The Bourne Identity (1988,USA) versus The Bourne Identity (2002,USA)
Directors: Roger Young (’88), Doug Liman (’02) Starring: Richard Chamberlain, Jaclyn Smith, Anthony Quayle, Donald Moffat (’88) Matt Damon, Franka Potente, Chris Cooper, Brian Cox (’02)
I first encountered Jason Bourne about twenty years ago when I read The Bourne Identity for the first time. It had been recommended to me by my high school English teacher in an attempt to broaden my literary horizons beyond the confines of the science fiction and fantasy I was pretty much hooked on at the time. It was a cracking book, dense, convoluted and generally pretty exciting (if occasionally far fetched) and so when I heard, in the early noughties, that it was going to be made into a film I was simultaneously intrigued and concerned by the mammoth task of adaptation that lay ahead of the filmmakers. Ten years on and hindsight proves my concerns were unfounded as Doug Liman’s modernisation of Ludlum’s novel rewrote the rulebook on spy movies, its influence reaching even as far as the long running James Bond franchise. What I didn’t realise until recently however was that in 1988 there was a TV mini series of The Bourne Identity starring Richard Chamberlain as the amnesiac assassin that stuck much more faithfully to the original novel. So which one is best? Well, you know the drill by now… (N.B. contains spoilers).
Liman’s film (written by Tony Gilroy and W. Blake Herron) brings the novel bang up to date, dispenses with the Cambodia elements of Bourne’s back story (making him a lot younger) and – crucially – massively simplifying the mission that leads to his discovery in Marseilles, shot, half drowned and memory free. This is a very sensible decision on the part of the filmmakers. By freeing themselves from the encumberance of the convoluted plot details of the novel they leave themselves free to focus on the job in hand – making Bourne a convincing killing machine and keeping the story frantically paced. Matt Damon does an excellent job of portraying the character, all brooding intensity and determination coupled with the physicality required to convince as a trained killer.
With more running time to play with the makers of the ’88 mini series are a little more slavish with their adaptation of Ludlum’s text, pretty much catching most of the detail from the novel and sacrificing a lot of the pacing that makes the 2002 version so enjoyable as a consequence. Bourne is a bit older here and arguably Chamberlain is a better choice of actor based on the Bourne of the books but his age coupled with the cheesy 1980s TV action sequences make him utterly unconvincing as a deadly CIA hitman. “I’m an expert in small arms and martial arts” he declares at one stage but you can’t really believe it, especially when he resolutely fails to display any kind of martial skill at any stage. It’s impossible to imagine him to ever have been able to disarm and knock cold a couple of cops in a Zurich park in a matter of seconds as Damon’s Bourne does in the later version.
The one thing that never really sat right with me from the book, which is in the ’88 version too, is the relationship between Bourne and his unwilling sidekick Marie. In the earlier version (and the book) Marie is a French/Canadian economist who is kidnapped by Bourne in order to facilitate his escape from an encounter in Zurich. He threatens to kill her a couple of times and is generally kidnappy until the bad guys get their hands on her, attempt to rape her before they kill her (they’re the bad guys remember) and gets rescued by Bourne at which point she falls in love with him. Convincing right? Right? And there’s me thinking it was just old school misogynystic nonsense. The line of reasoning makes a certain degree of sense I suppose (despite Chamberlain seeming about as threatining as a catalogue model) if the goal is to try and get kidnap victim to girlfriend in a way that seems at least plausible but the whole “I know you can’t be a real cold blooded killer because you saved me from being raped” schtick is a tricky pill to swallow for me. Call me crazy, I just don’t find the scenario particularly palatable or realistic. Especially when it culminates in what is possibly the worst love scene ever captured on camera. Don’t worry, it’s pre-watershed stuff:
Fast forward fourteen years and Marie is not a kidnap victim (although she is unwittingly put in danger by helping Bourne) but rather a willing collaborator, even if she isn’t quite sure what it is she’s collaborating in, and as a result her attraction to the dynamic, mysterious Bourne makes a lot more sense. Nobody has to save anyone from being raped (nobody even attempts it, what with this world of black ops assassins who seem concerned primarily with professionalism) and while he might occasionally snap at her a bit, Bourne never threatens her with death if she doesn’t do as he asks which if you ask me is pretty much a prerequisite of a successfull relationship. Thank goodness for progress eh? Potente’s Marie seems a lot stronger, more adventurous and more capable than Jaclyn Smith’s portrayal too, which is kind of important as I can’t imagine Bourne being into weak, easily influenced women. Two nil to the noughties version then!
When things kick off in the Chamberlain version of the story you become all too aware that what you are watching is an eighties TV production. Stilted, unconvincing fight scenes, A-Team level firefights (now I love the A-team but come on! Some realism please?) and mediocre car chases make for a less than pulse quickening experience. Now obviously there are budgetary considerations at play along with the acceptable standards of TV production of the day but really, if you are trying to convince an audience of the capabilities and daring of a crack CIA trained assassin this isn’t the way to go about it. Chamberlain’s preparation for the role appears to have been a scale and polish at the dentist’s and a spruce up at the hair salon rather than any useful training. Damon, on the other hand, trained in both Kali and Jeet Kune Do before filming with stunt coordinator/martial arts expert Jeff Imada and it most definitely shows. Admittedly, it’s not until the later films in the series where this becomes truly convincing (Paul Greengrass it would seem is a superior director of action than Liman) but even in this first one it makes for some very satisfying fight scenes, performed by Damon himself that are only let down by some slightly over-enthusiastic foley work.
There’s a similar vibe in the car chase sequence which attempts to seem a bit more dynamic than it is with fast cutting and overcooked sound effects (again, see the Greengrass Bourne films for proper car chases) but it’s still light years ahead of the ’88 version’s highly pedestrian car chase. Here the sound effects are even more over the top considering the complete lack of action on show. Maybe it would have been exciting fourteen years ago but it’s pretty tame looking now.
Bad To The Bone
All good heroes need villains to be pitted against and in the original book (and subsequently in the mini series) Bourne’s nemesis is a mysterious international terrorist called Carlos. Bourne’s mission is to provoke him into making a mistake by being a constant nuisance to his operation, claiming credit for his kills, messing with his contacts, that sort of thing. He’s a definite, singular villain (granted, with loads of accomplices) and the CIA, whilst being seen as being a little bit bloodthirsty in their tactics, have a noble cause – stopping Carlos – at the heart of the things they do. Rustle up some twenty first century cynicism though and Liman’s film paints a very different picture of the CIA who prove to be Bourne’s real enemy as they mobilise the rest of the Treadstone agents in order to take him out. Not because he’s a threat to national security, but because he could potentially let the cat out of the bag when it comes to CIA’s black ops murder team, ending careers in the process. No matter how clever Carlos the assassin is, he’s no match in terms of villainy for the self serving, devious, politically minded senior players in the CIA who hang Bourne out to dry in 2002.
So there we have it. If you were to judge the different versions on how faithful they are to the original text, the 1988 version would win hands down but I prefer to judge things on how good they are, how effective they are as films, and the less is more approach of the 2002 version (the writers worked from an outline from Liman rather than reading the book) serves the story well in its transition to the screen, dispensing with the unecessary details allowing us to focus on the important stuff – the fighting, shooting, exploding, chasing, etc, etc – rather than being bogged down in faintly implausible detail. Finally one in the win column for remakes!