Chapter & Verse – The Bourne Identity

As humanity has evolved, so has the media by which it entertains itself has evolved as well. From the oral tradition of stories passed down from ages gone down to the texts in which they were eventually written down in days of old to the multitude of platforms in the modern age, the art of story-telling itself has remained central throughout the ages. Since the invention of the printing press, the novel has become the standard by which story telling is still measured. Books are still read from authors long since dead like Homer and Jane Austen, still engrossing many years after they were originally published. And with the advent of the motion picture, adapting the written word to the silver screen has been something done since the first movie serial was shown to audiences.

But often times a book’s cinematic equivalent radically changes the source material substantially to make it into a film. Sometimes it’s for the better, sometimes it’s for the worse, but the results are never the same with each passing film that comes out that was based on a book. With this in mind, we here in the movies zone of wish to bring out this month’s feature: Chapter & Verse, our look at the world of book-inspired movie making.

I will be starting things off with what was a Cold War staple and then turned into a modern day spy thriller, The Bourne Identity.


For Robert Ludlum, “The Bourne Identity” is perhaps his best known work. Having wrote over 20 books and sold in excess of 210 million copies combined, “The Bourne Identity” is perhaps his best known work.

Ludlum would take this success and pen a franchise on par with Ian Fleming’s series about a British spy named Bond with four sequels to the best seller, two of which have been made into films with a third one coming in August 2007. “The Bourne Identity” would first be made into a relatively faithful television miniseries that followed the events of the first book in the franchise, as Ludlum would later pen “The Bourne Supremacy,” and “The Bourne Ultimatum” to finish up Bourne’s journey. “The Bourne Betrayal” and “The Bourne Trajectory” would come out by another writer after the turn of the century.

The film would reinvigorate the franchise, launching a new release on paperback for the series nearly two decades after the initial release of “The Bourne Identity,” as well as result in terrific box office numbers for the first two films. With The Bourne Identity grossing over $121 million domestically and $92 million more from its international receipts despite not spending a week at #1 in 2002. The sequel was quickly green-lit and, in retrospect, The Bourne Identity was the right movie at the right time for Damon.

The Book:

Originally published in 1980, “The Bourne Identity” follows the tale of former covert operations specialist Jason Bourne. Shot several times in a botched assassination attempt, Bourne’s floating body is recovered on a fishing boat and he’s brought to an alcoholic doctor for recovery. With a bullet to his head that didn’t kill him, only giving him amnesia, Bourne has only one mission to accomplish: find out who he is and what happened to him. But Jason Bourne isn’t merely a man who washed up nearly dead; he’s a legend in Southeast Asia as a hitman, pulling off kills no one else seemingly could’ve and threatening to become the world’s premier assassin. Created as a cover for a CIA operative, and inflated by giving Bourne credit for kills that weren’t really his, the man formerly known as David Webb has to assume the identity of Bourne to find out what on earth happened to him. Bourne’s mission for the US government was to find the world’s premier assassin, Carlos the Jackal, and bring him into custody.

As he tries to figure out who he is while continually on the run from the authorities, who have assumed he has gone into business for himself as Jason Bourne, he can trust no one. He forces brilliant Canadian economist Marie to be his hostage in the middle of one of the many shootouts he’s involved in. For Bourne, it’s a race against time. He has to try and recover memories from the person he used to be while trying to survive a hunt by his former compatriots in the government as well as Carlos, all of whom want him dead.

The Film:

Jason Bourne (Damon) has no idea why he had three bullets in his back and was awash at sea when some fishermen found him. He doesn’t know who he is, either, and he also has an account number for a Swiss bank account imbedded in his hip. Cursed with detailed knowledge of hurting people amongst many other survival skills, Bourne knows what he is but not who he is.

Everywhere he turns, Alex Conklin (Chris Cooper) and members of Treadstone hunt him relentlessly. As he tries to regain his memory he’s continually fending off assaults from a variety of foes, all the while a scared gypsy drifter named Marie (Franka Potente) is along for the ride.

Bourne has to find out who he is and unlock the mysteries of his past while everyone seemingly wants him dead.

Differences and Similarities:

The difference between the theatrical release of The Bourne Identity and the book of the same name start from its setting. The original was written in a much different era of both the genre as well as of action-oriented novels. This was the era of the Cold War, with so much more subterfuge and confusion going on in the world then than there is now. Released in the days after 9/11, Hollywood was still a bit reticent in how it would handle the action film and this film was the first action film that didn’t feel uncomfortable in light of that horrible event. In many ways it was one of the few films that showed how a film can have action in it in a day and time that was a bit harder to straddle the line of good taste.

One of the main differences between the film and the book is the plot itself. Bourne goes all over Europe and then some to find out who he is while engaging in gun battles every 30-40 pages or so. The plot is much more involved and in-depth than the film, obviously, and Bourne takes much longer to discover what all happened. The book has Bourne as an operative pretending to be an assassin to try and lure out Carlos; the film has Bourne as the assassin with no mention of the Jackal. The elimination causes the film to have to make substantial changes to the plot and the character to compensate.

Bourne’s inherent dangerous nature is portrayed much differently, making the character from the novel much different than his cinematic counterpart. Bourne from the book is a man who has survived Vietnam and was a member of a highly dangerous special project named Medusa, running suicide missions all the time and succeeding every single time. He’s around 40 year old at this point, 15 years after the Vietnam War at a minimum, but now he’s just become a wiser man. Bourne can anticipate and react because he’s seen so much more than anyone who’s hunting him down. Bourne in the film is more of a science experiment than hardened killer. Since Damon is a younger man than the hero the novel, his history has to be adapted as he can not be a Vietnam Veteran and be in his early 30s. Bourne is a man trained by the best to be an assassin, as oppose to merely playing one on TV as it were, so the threat of menace is a different one. He’s not a man with nothing to lose like the book version; he’s been trained for years to be a killer. The differences in the cast of characters are also pronounced; a major plot point requiring Marie to be a master of economics is eliminated from the film, thus negating her character to be a top ranking government official and thus making it easy to adapt her character into something more accessible for the film than the book’s version of her. Conklin is not just the head of Treadstone, he’s an embittered CIA agent with a bad leg in the novel. In the film he’s more of a generic government bad guy trying to cover his own tail.

That seems to be the tone of the film as compared to the novel. The novel’s villains, in this case the government agencies who think Bourne has gone rogue, are not in agreement and have different ideas about what has happened to Bourne. Some say he’s turned, other say he’s trying to lure Carlos out by different means and others believe him when he says he doesn’t know who he is. A major theme of both the book and the film is about trust; Bourne doesn’t know who to trust and who not to trust outside of Marie. It’s different in the novel, as it’s expounded upon more as Bourne is almost in the depths of paranoia when it comes to trying to decide who’s on his side on who is not. But then again every other chapter seems to end in a gunfight, so one can easily understand his paranoia when seemingly everyone is out to get him. The film’s version is a bit less paranoid because Bourne knows, at least on some level, who’s coming after him. He just has to avoid anyone in positions of authority like the police, et al, as opposed to avoiding anyone because they could be trying to kill him.

The tone of the book and the film are both similar as well, with some minor differences because of the changes in story. The book is much more action oriented than the film, but it also has quite some time to work with too. With the sheer amount of time to pass, it’s easy to have plenty of action-filled moments and all sorts of explosions because this is an action-oriented spy thriller. The film has less time, so any time there’s an action sequence it has to count for something. Therefore the film’s tone and pacing are a bit more frenetic, geared towards developing the action sequences and thus making them crucial plot points in the story.

Which is better:

Making a choice between both is difficult, but ultimately the book is better than the film. It’s a bit more nuanced and develops its characters a bit better, if only because it has more time to develop. The film is a bit more condensed, and as such much of the subplots and storyline is eliminated to make it sleek and move quickly. Much like the television series proved, “The Bourne Identity” needs a lot of time to be able to breathe and develop. While the film was a great and underrated spy story, the book is stronger if only because it has the ability to do so.

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