Movies rarely follow the books they adapt. More often than not, significant changes are made to make the book work on screen. As a general rule, I’ve found that it’s rare that a movie is as good as the book that inspired it, and even more rare that a movie is better than the book. So imagine my surprise to find that Thunderball, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, and You Only Live Twice are all far superior as films than the books from whence they came.
By comparison, You Only Live Twice is completely different from the film. In this book, Bond has lost his will to be an agent because of the death of his wife in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and his inability to capture Blofeld for the crime. He is given a supposedly impossible assignment by M to prove why he shouldn’t be fired. This assignment takes him to Japan where he is supposed to befriend the head of Japanese Intelligence and get them to share their files because the CIA has cut British Intelligence off. In the process, Bond learns that a man who could be Blofeld his built a castle full of poisonous plants which has become a popular place for Japanese people to commit suicide. Bond wastes a lot of time, then goes to apprehend Blofeld and Blofeld ends up dead. No stolen space ships. No devastating plan. Zip.
On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is similarly without action, as Bond romances Tracy and then spends the rest of the book at Blofeld’s Swiss lair theoretically trying to find a way to arrest him, though there doesn’t seem to be any action in that regard.
Worse yet, the Bond character is not a good one in these novels. On film, he’s an amazing character. He’s suave, savvy, and violent yet playful. He’s like a combination of everything a man could want to be. Not so in the books. First, book-Bond has little in the way of savvy. He never displays anything approaching keen insight and, to the contrary, misses many obvious signs. He doesn’t seem to have any spy knowledge either, nor does he seem to like his job. He knows little about foreign cultures or languages, nothing about alcohol, and doesn’t seem to have much in the way of specialize combat knowledge. He is best described as a brawler. He doesn’t have the razor wit that film-Bond has either. Instead, he comes across more as a petulant employee.
Perhaps the biggest sin, from a character perspective, is that book-Bond is largely a passive character despite the occasional moment of big talk. In the films, Bond does it all, and he does it with a sense that what he can do easily, others simply cannot do. In the books, Bond lets others do all of the work. He falls into leads rather than chasing them down. He comes across more like a detective than a spy. And he lets others take the risks. Honestly, it’s a wonder that anyone reading these books would think they would make good films and then would transform the book-Bond into the film-Bond.
● They needed to give dead-end moments in the plot some meaning and sharpen the consequences so that the stories flowed better and the excitement level was much higher.This is one time – three actually – where I’m glad they basically strip-mined the books and then made their own films using the elements they liked. That’s not something I will say often, but it is true here.
● They needed to reinvent the villain to give him bigger, more menacing ideas and a stronger organization (SPECTRE in the books is kind of like an alliance of petty thieves, blackmailers and cranks), to raise it to a world-class organization worthy of Bond’s attention.
● They needed to reshape Bond to be much smarter, more clever, more knowledgeable, more worldly and braver than in the books. They needed to swap out the character traits which make him come across as a petulant clerk who occasionally goes to arrest people for the traits of a solitary hunter, the traits of an indifferent policeman for those of an assassin, and the traits of a by-stander for a man of action. They even needed to give him the Bond-identifiers we have come to expect, like the Austin Martin, the vodka martinis, the sharp suits and “Bond... James Bond.” This is a bit like taking Columbo and turning him into Jason Bourne.
** Hopefully, you enjoyed this article. I’m planning this as a new series, but it will take time because I need to read the books before I can write the articles. I do have a few more ready to go though. :)