Saturday, February 15, 2014

Book vs. Film: "Diamonds Are Forever"

This is part 4 in my re-read and re-watch of the James Bond series. Previously I discussed Casino Royale (good book, great film), Live and Let Die (good book, bad film), and Mookraker (great book, awful film).

Now let's look at Diamonds Are Forever, published in 1956.  It's the fourth Bond book, and was adapted for the screen in 1971 - the seventh in the film franchise.

First the novel.  It's book 4 and Ian Fleming has started to hit his stride.  He's comfortable with Bond and the world in which he inhabits.  He's also resisting the urge to escalate.  This book if anything is a pullback from the stakes involved in Moonraker.  Also, whereas Moonraker took place entirely on British soil, Fleming now goes back to a largely US-based story, primarily in New York and Las Vegas.

Bond is tasked with exploring the extents of a diamond smuggling operation that is costing the British Government millions of pounds per year.  He's undercover, taking the place of one of the mules who delivers diamonds from England to the US hidden inside golf balls, and he travels with a woman named Tiffany Case who knows the smugglers because she used to deal cards at a Casino they own (still does, really).

On the whole, Fleming remains consistent.  This is a competent espionage tale, suffering mostly from a general lack of tension.  The stakes were very low.  The world is not going to end if Bond fails.  In fact, Bond's actual mission was just to try and find out who is behind the diamond operation.  It's only because his friends keep getting hurt by the gangsters that Bond is drawn more and more into bringing the whole thing down rather than just filing his report.

After the great novel Moonraker this one was a bit of a let down.

But again there's none of the movie "shtick" most people associate with Bond.  It's a fairly serious tale, if a bit light, and for the most part Bond is simply using his wits and intuition, along with help once again from his friend Felix Lieter and a few others.  Once again Bond is put through the wringer in terms of physical pain, including a scene we perhaps luckily only hear about after the violence is over as two gangsters nearly kick him to death.

One side note: The chapters set in Las Vegas were interesting to me.  It seems people still notice and complain about the same things now as they did way back in 1956.

As for the film.  Sigh... It was released in 1971 and marked the end of Connery's reign as Bond.  There's a corny opening vignette that borrows some elements from the mud bath scene in the book. Bond thinks he is killing his nemesis Blofeld (who does not appear in the book).  After that it starts to track to the book a little, with the notable exception of providing any clear reason for Bond's mission.  In the book, diamonds are being smuggled and laundered through some gangsters involved in gambling in the US.  Bond is supposed to try and find evidence of who is behind it all by impersonating the man due to take the diamonds from England to New York.  In the film, diamonds are being smuggled but not entering back into the market.  Bond is supposed to find out who is hoarding them and why.

Very little background info means once again we have almost no idea why Bond is doing what he's doing.  No investment, no rationale behind his actions.  In other words, it feels clumsy.  Scenes strung together, all effort placed on the big moments and none on the glue that holds them together (sounds like many modern video games).

Perhaps the worst bit of shtick is the moon buggy chase.  It's not quite as corny as, for example, the Live and Let Die boat chase, but the vehicle chosen and the slapstick driving technique employed by everyone but Bond himself certainly steers this sequence well into farce territory.  If you find it funny how Imperial Stormtroopers can't hit anything with their blasters, then you'll really get a chuckle out of Bond's pursuers here.  If there's a ditch to be driven into, one of them will find it.

The dreaded moon buggy

Then there's the voice changing nonsense.  And Blofeld's many clones.  Blofeld himself is of course as cheesy as can be, stroking his cat while he hatches diabolical schemes.  But I rolled my eyes most at the point when Bond simply calls Blofeld up on the phone and, thanks to Q's voice-changing device, Bond perfectly mimics one of Blofeld's henchmen and gets the critical information they all need.  Anyone could have made that phone call, no need for the dashing superspy, plus it rendered virtually everything that had happened before that a waste of time.

Another bit that troubled me was how many people, civilians and thugs mind you, instantly knew who James Bond was.  Tiffany Case, the diamond smuggler, knows the name instantly like one would know Superman.  You can't be much of a spy if you're world famous, I would think.

Lastly I have to mention the gymnast assassin girls.  The scene is as lame as it sounds, but what really struck me during this moment is just how far we've come, cinematically, in filming action sequences.  It's really quite interesting to compare this slow-paced, poorly choreographed "fight" with the intense and brutal scenes in, say, 2006's Casino Royale.  Watching Sean Connery take on these two women I simply felt no urgency.  There was no danger to it, no feeling that Bond was really at risk.  And this, by the way, has nothing to do with the gender aspect.  Every fight scene in the movie feels this way.  I really think it is a matter of the cinematography and editing techniques employed at the time.

So let's recap, since this is book vs. film.  Once again almost everything bad about the film was not in the book at all:

  • The moon buggy chase
  • The voice changing machine
  • Blofeld, period.
  • Blofeld's plastic surgery clones
  • Gymnast Assassin Girls (GAG for short... ahem)

The book did have one slightly cheesy bit, which was replaced in the film with the 10x more cheesy moon buggy bit:

  • The steam locomotive chase
I'm starting to find a trend at this point, and it's an interesting one.  The movies started with Dr. No, which is in fact the 6th book in the series.  Imagine for a moment if Harry Potter's film adventures started with Book 4, Goblet of Fire, but they changed it be the start. You can easily see the conundrum they'd have created for themselves when later they'd inevitably try to film Philosopher's Stone (book 1, and American readers can look up what the Philosopher's Stone is here since we're all too dumb to know).  They'd have to take what Rowling wrote as the introduction and modify it probably beyond recognition to align with the new, out-of-order narrative they've created.

Of course, with Bond there's no real concern with a continuous narrative.  The novels for the most part stand on their own, with mainly just recurring characters who appear across books.  So it's not really a narrative problem with the films, but one of audience expectations.  With each film they have to out-do the last one, but since they started with Book 6 (Dr. No), and went basically wherever they felt like after that, by the time they get to the more constrained and subdued early Fleming Novels like Live and Let Die or this one, Diamonds are Forever, they'd screwed themselves and had to throw out almost everything save for general themes and character names.

Book: B-
Film: C-

Birth of Bond Tropes: The book, fourth in the series, continues to build on Fleming's line of disfigured and strange villains (one has a wart on this thumb, so naturally he's constantly sucking his thumb).  As for Bond himself: still driving the used Bentley, still using his small Beretta pistol, still not equipped with any fancy gadgets save for a briefcase with a hidden compartment prepared for him by "Q Branch" (no character named "Q" in the books so far).

Next up: From Russia With Love!