Text-to-Screen Retrospective: The Bourne Identity

October 6, 2010

In my younger years, during one of the many chats that my dad and I have had about books – even today we can quote Robert B. Parker plots back and forth without fail – he told me that there were three books he tried to read every year: Frank Herbert’s “Dune,” Alexandre Dumas’ “The Count of Monte Cristo” and Robert Ludlum’s “The Bourne Identity.” I’ve read all three of these since he first told me that, but “The Bourne Identity” has always been the one that we’ve bonded the most over. I received a battered paperback from him freshman year of high school, and as I read through it over a month we’d have many discussions on the progression of the amnesiac assassin and the varied forces pursuing him.

It was for that reason that both of us were so excited when a film version of “The Bourne Identity” was released when I was a junior, and why we went to see it together the first weekend it came out – and it was for that reason that once the film was over, both of us looked at each other, shook our heads and said “Nah.” It wasn’t that the film was bad – quite the opposite in fact – but there was barely a single thing in it we recognized from the story we’d followed so closely. Even now, eight years later, I’m still unable to watch the film without a slight cringe, though now it’s less a purist’s rant and more a mourning for what could have been.

It’s interesting, because from the outset of the film it seems the differences will be negligible. Both open on a man floating in the ocean outside of France, riddled with bullet holes, a bank account number sewn under his skin and absolutely no memory of who he is. Following the number to Zurich, he learns four very important facts in rapid succession: his name is Jason Bourne, he has millions of dollars in the account, several unidentified men are trying to kill him and he is far better than anyone should be at fighting them off. Dodging both their bullets and the rapidly unfolding memories, he desperately tries to put together who he was, aided only by a woman who stars as hostage but becomes his lover.

While the exposition and loose skeleton of the plot is taken from the book, everything else has been stripped away in favor of more generic spy movie elements. In the novel, Bourne is pursued not simply by a government tying up loose ends but by “Carlos,” the most legendary hired killer in the world. His background does not lie in simply being a standard CIA assassin, but an ex-Vietnam black ops agent with an even darker past and motivations. And his search for the truth doesn’t just lead Bourne and his partner/lover Marie to past locations where Bourne was, but to connect the messages and implications of each action taken against him in often heated debates.

The film obviously simplifies the plot elements of the novel, but that’s not in and of itself a bad thing – screenplay writer Tony Gilroy was right in many ways when he called the 1980 novel “a very complicated, dated book.” The plot is driven by an interwoven conspiracy that would put “Rubicon” to shame, with agents playing multiple sides layered with different names and settings and sideplots as Bourne tries desperately to piece the secrets surrounding Carlos and himself. Even the most devoted fans can’t deny that a perfect adaptation would drag out for hours, and even if it was adapted to a miniseries it still would only work half the time.

That “half of the time” caveat however is the main issue I have with the film: it doesn’t matter that it failed to adapt the book perfectly, but it missed a lot of what made the book so good. The revelation that not only is Bourne a government agent, but was set up as a professional assassin to bait and snare the legendary Carlos, was a concept that should have survived first editing as it would have added a lot to the film. Not only does it create a more cat-and-mouse sense, but the personal dilemmas Bourne goes through over the course of the book as he realizes what his role means opens up the room for a strong psychological thriller, rather than a comparatively straightforward action film. There are many very good, very tense scenes in the “Identity” film, but not one of its revelations holds a candle to the novel’s scene where he learns he is the notorious assassin Cain – and the ensuing explosion of memories inside his head the revelation sets off.

Indeed, several of the book’s elements could have worked well in a cinematic framework. The first few chapters alone provide excellent scenes, none of which make it into the film – an alcoholic doctor talks him through all the physical signs that he is more capable than he appears, he beats an entire fishing vessel’s crew into submission uttering only monosyllabic martial arts phrases, and he parlays an overheard rumor about an unfaithful rich man into a cash supply. The book could have also supplied the film with some stylistic elements: the doctor’s advice would be well-served as voiceover narration when Bourne realizes his old abilities are coming back to him, and his supposed background as a ruthless any-dirty-job mercenary in Vietnam could be a lead-in to some very dynamic flashbacks.

It’s also disappointing because while the film did fail to explain the majority of what drove and made Bourne who he was, the character of Bourne was perfectly cast with Matt Damon. Not only does he look the part with features that lend themselves to Bourne’s trademark chameleonic appearance, he nails the wound-up tension that the situation has driven him into – while at the same time he remains a professional, his training so deeply ingrained that the tension never breaks him. The fact that he does his own stunts is also to the character’s credit, as he can snap off a flawless succession of martial arts moves and then gasp disbelievingly at what he was capable of without any need to conceal the use of a stuntman.

Damon manages to bring enough of his source’s conflict, but his partner Marie shows no signs of the spark that made her such a compelling love interest, regardless of how competently Franka Potente plays the role. Part of it is the character’s background – an economics professor in the book, an aimless European drifter in the film – but a bigger change is that she’s no longer smarter than he is. What made the relationship between Bourne and Marie so compelling in the novel was that she was frequently able to put the pieces of the conspiracy together before he could, and consequently set him on the right path. In the film however, she just feels like she’s along for the ride, without the loyalty or the fervent belief that the man she knew couldn’t be a professional killer.

The rest of the film’s cast similarly feels like they’re along for the ride. CIA chiefs Ward Abbott and Alexander Conklin have actors with the gravitas to carry their written counterparts (Brian Cox and Chris Cooper respectively), but the characters they play resemble the initial versions in name only – no history, no personality traits, no allegiances. Clive Owen, though his role as the top agent hunting Bourne does not come from the book, earns an honorable mention as his cold professionalism occasionally has some inklings of the gold-spectacled assassin who is Bourne’s adversary in the early chapters.

I haven’t yet mentioned either of the sequels to “The Bourne Identity” in this review in either of their incarnations, and there’s a reason for that. When I later went to see the “The Bourne Supremacy” and “The Bourne Ultimatum” I went in expecting no parallels to the books – no traces of Bourne hunting an imposter in China or final confrontation with Carlos – and as a consequence I feel I enjoyed those films more than the original. They are adaptations in title only, continuing the story of the Bourne character that the films created rather than the book’s version, and are much easier to appreciate when that consideration is taken.

And taking that consideration with the original film, I am not going to dispute that “The Bourne Identity” is also a good movie. As a straightforward action film it’s well-constructed and well-cast, and the elements it does take from the book allow it to be a cut above much of the genre. It had the right idea in not copying the original scene by scene, but it simply went too far in what it cut out, and in doing so kept a satisfying film from being a deep and effective story. In both stories, Bourne gradually fights his way back to his memories – but it’s the book that makes for a more memorable experience.