(Originally posted on 8-5-07)
You know, I probably think way too much about why some Book to Film Adaptations work and why some don’t. My general preference is for the book over the film. For instance, the Peter Jackson adaptation of the Lord of the Rings worked extremely well, probably as well as any adaptation ever, however, I still find the books far superior even though they were ultimately much lighter in feel and leisurely in tone and pace.
Ultimately, they just delivered a deeper moral and the resolution was purer and more heartbreaking at the same time. One of the few exceptions to this rule has been the Bourne films. I have found them to be stronger, more intuitive, and with a more accessible moral than is found in the books that were their original inspiration.
The first Bourne film, The Bourne Identity directed by Doug Liman (Mr. and Mrs. Smith and Swingers) and written by Tony Gilroy (The Cutting Edge and The Devil’s Advocate) took its basic premise from the Robert Ludlum novel of the same name – average seeming white guy is rescued from the sea with a bullet wound and no memory of his past and then switched it completely up and turned it into a breathless plunge through Europe in a paranoid thrill ride of action and determination. The book, on the other hand, is ponderously slow and full of the sort of early 80’s cold war era fictional non-sensical spy plotting that helped Russia realize that the U.S. basically makes everything up as it goes and was therefore impossible to beat in a bluff.
The second Bourne film, The Bourne Supremacy directed by Paul Greengrass (The Theory of Flight and United 93) and written again by Tony Gilroy, totally drops any pretense of following the novels and goes off in its own direction, developing in the process a clearer character picture and some much needed motivation for the driven and now haunted Jason Bourne. It ends, surprisingly, more as a search for personal redemption than a modern spy film.
Now in the third film, The Bourne Ultimatum, again directed by Paul Greengrass and written by Tony Gilroy, the story comes full circle with a cold and driven Jason Bourne looking to find out who he was and by extension who he is now.
The film jumps right into it this time with a battered Bourne (Matt Damon) in Moscow being chased by the local police and, with the exception of a very few much needed and important quiet moments in which a brief feel for the interior moral turmoil going on inside of our hero is given, the pace is set and maintained throughout.
I won’t go into the story detail too much, only to say that an important piece of information surfaces by way of a London investigative reporter (Paddy Considine – In America and Hot Fuzz) who has been researching the hushed up trail of destruction surrounding a man named Jason Bourne. Bourne trails this lead all the way back to the CIA and finally to where it all started, both figuratively and literally.
The film is full of action and chases, regardless if they are on foot, or on motor bikes or in cars. The fights are still pretty incoherent and difficult to follow, but are extremely visceral and bone crunching in their execution. And it happens all over the world – starting in Moscow, and then Italy, France, London, Madrid, Tangier and New York City.
It is also packed with sterling acting talent, including Joan Allen reprising her role from the second movie as CIA Assistant Director Pamela Landy, David Strathairn as rival CIA Assistant Director Noah Vosen, Scott Glenn as the CIA Director Ezra Kramer, Julia Stiles in a surprising and fairly satisfactory wrap up of a mini-character arc as the returning CIA agent Nicky Parsons and, finally, Albert Finney looking older than expected in a small but key and pivotal role.
But everything rests on the performance of Matt Damon, and he pulls it off admirably, looking considerably older and more beat up than before. His eyes are still piercing if not a little bit dead looking. The performance that he delivers is, in essence, that of a battered machine driven by conscience with the thin hope that before it is all over he will have just a few moments to feel like a normal person again, even if he can’t remember what it felt like originally.
And he does deliver – this is one of those roles that it is hard to imagine anyone else pulling off with the same dedicated but effortless feel. And as much as I have appreciated these movies, and as much as I would love there to be more, I hope that it ends here. From this point on, you can only have diminishing returns. It ends with the meat of the character’s story told; anything additional would feel trite or like a cheat (see the Lethal Weapon series for an example of “one too many”).
The Bourne Identity deservedly reset the expectation of what a modern day spy film is, and in the process of setting that bar surpassed it with each additional entry, ending on a high note with an earned and satisfying conclusion.
So, in summary: Great performances, solid character arcs, a relatively believable storyline given the precedent set in the previous films, visceral, bone crushing and fender smashing action pieces that are at times logistically hard to follow and finally a movie series that is much better than the books from which they were originally inspired.