Monday, March 28, 2016

Books To Film: James Bond

I’ve been doing a lot of reading lately. In particular, I started reading the original James Bond books by Ian Flemming. In the past couple weeks, I’ve read the three “SPECTRE” related stories: Thunderball, On Her Majesty's Secret Service, and You Only Live Twice. It has been fascinating to compare these books to the films.

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.
To start with, the plots of the films are rather different than the books. Thunderball is the least changed, but it still has significant differences. In Thunderball the book, Bond goes to the health spa, as he does in the film, where he gets into a tit-for-tat with SPECTRE agent Count Lippe. Unlike the movie, where this scene is key to leading Bond to the Bahamas however, the book scene is only tangentially related to the bomb plot and Bond never seems to connect the dots. This makes the scene largely superfluous. In fact, M sends Bond to the Bahamas on M’s own hunch, rather than Bond connecting Lippe to Dominique. The rest of the story is fairly similar to the film, though with some caveats addressed below.

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.
Plot-wise, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and You Only Live Twice both lack anything close to the punch of the films. You Only Live Twice got so dull that I struggled not to start skimming the page-long paragraphs that conveyed little information. Thunderball still works, but it takes a lot of twists and turns which end up as dead ends and it undermines its own tension.

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.
To make these films out of these books, the producers/directors/screen writers needed to completely overhaul them:
● 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.

● 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.
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.


** 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. :)


Joel Farnham said...

I like your insight. I look forward to reading more.

AndrewPrice said...

Thanks Joel! I think this will turn out to be a good series. There should be a lot to talk about in terms of comparing the books and the films.

Critch said...

Very good points. I read the Bond books as a kid and enjoyed them, but in rereading them a few times over the years I've seen the flaws in them.

Jason said...

Cool post, Andrew. It's very interesting, as I've rarely heard anyone say they've read the actual Bond books. For a series based on a book series, it's strange the books never get a lot of notice.

Voz said...

Planning on doing Tom Clancy's novels to screen? The other books that have been translated well in my opinion are Michael Connelly's books...I only saw Bloodwork with Clint Eastwood once and don't remember it much but The Lincoln Lawyer was one of the most faithful adaptations I've seen. Also Bosch, the Amazon Prime series has done a good job of taking 3 of his novels, taking certain elements with some changes but keeping the overall theme and incorporating them into a 10 episode story arc. What other ones do you plan on doing? Harry Potter? LOTR? The Hobbit? Those are some of the more obvious ones I know...but those are some that I've read as well and would enjoy your take on how they translate.

AndrewPrice said...

Thanks Critch! I was expecting to enjoy them much more. I knew the plots would be rather different, but I didn't realize how different the character was and that the plots would be so listless. It's fascinating to me that they turned these books into these movies.

AndrewPrice said...

Thanks Jason! I know a couple people who have read them, but not many. I've always wanted to read them and when they bundled all three books of these together and put them on steep discount I couldn't resist. Then I read them and they were very different than I expected. Hence, the article.

Glad you enjoyed it! :)

AndrewPrice said...

Voz, I've been on a kick for reading novels lately that were turned into films, so there will be quite a few eventually. I'm working on "The Hustler" right now. I just finished "The Taking of Pelham One Two Three."

Others I'm planning already are Harry Potter 1-3, LOTR, The Hobbit, The Ninth Gate (amazing adaptation), Blade Runner, Deliverance, Jaws, Conan, some of the Stephen King stuff, and more. I could definitely throw in some Tom Clancy.

It will take time though as I've only read some of these books already.

Kit said...

the Lord of the Rings movies are shadows of the books —at best. But I did enjoy them.

I only saw the first Hobbit movie.

Kit said...

Do one on The Shining.

PikeBishop said...

As far as King, you have to read "Different Seasons," a collection of four novellas that produced two excellent movies, "Shawshank Redemption" and "Stand by Me" and one decent movie, "Apt Pupil." Note: the last tale is pretty brief, and would actually make a good "Twilight Zone" or "Tales from the Darkside" episode.

Anonymous said...

I read the books as they were released way back in high school. Loved them at the time. My favorites of the books were:

2) You Only Live Twice
3) Goldfinger

Of course, I've seen all the movies, and so, a few years ago, I decided to re-read the books in order. However, after two chapters of Casino Royale, I was so bored I gave up even trying to read any more of the books.

So, I must agree with your evaluation. I always thought Goldfinger the movie, with all its flaws, it was lots of fun and much better than the book. I have vague recollections of the rest of the books, but I'll stick to re-watching the movies again in the future.

Looking forward to your new series. You might consider doing Marathon Man, which is the book that got me into William Goldman. And of course, there's The Princess Bride.


AndrewPrice said...

Kit, Agreed on LOTR. I can definitely add the Shining. I loved the book and the movie.

AndrewPrice said...

Thanks Glenn! I was surprised how hard I found it to like the books. I really was expecting something much more fast-paced, exciting and intricate. But they really were dull.

I should definitely do Marathon Man and The Prince Bride! Both are excellent movies and I've heard good things about Goldman. :)

Anonymous said...

Andrew; I like to do that too. When a movie I like is adapted from a book I read the book to see how things even out. The Excorcist and First Blood are both great novels that made great movies. I remember liking Deliverance but it's been so long since I read it that I can't remember much about it.
The Eaters of the Dead is a worthy source for the 13th Warrior. I was disappointed in Jaws. The movie was much better than the book. Justified was much better than Fire In The Hole indicated it would be.
I've just ordered The Shootist and The Siege Of Trencher's Farm from Amazon. The Siege Of Trenchers Farm was the novel that The Straw Dogs was taken from.
Bladerunner is one of my all time favorite films but I've heard that Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep is incredibly dull. I look forward to this, I think it will be a good series. And I'm glad to see that you're up and around.

AndrewPrice said...


And thanks for the ideas GypsyTyger! I've read Androids and I was amazed that anyone thought the book was worth making into a film or that they made Bladerunner out of it. The book is just awful.

Anonymous said...

Agree Andrew. Blade Runner is my favorite movie of all time. The visuals, the (fabulous) sound track, the theme, and the greatest death scene of all time. Plus it's film noir mixed with Science fiction that is rarely done so well. I've watched about a dozen different versions of the movie and I love them all ... and to my mind Decker is Not a replicant, otherwise the whole impact of the theme is lost.

I had the book kicking around for years and finally read it. There are some links here and there to the movie, but it is amazing they saw a movie in it. Credit David Peoples and Hampton Fancher the screenwriters for doing an amazing job and Ridley Scott for his ground breaking Art direction.

I read an early version of the script wherein Decker kills Rachael at the end, which I think is how the book ended (can't remember). Glad they changed that for the final version.


AndrewPrice said...

Glenn, I love Blade Runner as well. And I agree. Decker is not a replicant. I had the same reaction when I read the book - "How did they get THAT movie from this book?" I'm glad they did, but how did they see it?

Agreed about the ending.

Tennessee Jed said...

you read some of the worst books. From Russia with Love and Moonraker are a couple of my favorites.

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