Sunday, June 29, 2008

A Great Adaptation

I read Goldfinger the other day, and I just wanted to note that while the James Bond movies often trashed their source material, the script of the Goldfinger movie may be one of the best novel-to-screen adaptations ever done. The writers, Bond regular Richard Maibaum and the prolific Paul Dehn, managed to keep nearly all the good stuff from the novel while eliminating all the stuff that wouldn't work on screen. The result is something that keeps the essence of the book but produces a story that actually makes more sense than the book's.

Just about the only good scene from the book that isn't in the movie in one form or another is Bond's dinner with Goldfinger (maybe they figured they'd already done the dinner-with-the-villain bit in Dr. No). They kept Goldfinger's method of cheating at cards and Bond's method of stopping him; Jill Masterson getting killed by gold paint; Goldfinger ordering Oddjob to demonstrate his hat and, later, Oddjob killing Tilly Masterson with the hat; Bond's golf game with Goldfinger; Goldfinger murdering the mob boss who won't participate in Operation Grand Slam; Goldfinger hooking Bond up to a device heading for his crotch (they just changed the device to a laser); the seemingly dead people springing to life outside Fort Knox, and much more. A lot of Bond movies have a frustrating habit of leaving out even the stuff that would work well on film. (Like the "he disagreed with something that ate him" scene from Live and Let Die, which was eventually used in License to Kill to make up for the idiocy of leaving it out of the LALD movie.) The writers of Goldfinger clearly made an effort to use most of the best set-pieces from the book, while re-writing Fleming's clunky dialogue and sometimes adding things to make the set-pieces more spectacular, like having Bond actually discover Jill's gold-painted corpse instead of just being told about it later.

And the other thing the script did was eliminate or change nearly all of the things in the novel that don't make sense. Most famously, they changed Goldfinger's plan from something that could never work in a million years (explode a nuke in Fort Knox, steal the gold, and load it onto a bunch of Russian ships that apparently nobody is supposed to notice) to something that is silly but not totally illogical (explode a nuke in Fort Knox and contaminate the gold). Another thing that makes more sense is how Bond meets Goldfinger. In the book, Bond is hired by an American millionaire to find out how Goldfinger is cheating at cards, and it only later turns out, by coincidence, that Goldfinger is also the target of Bond's latest spy mission. In the movie, Bond is assigned by M to keep an eye on Goldfinger in preparation for the mission, and while he's observing Goldfinger, he notices that he's cheating at cards. And the movie creates a more-or-less logical reason for Goldfinger not to kill Bond, whereas in the book, Goldfinger keeps Bond alive for no real reason, and doesn't even know he's a spy until near the end of the book (because it makes total sense that an international criminal mastermind would not do a background check on a guy who's been foiling his evil plans for half the story).

In the novel, Pussy Galore is a lesbian who suddenly falls for Bond near the end, and Tilly Masterson is also a lesbian whose crush on Pussy Galore helps get her killed. (Tilly's lesbianism is the excuse for Fleming/Bond's infamous rant about how lesbianism was caused by the terrible decision to give women the vote. Really.) In the movie, Tilly's death is moved to an earlier point, so she's not hanging around Bond doing nothing for a large portion of the story, and while Pussy Galore is implicitly a lesbian, her falling for Bond is also moved to an earlier part of the story. Bond basically raping Pussy Galore into heterosexuality is hilariously stupid and offensive -- but then, so is the whole Fleming universe -- but it makes more sense than what happens in the book, and it's also a better way for Bond to foil Goldfinger's plan than the message-in-a-bottle gambit from the book. Also, Pussy Galore's dialogue is no longer Fleming's unbelievably bad approximation of how "tough" Americans talk.

The movie is implausible, ridiculous, sexist fun just like the book, but the story makes sense on its own terms, which the novel didn't always. One reason Goldfinger is one of the best of the Bond movies is simply that it's the best of both worlds: it has the Fleming spirit and many of Fleming's scenes, while actually improving on Fleming.


Anonymous said...

I agree with you re GOLDFINGER being one of the best book to movie adaptations ever, but most of the early Bonds (Dr. NO through OHMSS, with the exception of YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE) are fairly faithful adaptations of their source material. The biggest change was that SMERSH was eliminated as an antagonist organization and replaced with SPECTRE, retrofitting Blofeld into FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE and including the previously freelance Dr. No.

The lengthy dining scene in GOLDFINGER the novel was, IIRC, padding added by Fleming after his publisher complained the book was too short. The big coincidence in the book is that the wealthy American who asks Bond to investigate Goldfinger had previously met Bond at CASINO ROYALE; he (the American) remembered Bond as a skilled gambler and wanted him to figure out how Goldfinger was cheated (Goldfinger having cleaned out the American). Bond is assigned to the Goldfinger case after the fact (again, IIRC); when he reports his encounter with Goldfinger to M, M realizes this is an opportunity to investigate Goldfinger more closely since Goldfinger had already cropped up in intelligence circles as a person of interest.

GOLDFINGER the movie is the yardstick by which all other Bond films are measured. DR. NO is stylistically a far more conventional film that subsequent Bond movies, and while FROM RUSSIA got the style down, visually it owes a great deal to post-WWII thrillers ala THE THIRD MAN. GOLDFINGER got the look, feel, and tone down perfect.

VariousVarieties said...

From Russia With Love is both my favourite Bond novel and film. I agree that Goldfinger the movie is actually more plausible (well, at least internally and as far as Bond stories go, as you said) than the book, especially with Bond's release from the buzz-saw/laser.

And as daft as it is, another Bond film I think is better than the book is The Man With the Golden Gun. That's pretty much entirely due to Christopher Lee; his Scaramanga is a big improvement on the book's gangster (who provides another example of Fleming's hilarious thug dialogue).

(Tilly's lesbianism is the excuse for Fleming/Bond's infamous rant about how lesbianism was caused by the terrible decision to give women the vote. Really.)

There's also the moment in The Spy Who Loved Me where Vivienne Michel thinks "All women secretly want to be raped." And IIRC there's another ridiculously dated rant early in Thunderball where Bond is on his way to the health spa?

Anonymous said...

The "women secretly want to be raped" idea was pretty common pop psychology of the era. Isn't there a Woody Allen film where a woman says something similar?

Anonymous said...

One of the key reasons why this is my favorite Bond film is the art direction by Ken Adam and the cinematography by Ted Moore. No Bond film ever looked better. The Fort Knox set is brilliant.

And the fight scenes were beautifully choreographed, too, from the brutal hand-to-hand combat that Bond engages in, to the attack at the end. What a great moment when Goldfinger, in a general's uniform, directs soldiers into Fort Knox, then grabs a machine gun and guns them down from behind -- what a great visual summation of his moral character!

All of the Bond films, even the Connery ones, no longer have the hold on me when I was a kid...all, that is, except Goldfinger. Even outside the Bond series, I consider it one of top films of all time.

Anonymous said...

Most of the 60s Bonds (the main exception being Roald Dahl's over the top script for YOLT) make considerable progress on the books, usually smoothing out Fleming's lazy plotting, but sometimes adding considerable complications (eg a whole extra level of double cross in FRWL with the introduction of SPECTRE). Goldfinger is certainly the best adaptation though.

One interesting point is they kept the very long golf game, and didn't dumb it down. Later Bond movies would have this kind of "game duel" but always in much more cursory fashion, or with the stakes arbitrarily raised in some silly way. I think it's a sign of the confidence and skill of the Bond team at this time that they felt they could build such a long and interesting sequence around a genteel game like golf and where really only pride is at stake. It would have been a car chase only a few years later.

Mattieshoe said...


Sorry this is Off-topic, But I just found this on youtube and I don't want anyone getting credit for your work.

Anonymous said...

mattieshoe, that's really odd. I mean he's basically just reading Jaime's first I thought maybe it WAS Jaime, until I realized Jaime would likely know how to pronounce "rhetoric."

Mattieshoe said...

I laughed so hard when he pronounced Brain "Brian".

jezz. If you're going to steal someone's work do it right.

Anonymous said...

I've never liked GOLDFINGER. Granted, the movie is an improvement on the novel. But the plot still sucked as far as I'm concerned. The plot had holes bigger than Swiss cheese. Bond acted like an immature jerk throughout most of the film. The sexism in this movie seemed worse than usual. Despite Gert Frobe's excellent performance, the Goldfinger character is written as a moron. And I hate . . . I hate that barn scene in which Bond comes close to committing date rape.