After getting the ball rolling last month with the underwater mad, but still in my view underrated Thunderball, I was looking forward to sitting down to the even grander and more SPECTRE dominated You Only Live Twice. Here was a Bond film not only hell bent on exotic thrills but a whistle-stop tour of Japanese culture for a Western audience. With such a diverse location to work with, a script adapted by Roald Dahl from one of Fleming’s best novels and the fresh direction of Lewis Gilbert, this would surely be bigger and better Bond. I licked my lips at the prospect of rediscovery.
Unfortunately I came across a substantial stumbling block perusing the beloved and holy row of Bond DVDS. I do not own a copy of You Only Live Twice. I am anxious to keep this knowledge from my friends. Among them my, perhaps unhealthy, obsession with all things 007 is the stuff of notorious legend. I am counting on the fact that they are not good enough friends to read my blog.
You might ask why I haven’t simply gone out to buy a copy. I am not marooned on a desert island with no access to British high streets and if HMV should prove woefully stocked the internet is of course at my disposal. If it were a missing fragment of any other film series I wouldn’t hesitate. But my James Bond collection is comprised of two disc Ultimate Editions with beautiful matching packaging. To my horror, around the release of either Casino Royale or Quantum of Solace on DVD, the Ultimate Editions were re-released with all new (and vastly inferior) packaging. Reluctant to tarnish the perfection of my sacred DVD area, I have refrained from buying a newer copy of You Only Live Twice and have been unable to find a copy to match my collection.
Oh I know you feel my pain reader. Life is a cruel and unpredictable mistress. I felt resigned to my fate and the torturous wait till June where the snowy delights of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service lurked in the Alpine trees. I was on the verge of giving up and leaving a gaping hole in my own personal BlogalongaBond journey. But then I got to thinking: why didn’t I own You Only Live Twice? Why hadn’t I made it a priority when assembling my shrine to the world’s most recognisable spy?
For Sean Connery of course it was the film that took the character too far and into the realm of the ridiculous. He resented the space age driven plot and the increasing repetitiveness of the one liners. In particular he must have felt like a first class prat being initiated as an honorary citizen of Japan, with a haircut that made him look like a monk (perhaps M really did want him to be “half monk/half hitman”). For fans looking back on the whole series of 22 films, Connery’s concerns might seem rather unfounded compared to the silliness to come with the Moore era. But clearly the Scot didn’t agree with the direction of travel away from intimate plots like those in From Russia With Love. The scale of this, the franchise’s fifth film, couldn’t be beaten without being dreadful.
I think some of Connery’s conservatism must have rubbed off on me. As a child YOLT was one of my favourite Bond entries. In particular I thought the climactic battle at the volcano base was one of the most exciting things in the universe, a totally awesome shootout with the baddies. I would have called it “an engrossing and epic finale on an impressive scale. One of the classic scenes in film history” had I had the required vocabulary. I also loved all the scenes featuring Little Nelly, as my Dad would chirp on and on about it, building the anticipation until the treasured scene would grip the household with awe and laughter.
But then as a teenager I obviously sought to reject the things my parents thought of as “good”. Little Nelly became silly. It was the sort of bland nonsense my Dad would always blabber on about. Later on I would find my love for Bond rekindled by the approach in Daniel Craig’s Casino Royale, so that I rapidly acquired and devoured the books (none of Fleming’s are missing from that collection). So enthralled was I by the dark and bleak novel that pushed Bond’s character to the limit, that my attitude to the film as a whole became lukewarm at best.
Most of all it was my view of Blofeld that changed so dramatically after reading YOLT the novel. I was struck by the complete contrast between the cinematic and literary characters, even in terms of physique. In the books he was tall, in the films a short, bald, fat and often wheelchair bound man with a fluffy white pussy. I don’t mean that he was a woman; the contrast wasn’t quite that shocking.
Anyway I might be being unfair because it’s Austin Powers’ Doctor Evil that creates such a daft cultural vision of Ernst Stavro, rather than the portrayals from the Eon films (aside from perhaps the PTS of For Your Eyes Only). But after reading the book I was no longer captivated by Donald Pleasence’s iconic performance. He was THE Blofeld to me and countless others, but after my personal enlightenment he became a wasted opportunity, a stupid cardboard cut out villain and an imitation.
I’ve already mentioned that unintentionally hilarious assimilation of Bond into the ninja community, which ruined the pace of the film and its focus upon Japanese culture. Another definite reason I came to find YOLT a turnoff was that it tried too hard to do its location justice at times, almost showing too much respect. That is not to say there wasn’t beautiful cinematography of the landscape and cities, just that too much was made of the whole “culture clash” angle. Having said this there were some wonderfully contrasted Ken Adam interior sets, which simultaneously showcased the equally beguiling faces of modern and traditional Japan.
In the aftermath of the recent earthquake and tsunami it is fitting and poignant to watch YOLT this month. Sadly, as I’ve explained, I am not. Everything I have said so far I have said from memory. Some of these files have been saved since childhood, others downloaded from more recent viewings. The trend seems to be that boy me loved it, more recent me had reservations. There are things about the film that the younger me hated that I now love however. Nancy Sinatra’s title song was whiny and not very Bondian back in the 90s, but now I find it a refreshing and beautiful track. Likewise John Barry’s score, which picked up substantially on the Japanese themes at times if memory serves me right, now strikes me as majestic when once it was irritating and plodding (not that I’d have used those words).
I genuinely wish I owned YOLT on DVD, despite what might be a tone of negativity coming across because of my love for the pages of the book dripping in revenge and sensual doubt. I know that the last time I saw the film on TV I found it to be a wonderful snapshot of both 1960s and Japanese culture, with fun as well as thrilling moments and the fresh angle of the space race. In many ways it is the classic film of the entire franchise, adhering more to the globally recognised Bond formula than Goldfinger and coming complete with spiky dialogue with Blofeld; the ultimate confrontation.
But perhaps this is also why I can’t quite bring myself to love YOLT. Like Connery, and with the added benefit of hindsight, I see YOLT’s sensational and epic tone as the start of a trend away from the style of the early films. I adored these grander and dafter cinematic Bond adventures for different reasons, but in the early films I could indulge my love for the books and the movies at the same time. Whilst good, perhaps YOLT symbolises the end of my own personal Bondian bliss and this is why my memories of it are so mixed.
Page and Screen: Are our favourite characters more alive in books or movies?
The idea of character is more complicated than we allow ourselves to realise. Of course put simply they are made up, fictional people in stories. But there are those who wish to challenge such a casual assumption. Some say they are merely bundles of words. Others question their independence, as we can never really know anything certainly about anyone besides ourselves. Therefore are characters simply versions of their creators? Are authors, screenwriters and actors getting it completely wrong when they try to imagine what it’s like to be someone who isn’t them? Should all characters be developed to a certain point? Some crop up as mere extras in a scene of a movie or a chapter of a novel but nevertheless leave an impression on us. Do they count as true characters even when we know next to nothing about them? Do we need to know anything about a character? Can we know a character at all?
Of course it’s sensible not to get bogged down in such questions. It’s pedantic, futile and stupid to waste energy debating whether any character can have true meaning beyond an author’s words. Often characters are simply a fact to be accepted, a vital part of the suspension of disbelief required to enjoy any genre of fiction. But it can also be healthy to think about the limitations of characterisation as well its possibilities. Characters are vehicles that carry us through any story, doors onto worlds of escapism. Writing believable and engaging characters is the most difficult part of creating novels or films. Anyone can have a half decent plot idea or conjure adequate passages of dialogue but very few can mould the perfect characters with which to tell their story.
On the page the biggest challenge is getting a character moving because, as I said, characters are vehicles. Uninteresting, average or amateur writing can start by telling us about motionless characters. Great writers can establish iconic figures with very little information, which is seamlessly part of the narrative. On the screen it can sometimes be easier to get a character “in”, as the motion comes from the medium itself and the viewer can be convinced by things like setting, costume or the glance of a talented actor.
Having said this it is often difficult to transform the subtleties of the written word when it comes to character depth. For example, fictional figures like Jay Gatsby and Jean Brodie make very brief appearances in novels named after them. However the books can still be predominantly about their distant personalities. The Great Gatsby is about the potential rather than the actual, with the central message that “a dream realised is a dream destroyed” according to Sarah Churchwell in The Guardian. She argues that Baz Luhrmann’s forthcoming adaptation, starring Leonardo DiCaprio as Gatsby, is doomed to failure because by its nature the film will try to visually realise the dream of Gatsby and his grand home. DiCaprio will inevitably be more prominent than Gatsby was in the book.
Jean Brodie too is a similarly enigmatic character, observed only from the viewpoint of others. She has her image like Gatsby and she is only ever seen putting on her front. She is remembered for a bunch of catchphrases, such as “you are the crème de la crème” and “I am in my prime”. In Muriel Spark’s novel (The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie) the perspective jumps around between Brodie’s pupils but we never get to know her, just her influence on the lives of her protégés.
This doesn’t make her flat or two dimensional but it probably means she is not rounded either. This does not make her a bad example of characterisation. We are made to think about the people we know; do we really only know their public performances? And we imagine more than we are told or shown about Jean Brodie. Spark throws in glimpses of her pupils in the future, of their deaths and careers, prompting further questions about the novelist’s power and Brodie’s desire to manipulate. So we know aspects of her behaviour.
The narrative blends of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and The Great Gatsby are difficult to imagine on screen in quite the same way. Their stories would undoubtedly lose something or become narrowed on a particular aspect. There are narrative techniques that have no cinematic equivalent.
Kazuo Ishiguro’s Booker Prize winning The Remains of the Day was adapted for the screen by Merchant Ivory in 1993. It centres on one of the most fascinating characters of modern fiction, Stevens the butler, played by Anthony Hopkins in the film. It might be that the role of a butler is the perfect lens for a multi layered story about class, identity, personality, culture and repressed emotion. Or it might be the talents of Ishiguro and Hopkins. But on the page and the screen Stevens is incredibly lifelike.
Subtleties and methods employed in the novel cannot be replicated on screen. For example the parallel narratives are largely lost and most of all Stevens’ unreliable narration. He is looking back on his career with nostalgia and it doesn’t take long for you to realise in the book that Stevens is deceiving himself about the past, holding back things and regularly revising his retelling. But Ishiguro pulls of the style masterfully. The half truths Stevens tells and the things he claims to forget or confuse reveal greater truths about him to the reader.
On screen Hopkins has none of these advantages to introduce Stevens to us as something more than a servant. But he does have the benefit of the visual. He can communicate with an expression or look in his eye the sort of doubt, regret and reserve it took Ishiguro dozens of pages to build. And whilst Ishiguro’s execution was pitch perfect in The Remains of the Day his preference for the unreliable narrator took some considerable practice to get right. In a previous of novel of his, An Artist of the Floating World, passages like this appear so often at times, almost on every page, that they become extremely cumbersome and annoying:
“These, of course, may not have been the precise words I used that afternoon at the Tamagawa temple; for I have had cause to recount this particular scene many times before, and it is inevitable that with repeated retelling, such accounts begin to take on a life of their own.”
Here Ishiguro is trying so hard to create a complex character that he is constantly alerting us to his efforts, shattering the reader’s immersion in the story. He is basically overwriting. So screen adaptations can often ditch bad writing to bring out the best elements of a believable character for a good story. But then there are also bad actors.
Anthony Hopkins is undoubtedly a fine actor. With roles like Stevens and Hannibal Lecter, he has established himself as a respected and acclaimed “character actor”. This term usually refers only to eccentric or developed individuals in a story. Our favourite characters can be just as alive on the page or the screen; they are simply represented in different ways. But they also need not be eccentric, developed or rounded to be alive and touching. They can come in all shapes and sizes.
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