Book vs. Movie: The Bourne Supremacy
By Kim Hollis
August 9, 2004

Ben, I told you not to follow me!

If movies like Freddy vs. Jason, Godzilla vs. Megalon, Alien vs. Predator, Godzilla vs. Mothra, Kramer vs. Kramer, Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah, Ecks vs. Sever, Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla and King Kong vs. Godzilla have taught us nothing else, it's that everything is somehow better in battle format. We here at BOP recognize this fact, but at the same time realize that our breed of super-smart readers sometimes yearns for a touch of the intellectual at the same time. And since Hollywood has a certain obsession with turning literature of all types into big screen features, we're afforded the perfect opportunity to set up grudge matches galore.

And so, whenever the Tinsel Town hotshots decide that it's a great idea to turn the little-known Herman Melville classic Redburn into a theatrical event film, we'll be there. Whether the results are triumphant (see: The Lord of the Rings trilogy) or tragic (i.e. The Scarlett Letter), we'll take it upon ourselves to give you the verdict and spark the discussion.

The Bourne Supremacy

Thanks to a request from one of our intrepid readers, I went ahead and tackled the 656-page Robert Ludlum political spy novel. I should probably make note from the outset that this genre is not my particular cup of tea; however, the exercise of exploring the unusual Jason Bourne character through the words of the man who created him promised to be intriguing. In the end, my self-imposed assignment was to determine whether the fans of the Ludlum books were justified in their harsh criticism of the film as being basically a completely separate entity from the novel that shares its title.

The Book

After having recovered pieces of his memory during the course of a twisted set of events where the governmental leaders who created him tried to have him destroyed, David Webb has settled into a safe existence as a college assistant professor in New England. Thanks to the loving assistance of his wife, Marie, who aided him in Europe through the twisted recesses of his mind, and an understanding psychiatrist, Webb is only partially tormented by the piecemeal recollections of his alter-ego, the brilliant assasin/deep undercover agent Jason Bourne. Unfortunately for Webb and his wife, they are about to be pulled apart by a government that must manipulate them in order to bring Bourne and all of his associated traits back to the surface. The return of Jason Bourne is to be instrumental in preventing a potential holocaust situation in the Far East. To that end, certain high-ranking and top-secret officials engineer Marie's kidnapping. As far as Webb/Bourne knows, he must capture a man who has assumed the Bourne persona in order to save her; however, the underlying events are much more dire than he is allowed to realize.

While the Webb/Bourne dynamic is fascinating in and of itself, it's actually the characters who surround him that make The Bourne Supremacy a solid piece of entertainment. The story unfolds episodically, and switches back and forth from Webb/Bourne's display of superior tactics and covert action to the activities of various other players. Foremost among these is Marie Webb, his wife, who is actually more interesting than the main character. She's a strong-minded female who displays a great deal of ingenuity in her own efforts to free herself and assist her husband. Other crucial persons of interest include Ted Conklin, the man who helped create Bourne and once tried to kill him, left a bitter, reclusive alcoholic in the aftermath of the realization of his mistake. The men pulling the strings are Undersecretary of State Edward McAllister and Ambassador Raymond Havilland. There's also a former colleague from Bourne's past, d'Anjou, and of course, the impostor himself. It's these side characters that keep the story moving forward, particularly since it seems to bog down somewhat when Webb/Bourne is at center stage.

In fact, that's the primary flaw with the book. Ludlum too frequently uses long periods of exposition to specifically detail the action that is taking place. On the flip side, the man is an absolute master when it comes to using dialogue to speed up the pace. The conversation between the characters absolutely crackles with its crispness. It's an odd dynamic that makes the story feel rushed and breathless when Webb/Bourne is not at the forefront, but almost tragically slow when he is the focus. While I'm certain that it was Ludlum's intent to make the pace inconsistent in this matter, I do feel he would have been better served to keep the book moving at a constant kinetic pace, hurtling its viewers toward the final page.

The Movie

The movie begins by showing a Russian man framing Jason Bourne (Matt Damon) in the disruption of a CIA operation to purchase classified Russian documents. Some good guys end up dead, which of course means that their superior, Pamela Landy (Joan Allen), is hot to track the rogue former government employee down and eliminate him. Meanwhile, Jason Bourne is living out an idyllic existence in a seaside village where he and Marie (Franka Potente) have been residing under assumed names. The same man who framed Bourne for the crime shows up to kill him, and the movie is off to the races.

What follows is a fast-paced, vigorous plot that has Bourne constantly moving forward. His deliberate activity is evident in every aspect of his planning and follow-through, as his determination to discover why he is being pursued and who framed him is almost grim.

The movie largely finds its success where the book struggles. There are no extended periods of languor; the film moves at a breakneck speed that takes its anticipative viewers toward an explosive, thrilling finale. It's both smart and exhilarating.

The Verdict

Like I did with I, Robot, I recommend both book and film; however, I do offer up one caveat. For those who are ardent fans of the Ludlum books, I see very little way that the film can provide anything except disappointment. Other than the fact that Jason Bourne is a character in the film, the movie bears absolutely no similarity to the book from which it takes its title. Actually, I would go so far as to say that the theatrical Jason Bourne is a very different man from the Jason Bourne created in the Ludlum trilogy. They are truly unique entities and for practical purposes, deserve to be treated as such.

That said, if one is able to separate the two as completely original, singular works, it's totally possible to find enjoyment in both. Essentially, you're reading a spy novel about a man who lost his memory but is gradually recapturing many of the lost elements that made him a vital weapon in a government's defense. The people around him, though, are the ones that drive the story and keep the reader's interest. On the other hand, the film is a vital, rapidly-paced thriller that truly centers around a man with motivations and capabilities that he doesn't even begin to understand. Both are exceptional pieces of work for the genre they represent.