Wednesday, 27 February 2013

The Bourne Identity

Robert Ludlum

The trawler plunged into the angry swells of the dark, furious sea like an awkward animal trying desperately to break out of an impenetrable swamp.


After reading a couple of James Bond books, I thought it was time to read the debut of another well-travelled superspy who shares the shame initials. Jason Bourne is familiar to most as the hero of the three excellent movies loosely based on Robert Ludlum's trilogy of books.

'Loosely' is the operative word: the Matt Damon movies lift the opening of Identity and then basically do their own damn thing from there on out, and are no poorer for it. To be fair, it would have been kind of difficult to do a straight adaptation in the 21st Century, since Carlos the Jackal, the book's éminence grise, has been languishing in a French jail since 1994. In any case, I've always believed the best movie adaptations are not often the most faithful adaptations (as in the case of LA Confidential, or The Shining). I'm perfectly happy if a book and movie are their own distinct things.

In sharp contrast to the movies directed by Doug Liman and Paul Greengrass (sorry to keep harking back to them, but they do cast a long shadow), Ludlum's Bourne Identity feels comfortably old-fashioned. It reads a like the prototypical airport blockbuster, featuring dastardly bad guys, a chase across a continent, and a mysterious but supremely capable man-of-action as its protagonist. The prose is often purple (the opening line quoted above is understated compared to some of the later passages), but enjoyably so, and Ludlum keeps the pace up so effectively that the book feels shorter than it actually is.

Ludlum is gloriously unconcerned with literary pretensions, and instead concentrates on what the reader of this type of book really wants: knowledgeably-described locations, international intrigue and detailed descriptions of assorted weaponry. Most of all, he gives us a very cool hero who can shoot or asskick his way out of any given situation, and with a past so mysterious it's a mystery even to him. Strip everything else away, and those are exactly the same elements the films retain, updated to reflect 21st Century geopolitics.

What I learned: see above - well-drawn locations and a well-drawn character go a long way.

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