooks, along with hundreds of others.  He’s my favorite narrator, and it was a wonderful surprise to find he narrated the Bond novels.  So I may be biased.  A bit.

But, fine, that answer a bit of a cop out.  If I have to pick from the film actors, I’d say Connery has the look down, but it is Daniel Craig who best captures the personality.

Overall I greatly enjoyed reading the books again, in fact I felt kind of depressed that there were no more to pick up after the last.  They're engrossing, well written, and briskly paced.  Compared to the tomes we write today, they're also quite short.  I think authors today, myself included, can learn something from Fleming's economy of words.  They feel just as full of colorful locations, well-drawn characters, and intricate plots as books with double the word count.