Like a vast majority of people, my first exposure to The Bourne Identity came in the form of its 2002 cinematic adaptation1 starring Matt Damon. I remember it well, actually, since it was one of the first dates I went on with a girl named Allison—who I’m now engaged to.
It is a compulsion of almost every reviewer to compare a book to its celluloid counterpart or vice versa, and certainly one to which I fall prey2. Often, this kind of criticism devolves into simple binary decisions about which is qualitatively better, and it’s been my experience that it’s usually the story’s initial medium. Items created for the screen tend to lose their visual and cinematic qualities; items created as the written word tend lose so much of their meaning to a screenwriter’s gloss.
In some cases—this case, for instance—comparisons can be illustrative. Both versions are powerful contenders in their films: while Robert Ludlums’s 1980 book might be relatively unknown to those who aren’t fans of the spy genre, it was nonetheless a very successful book. The newer film adaptation reached people who would not otherwise care about the genre, and was praised for its production, acting, and story. But the film version is a terse distillation of the novel: how could such a pared-down version compare with the much fuller, developed story of the book?
My answer to this has as much to do with what the film doesn’t preserve from the book as it does with anything else. The Bourne Identity (hereafter, this citation will refer to the book version) is a complicated work; Ludlum wrote what in other circumstances might be basic spy thrillers, the unassuming fare of airport bookstores. The basic mechanics of the plot, though I suppose they may have been more original in 1980, are to the modern reader a collection of hackneyed spy tropes and action movie fodder. Ludlum takes extraordinarily care, however, not to simply narrate the sequence of events, but draw many minor, tangled subplots, and expend quite a bit of verbiage on character development. Whereas Matt Damon may have been a frustrated amnesiac, he was nonetheless rather cool, calm, and collected through the film. Ludlum’s Bourne is a much different creature: his mind overflows with doubt and self-recrimination. He’s lonely, he hurts (mostly because he either gets shot, or gets the shit beaten out of him every other chapter). When he co-opts a redhead, he is not friendly and immediately protective like Damon; he’s actually an asshole, sometimes slapping her, threatening her with death, &c. This, I argue, may have something to do with being written in 1980 by a quinquagenarian. Certainly, that wouldn’t have played with moviegoing audiences in 2002—even our antiheroes don’t hit women.
Ironically, the Jason Bourne of the film has a bloodier past than the Bourne of the book: paradoxically, however, the latter spends much more time agonizing over his potential immorality, wearing his heart on his metaphorical sleeve, both in terms of his ethical ambiguity and his feelings for Marie3. Ludlum’s Bourne, in other words, is an intensely psychological creature, and suffers very much for it. Damon as Bourne keeps with the spirit of the modern moviegoer’s obsession with what I would term a “French Bread hero”—that is, crusty on the outside, but warm and soft on the inside. Damon doesn’t seem to have any moral ambiguity: his awkward conversation with Marie immediately after meeting her reveals a certain bashfulness and foreshadows their future romantic relationship; meanwhile, while the extent of his amnesia is the same as his print predecessor, Damon’s character seems governed by his special ops training far more than the original. While Ludlum’s Bourne strikes me as somewhat bumbling—arguing with the voices in his head, losing fights, getting shot all the goddamn time—Damon’s Bourne by comparison manages to be a much more efficient soldier-spy.
None of this is particularly revealing, of course: the new Bourne’s grace and brutality is little more than the consummation of the public’s expectation for action movie heroes, and we should expect nothing less. Nor does the fact that I—and, I would venture to guess, quite a number of people—enjoyed, viscerally, the new movie more than the book, necessarily demean the book. What I will go so far as to say is that the very novel construction of a psychologically-stripped spy makes for rather strange and often unsatisfying reading….. at least in the context of the spy thriller genre.
- There was a 1988 miniseries that was much closer to the source material.[↩]
- To name just a few examples: The Princess Bride; Sideways; The Fellowship of the Ring[↩]
- As a sidenote, I find the book Marie’s transformation from frightened hostage to white-hot lover to be terribly insipid and shallow; I’m a little surprised that Ludlum was so careless in this regard.[↩]