Robert Ludlum, “The Bourne Identity” (1980) – Calling the campy and kitschy things we enjoy “guilty pleasures” is an example of cultural inertia at work. Among reasonably cool, educated twenty- and thirty-something’s, there’s no guilt associated with camp, kitsch, and silliness. I get the sense many of them regard a preference for serious fare as vaguely reactionary.
Consider: at this point, what do you think will get you scoffed at more- liking pro wrestling, or liking Oscar-bait biopics? Self-seriousness, especially in situations where there’s no moral edification to be gained (I.e. the self-seriousness of the male, the white, the rich, etc), is much more frowned-upon than camp, in my experience. It’s my luck that my particular tastes don’t run to the sort of “serious” twentieth century literary writers that whole schools of pop-criticism have grown up around denouncing: Hemingway, Roth, Wallace, writers “literary” enough to count but accessible enough to be on the syllabi of the sort of lit courses that form the basis of a poppist bloggers’ understanding of these things. Those are guilty pleasures; guilty as in “seen as vaguely sinful” along with being uncool.
My middlebrow guilty pleasure is the self-serious action movie. I also like the acceptable kind of action movie, too, campy blockbusters, cool low-budget foreign actioners, etc. But I like the kind you can’t really laugh through and enjoy the same way, too. Michael Mann is my favorite director, warts and all. Naturally, I loved all three of the “Bourne” film trilogy. You might be able to scrape something to chuckle at out of them, if you tried — Matt Damon’s alternating befuddlement and serious-man-ness, the now-massively-overused shaky-cam action scenes — but it’s a job. The movies are meant for earnest engagement, and the filmmakers empty a reasonably capacious bag of competently-executed tricks to get it. Either you accept them on their own terms, more or less, or you don’t. I do. I get why people wouldn’t, but I do.
So, when the novel upon which the first Bourne movie was (loosely) based turned up on a library fifty-cent pile, I picked it up. You can generally find a lot of Robert Ludlum in free piles- he was a reliable bestseller and arguably the father of the “airport thriller.” Take the basic spy-fi framework you see in Ian Fleming, Frederick Forsythe, or whoever else; one ultra-competent man (all the women want him all the men want to know his drink order etc) versus a giant evil global world-ending conspiracy. Scrub away residual layers of open camp or weirdness (jokes, sci-fi, etc) and then dump “realism” on it, mostly by taking time out to discuss “real” techniques, gear (weapons, cars, surveillance stuff), institutions, etc. Et voila- a genre for the busy bourgeois man on the go!
This is the literary equivalent of the “crackpot realism” we all know from dealing with centrist politicians- absurd scenarios slathered in spurious facticity. It makes for some interesting literary devices. For one thing, “The Bourne Identity” the novel is, essentially, fan-fiction about someone who lived while the book was being written, and lives still: Ilich “Carlos the Jackal” Ramirez Sanchez. He’s the villain, by name, in the book! I guess he was hardly in a position to sue for defamation. If anything, Ludlum compliments him by depicting him as much more competent and powerful than he actually was.
What’s more, Ludlum was canny enough to realize the sort of effortlessly competent violence Bourne dishes out doesn’t read as that exciting on the page. It’s there, him fighting and shooting and fleeing from Carlos’s various goons, but it’s not as emphasized as you’d expect. Instead, you get a lot of Bourne (and his lady-friend Marie) basically socially-engineering various exclusive institutions — Swiss banks, fancy hotels, high-end clothiers, airlines, assorted bureaucracies — tricking them to get what they need and evading their surveillance. On the one hand, it’s an admirable adjustment to the realities of prose and the needs of the target audience- these days you’d have to imagine Bourne somehow using his ultra-competence to get the Comcast people to show up on time.
On the other hand, it’s honestly pretty tedious. Much of the time the book replicates the experience of dealing with bureaucracies, in this instance the analog kind, from the seventies. Even his admirers admit Ludlum was no prose stylist. The movie stripped it down admirably- Bourne vs the security state that made him. In the book, there’s Bourne vs the people who made him vs Carlos and his supposedly infallible network. One problem with the enemy being everyone, as in some of these paranoid thrillers, is that the enemy loses any definition, fades into the background. When the background is high-end Zurich and Paris at the end of the seventies, it’s not exactly exciting.
Most of what a modern reader/viewer can relate to in the movie isn’t there in the book. The Frankenstein element — the security state brainwashing and playing god with its sleeper agents, and one of them accidentally breaking out and trying to stay out — isn’t really there. The security state isn’t good in the novel, as such, but the real bad guy is Carlos and his improbable network. Moreover, whatever poignance you can get out of the relationship in the movie between Matt Damon’s befuddled Bourne and Franka Potente’s vaguely alternative drifter Marie isn’t there in the book either. In the book, Bourne basically kidnaps Canadian economist Marie, who’s alternately prissy and swoony. It’s much more Steve McQueen than Matt Damon, and while that’s a decent trade much of the time, I don’t think it works as well for this story. To the extent Bourne works at all — that it’s not just Bond but self-serious — it’s because Bourne’s alienation tempers, and arguably justifies, the power fantasy. The movies do a better job with that balance than the books. **’