Monday, March 26, 2012

The Matarese Circle – Coming to a Theater Near You?

With the success of the Jason Bourne film series, Hollywood has unsurprisingly taken an interest in bringing other Ludlum novels to the screen – including 1979's The Matarese Circle - the book Ludlum published right before Jason Bourne's first adventure.

For the moment, it seems that the project is dead, but it could yet come back from development hell. If it does, the age of the novel (over three decades old now) presents challenges to filmmakers trying to update it for a twenty-first century audience, just like The Bourne Identity did. Indeed, they may be even bigger challenges.

Perhaps the first has to do with the novel's principal characters - American spy Brandon Scofield and Soviet operative Vasili Taleniekov - putting aside an old enmity to fight the titular villains. In this Circle is very much a Cold War story, rooted in a now-vanished context, the loss of which will mean that putting an American and Russian agent together simply doesn't involve the same drama. Indeed, retaining the Russian nationality of Scofield's ally seems more like inertia than anything else given today's geopolitics.1

Much the same is the case with the novel's two central real-world themes – international terrorism, and corporate power. Terrorism is still topical, and this book doesn't have the disadvantage The Bourne Identity did of being centered on a specific, real-life terrorist, and the highly idiosyncratic strategy (to put it generously) for taking him down Ludlum dreamed up. Yet, the character of terrorism (or at least, what we label as terrorism) has changed, the cosmopolitan, leftish groups that captured headlines in that era, like the Italian Red Brigades, giving way to groups with ethno-religious identifications (in the American imagination, synonymous with Muslim fundamentalism). Aside from affecting nuances of the plot, it makes me wonder what the writers would do with the character of ex-Red Brigade member Antonia.

Corporate power may also be topical – but again, the image of this has also changed after nearly four decades of neoliberal globalization. I suppose Dr. Evil's Number Two said it best in Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery (1997):
"I spent the last thirty years of my life turning this two-bit evil empire into a world-class multi-national. I was going to have a cover story with Forbes. But you, like an idiot, want to take over the world. And you don't even realize that there is no world anymore! There's just corporations!"
When that's how the world appears, when we live in the age of the Davos World Forum, elaborate plots by corporations to seize political power seem quaint - and even superfluous.

Moreover, the Matarese's rationale for seizing control belongs to another era, the very same one that gave us the original Rollerball (1975). Dubious as they have always been (critiques of corporate influence over politics go back at least to Adam Smith's oft-cited but generally unread Wealth of Nations), the claims of corporations to a technocratic, meritocratic rationality that would represent an advance over the administration national governments supply possessed a shred more credibility then – credibility long since obliterated by the endlessly demonstrated greed of executives unable to think beyond their next bonus, and the pandemic of short-termism that follows from it, with all its fiscal and other consequences; by corporate indifference to environmental degradation, resource exhaustion and not just social justice, but social stability, as a part of their standard operating procedure; by business's continued reliance on politicians who cover corporate economic agendas with retrograde versions of nationalism and religious fundamentalism. (And of course, as even neoliberal cheerleader Thomas Friedman owned in The Lexus and the Olive Tree, "McDonald's cannot flourish without McDonnell-Douglas.")

The recent remake of Rollerball (2003) (which deservedly made io9's recent list of "worst science fiction movie remakes of all time") was a toothless mess, unsatisfying even as a simple action movie, despite its being helmed by the director of Die Hard. It is not a foregone conclusion that The Matarese Circle will be that, but I wouldn't bet against that either.

1. I'm actually reminded of 2009's G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra, which for its plot had a lame rip-off of the 1977 Bond movie The Spy Who Loved Me. Like that earlier film, the G.I. Joe movie had for its villain a madman (Destro this time) in an undersea fortress (incidentally, visually reminiscent of Karl Stromberg's aquatic facility in the Bond film) whose plan was to launch stolen weapons of mass destruction (nanite-based warheads, instead of submarine-launched nuclear warheads) at both Moscow and a major American city on the eastern seaboard of the United States (the newer film shifted the target from New York to Washington), then build a new order in the aftermath. The writers even decided to throw in a love story between Duke and the Baroness - a move with no basis in the history of these characters.

Reflections on the Jason Bourne Series

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