Thursday, October 27, 2011

Reflections on the Jason Bourne Series

Robert Ludlum's writing has drawn a great many critical barbs over the years – many of them deserved. His books are bloated and often poorly focused, stretching a two hundred-page Eric Ambler-style plot to a length of six hundred pages and more. And as his obituary in The Economist noted, his prose reads like James Thurber's parody of thriller writing in "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" – except, one might add, that even when engaged in parody Thurber demonstrated greater restraint in his use of italics and exclamation points and synonyms for the word "said," so that Ludlum's prose style was to frequently grate on the nerves of readers possessing the smallest measure of sensitivity to the use of language.

The Bourne Identity (1980), alas, is not exempt from these defects, nor from Ludlum's tendency to sloppy research and silly plotting, which are particularly acute in this book. His depiction of Carlos the Jackal in the novel shows how little he troubled himself to look up facts quite easily available to the public at the time of writing – for instance, in Colin Smith's 1977 book Carlos: Portrait of a Terrorist. (Indeed, I can think of no other writer who has been so cavalier with the facts surrounding this particular figure. Even the creators of Carlos clones, like the screenwriters of the 1981 film Nighthawks – which made its villain a fairly obvious Carlos stand-in, the switch in his nationality from Venezuelan to German notwithstanding – did their homework rather better.) Those facts make the novel's implausible scheme for luring its villain out to be captured or killed (grounded in Carlos's being a gun-for-hire whose face has never been seen) sheer nonsense.

I have to admit that I didn't care about any of that when I first encountered the book. I was an eighth grader, and moreover, one suspicious of highbrow views of what constituted "good" literature. I read novels for page-turning entertainment, and Ludlum certainly offered that. I polished off The Bourne Identity in about a week and was soon reading the sequels, The Bourne Supremacy (1986) and The Bourne Ultimatum (1990).

Inevitably, I found myself comparing the films to the books when I saw them, and while by the time they appeared I had long been conscious of the weaknesses of Ludlum's writing, the films compared with them unfavorably.1

Of course, making The Bourne Identity a movie in the twenty-first century posed some real challenges, given how the material had dated. The Cold War with which Carlos-style terrorism had been bound up was over, Carlos the Jackal had ceased to be topical long before his capture in 1994, and the jet set vibe of the novels also very much of its times.

Still, the response of the filmmakers was underwhelming. Rather than updating or reinventing the material Ludlum left them, they simply abandoned it. They discarded the original Bourne's duel with a real-life terrorist, along with his Vietnam-era history, and for that matter, any politico-military-intelligence context for the spy game whatsoever. (At the end of the film, it's hardly clear why it is that intelligence services assassinate people. If it's an anti-Establishment spy movie of the sort popular in the '70s, it's a pretty toothless one.) They discarded the plushness of Ludlum's spy world just as completely. (This Jason Bourne gives the impression of a college kid backpacking through Europe, rather than some man-of-the-world accustomed to first-class traveler's lounges, four-star dining and deluxe hotel suites, and Marie St. Jacques is similarly changed.)

They even did away with the hero's ruthless edge. (Instead of kidnapping Marie at gunpoint as he does in the novel, Bourne pays her ten thousand dollars to chauffeur him.)

All we are left with is a secret agent who has lost his memory, which wasn't nearly so original an idea as some of the audience seemed to think, even back in 1980 when the novel first came out. (That most famous of fictional secret agents, James Bond, lost his memory in 1964's You Only Live Twice – sixteen years before Ludlum presented Bourne to the world.)

Of course, a slenderness of concept has been routine in spy movies these last couple of decades (like an episode of Seinfeld, they have tended to be about nothing), but this wasn't the sort of film that hides the thinness of its script behind a rollercoaster ride of over-the-top action and special effects, like True Lies, or the Mission: Impossible series. It's much more restrained in that respect – and to be frank, I found the handling of the action the movie did offer competent but unexceptional.

All the same, the 2002 film was a decent if unspectacular performer at the box office (U.S. gross $121 million, and another $92 million overseas), then really took off on video, resulting in sequels in 2004 and 2007. The sequels (which took the titles of the sequels Ludlum wrote himself, but little else from those books) held to this pattern, though admittedly they did a somewhat better job of fleshing out the plot, and benefited from brisker pacing and more accomplished action (which, I suspect, was especially impressive to those young enough or forgetful enough to find fight scenes and chases not based on CGI and wire work a novelty).

Even bigger moneymakers than the original (The Bourne Ultimatum, notably, outgrossing any recent Bond film in the U.S. market by a significant margin), they made the series a pop cultural phenomenon. The Bourne movies were not only treated as the new template and standard for the spy film, but (as might be expected given the extent to which the Ludlum name has been franchised in co-authorship schemes) have revived the Bourne series in print. Since 2004 Eric Van Lustbader, another '70s vintage, and past-his-prime, author of bestselling thrillers given to over-the-top writing and bad prose, has penned a half dozen Bourne sequels (with a seventh book, The Bourne Upset, scheduled for release next year). Additionally, the success of the Bourne series has brought renewed attention to Ludlum's broader work from readers and filmmakers alike (high-profile movie versions of The Matarese Circle and The Chancellor Manuscript both in the works now). Naturally, Ultimatum has turned out to not be the last film in the series, a fourth movie, The Bourne Legacy, currently scheduled for release in the summer of 2012.

1. Incidentally, the 2002 film was not the first made of Ludlum's story. There was a two-part, four-hour miniseries on ABC back in 1988, with Richard Chamberlain as Bourne, and Jaclyn Smith as Marie, which was rather truer to the source material.

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