Friday, March 21, 2014

Book vs. Film: "From Russia With Love"

In part--geez, is it 5 already?--part 5 of my Book vs. Film thingy, I'm looking at the 5th book in the James Bond series of novels by Ian Fleming.  My previous posts are here.

From Russia With Love, released in 1957, later became the 2nd film in the franchise after Dr. No (which I'll look at next), and the one I've always considered to be the best of the bunch.  Top 3, at the very least.  The film adaptation was released in 1963, and so far is the most faithful.

But there are differences, and once again I find them a somewhat fascinating glimpse into the minds of those who handled the job of bringing novel to screen.

The book spends a great deal of time up front dealing with SMERSH's chief executioner, Irishmen Donovan Grant.  Fleming goes into great detail about the man's sadistic nature, his serial killer mindset, and how he wound up defecting to Russia and rising so high in their intelligence network.

This all eventually leads to a meeting between the top figures in that community, made all the more ominous by Fleming's "author's note" at the outset which explains that the places, people, and descriptions of this event are basically real.

It's interesting after the four previous books to get such an in depth peek at Bond's opponent, and not through the lens of Bond's own spycraft.  If there was ever an argument for including chapters from the villain's point of view, certainly this ranks up there.  Unfortunately, as we'll see, the promise of these chapters end up fizzling out.

Ultimately SMERSH (the part of the Russian espionage apparatus that deals with eliminating enemy spies -- an actual thing) decides they need to perform a "terrorist act" within the world's intelligence communities.  Something bold and yet subtle, to let everyone know just how clever and devious the Russians can be.  They posit, quite realistically, that such an action is more to swell pride within Russia's own agents and analysts than to do any real damage to the enemy, but if both can be accomplished all the better.  In the end they reach the obvious conclusion, though it didn't feel like a chore getting there:  Grant will eliminate Bond, showing the west that their best agent is in fact inferior to Russia's.

The book then veers away from Grant.  We don't see him again until near the end, and, all things considered, Bond dispatches him with only a bit of difficulty.  Thus all the detail of Grant's abilities and dangerous mind seem something of a let down.

The book ends with Bond going to visit Rosa Klebb at her hotel room in Paris, the room where Grant was supposed to meet her.  Klebb is the mastermind behind the Soviet operation.  In probably the most clumsy part of the book, Grant very specifically tells Bond precisely when and where he'll be meeting Klebb, down to the hour and the hotel room (along with detailing the rest of the plan -- the usual "let me tell you all about our secrets since you're going to die in a minute" business).  That aside, Bond arrives to confront Klebb, but before she can be arrested she kicks Bond in the shin with a poisoned blade affixed to her shoe.  Unlike the previous books, this one ends on a cliffhanger, implying the poison may have killed Bond.

Overall the book is pretty good.  Not as good as some of the previous novels, but better than Diamonds are Forever.  The setup is great, the spycraft all seems reasonably on the up-and-up.  My main problem was how anti-climactic the confrontation with Grant ends up being, given how much time is afforded to him in the first part of the book.

As for the film, it tracks very closely to the novel. More than any of the other adaptations so far, in fact.  There's three main differences: another silly opening scene, a boat chase toward the end that I feel improves on the books lackluster climax, and a tidier ending overall.

We start with Bond chasing Grant through a garden at night.  Grant gets the upper-hand and strangles Bond with a wire pulled from his watch.  "OH MY GOD BOND IS DEAD!" screamed no one in any theater anywhere.  Bond is revealed to just be some poor bastard wearing a flawless mask, Mission Impossible style (to be fair, three years before Mission Impossible aired).  It's tough these days to believe that anyone back then actually gaped in awe at such a hokey trick.

The thing is, the scene serves no point.  It's clumsy.  It implies that Grant is being trained 24/7 to assassinate Bond, not to simply be a kick-ass assassin.  When Klebb arrives later to assess him, it's because they (meaning SPECTRE, not SMERSH as in the book) have just decided to undertake assassinating Bond, and she's off to see if Grant is up to the job he's apparently training for already.  She decides he is ready by punching him in the stomach with brass knuckles.  No reaction means he's damn tough, and apparently that is all she needs to know.  Anyway, I mentioned 'clumsy' earlier.  This garden scene isn't in the book.  The whole bit with Grant's opponent wearing a Bond mask screams of producer-added cinema shtick.  There is no reason for any of this other than earn a little gasp from us, the viewers.  Once again, before we can even get to Fleming's intended story, we're in bizzaro farce land.  The only bit of this similar is the way Klebb evaluates him with a brass-knuckles punch to the stomach.  Luckily, things get back on track right after that.

I've alluded to this before, but I'll state it more clearly here:  The films have a very different personality from the novels, even here early on.  I don't think it's until the Casino Royale reboot that we finally get a James Bond film that felt close to the spirit of the books.  True, the novels lack the depth and finesse of a Le Carre espionage tale, but they are carefully plotted, well researched, tidy affairs.

Both the book and the film do contain the gypsy girl fight, which earns every eyeroll you can throw at it.  It's a little more subdued in the book, but not much, and I could have done without it in both mediums.  Realistic or not I have no idea.  The main problem with it is that it's completely gratuitous.

The boat chase toward the end is not in the book, and for once I think the film was helped by deviating.  It's an exciting scene, with the very memorable moment when Bond takes careful aim and shoots the fuel drums he's dumped into the water.

There's something about this half-second bit of the movie I love. The way Connery pauses to really dial-in his aim.  It's one of those super subtle moments in a film that you realize later really sell the reality of the situation.

Compared to the horribly cheesy boat chase in Live and Let Die, this one was (for it's era) rather enjoyable and well filmed.  Given the lack of action in the book, and the aforementioned anti-climax, this little added bonus was welcome.

There is one difference between book and film I can't quite wrap my head around.  In the movie, we constantly see Grant pop up at critical moments and save Bond's life.  He's Bond's "guardian angel".  This is not in the book at all, and it's another of those producer-added bits of shtick I can't quite understand.  It implies Bond needs the help while simultaneously implying the SPECTRE plan is so feeble that the only logical solution is to have Grant follow Bond around at a comically close proximity, all to make sure Bond doesn't die before Grant can kill him on the train.  The book does a pretty good job of explaining why they want to kill Bond on the train.  The movie makes no such attempt, which makes Grant's constant interventions all the more puzzling.

Last change I'll mention: Bond's briefcase.  I watched the movie first this time and, when Q goes over the elaborate briefcase and its myriad of contents I found myself chuckling.  No way had this been in the book, considering nothing like it had come in the previous novels.  And yet on the re-read, there it is.  Virtually identical to the movie version, with the only notable exception being the film version's tear-gas canister that eventually explodes in Grant's face.  So it's here, in the 5th book, that the gadgetry aspect first rears its head.

As an adaptation goes, it's hit and miss both in where it decides to be faithful (miss -- the gypsy fight, hit -- the overall mood) and the tweaks (hit -- the boat chase, miss -- Grant killing fake-Bond).

Book: C+
Film: B

Birth of Bond Tropes: Fleming deviates from his disfigured villain's trope here, though I suppose you could argue that Grant is mentally disfigured.  The birth of gadgets arrives with this book in the form of Bond's briefcase.  It has hidden knives, hidden money, special latches, and a handful of other interesting items tucked within.

Next up: Dr. No!

Monday, March 10, 2014

5 reasons why writers should listen to audiobooks

Listen!

Of all the advice I can give aspiring authors, this is probably the only original bit I've got. Everything else is just me passing on tips I received, but this one... it's purely my own conclusion:

Audiobooks are a dynamite way to improve your writing.  

Here's five reasons why:
  1. Unlike reading printed text, you can't really skim. You've trained yourself over the years to skip the "boring bits", to the point where you may not even realize you're doing it anymore, or why. And, this may be affecting your own writing. With an audiobook you're forced to hang on every word the author wrote. No eye-wandering past those large wall-of-text description paragraphs. No accidental glimpse at the big reveal in that next big line of dialog. And as a result, you'll gain newfound appreciation for the words themselves.  
  2. It's about more than just the words, actually. It's also the cadence. The pace. That's not to say these things are absent when reading printed text, it's just that when heard in audio form there's a whole different dimension to it that helps you, the writer, understand and appreciate them. Over time, that extra knowledge will bleed into your own writing. For example I quickly learned how annoying it is when every line of dialog has a "he said" or "she said" after it. It's true these are often 'invisible' in printed form, but a chain of them can really bog down rapid-fire dialog. Recognizing this can lead you to finding better ways to add pauses between the spoken lines.
  3. You'll hear the words as you write them. It's often said that reading your own work-in-progress aloud is a great way to find flaws in it. What I've found after years of listening to audiobooks is that I hear the words in my head now as I write. Often, somewhat bizarrely but also quite wonderfully, this is in my favorite narrator's voice. This phenomenon does not quite substitute for an actual read-aloud, but it gets you maybe halfway there and helps you catch problems as you hammer out a draft.
  4. You'll read more. Hell, I'd hardly read anything these days if it wasn't for audiobooks. Between my own brisk writing schedule and dealing with two rambunctious young boys at home, often the only quiet time I can get is when I'm driving somewhere. Even in my brief stints I can get an extra book or two read per month this way. If you've got a commute you'll get even more time. There's a secondary bonus to this point, which is that once you've discovered some narrators you really enjoy, you'll seek out their other recordings no matter the genre. Breaking outside your usual genres = good thing!
  5. You'll gain new appreciation for a well-delivered reading. I've been to a number of author readings, and to say they vary in quality is an understatement. By no means do I count myself in the good column, far from it, in fact, but I'm getting better. The trick is recognizing this fact. I know very keenly what a bad narrator can do to an otherwise good book. I often think when authors do these readings that they have no idea how much the audience is squirming in their seats. We can't all be M. Todd Gallowglas, but a healthy dose of listening to great narrators reading great books will go a long way toward giving you something to emulate.

Note: 4 and 5 apply to non-aspiring writer types, too.  Ahem!

UPDATE: Regarding the "you can't skim" point in item #1 -- I'm talking about the natural jumps we make while reading printed text.  Those moments when the eye just naturally leaps past a paragraph our mind has subconsciously marked as full of unimportant information.  It's something I think all seasoned readers do.  Perhaps I'm wrong.  The point is, although yes you can technically skip chapters at the touch of a button, or simply "tune out" during a boring bit of narration, neither of these constitute a replacement for the "eye jump" type of skimming I am referring to. Skipping a chapter or fast-forwarding via a button is a conscious choice. You can analyze why you did it and that analysis can help your own writing.

You can find audiobooks at your local library, bookstore, or (of course) online. Some sites have deals where you get a free book for signing up to a trial of their subscription service, and many of these sites have steeply discounted books on sale frequently. I'm not going to call out specifics because monopolies suck, but I'm sure if you poke around you can find an audiobook that suits your preferences and pocketbook. The days of the 50$ 16-CD audiobook seem to be dying, and that's a good thing because it's the main reason most people never paid attention to them in the past, myself included. Most are now priced only slightly higher than the print or ebook equivalent, especially if you're using a subscription service.

Give one a try!  If there's a book you really love and reread often, try the audio version and see what new dimensions are added from the experience. Or, you know, give something new a spin.

One tip: If you listen via a specialized audiobook app, there is often the option to increase the playback speed. I find the originally recorded pace is often too lethargic. Some people complain that audiobooks don't hold their attention very well, and I suspect this is why. So try increasing the playback speed. I find a 1.25x rate works well as a blanket rule, but for some narrators even 1.5x is required. Go for a speed where the pace sounds natural to you, not where it sounds like the narrator is speed-talking, otherwise you lose some of the benefits I outlined above.

PS. I hope my homage to Beowulf at the beginning there wasn't too cheeky. It seemed appropriate, even if the famous opening to that poem may have been misinterpreted.