A Month of Reflection | 8 | The Bourne Identity

by Glenn on November 16, 2018

I finished listening to The Bourne Identity one morning last week while making the spaghetti sauce for the evening’s dinner. I think I’ve read this novel more (this is at least the fourth time) than any other.

This was the first time I listened to it. My one complaint: not all voice artists are the same. And accents are difficult. As an audio book this isn’t as fine an aesthetic experience as the Harry Potter books were. But it’s still a great story.

Robert Ludlum. The Bourne Identity. New York: Bantam Books, 1982.


As I was reading (listening) this time, I got to thinking about how fiction writers craft their stories. Tom Clancy, for example, would drop a few rocks in a body of water and we as readers would watch the concentric rings around each entry point expand until these rings began touching one other. In essence, what seem like a few small disconnected stories over the course of the book become one large, interconnected story.

Ludlum’s approach is different. He tells a story along the lines of an Ezekielian vision: wheels within wheels that all interact with each other.

The Bourne Identity remains my favorite Ludlum novel. Were there any I didn’t like? I remember reading The Scarlatti Inheritance, The Osterman Weekend, and others, although I couldn’t tell you what they were about beyond spies, intrigue, and ghosts from wars past (World War 2, especially) and present (The Cold War). All of them go under the category of escapist reading.

Part of the joy of reading Ludlum novels is that there’s so much at stake but none of this is real. I think if I had the idea that any of these things were actually going on in real life, I’d be wearing a hat made of aluminum foil. I do have a memory of one Ludlum novel where the central issue, as I recall, is some sort of biological agent meant to extend or clone life and at one point the protagonist enters a room to find . . . (wait for it) . . . Adolf Hitler. Really? But that’s Ludlum. All in good fun. Believability is both essential in these novels and, apparently, easily thrown out the window.

I think I go back to a novel like this because the Post-9/11 world is scarier. It’s not like the threat of nuclear war wasn’t scary, but when the Berlin Wall came down, we breathed a sigh of relief. When Tom Clancy (presciently) wrote a novel that included an attack on The United States, including a jet liner flying into the U.S. Capitol, who knew that events like this would be our reality in not so many years. When will this war end? (Especially considering that this is a war against a tactic—terrorism—and not an easily identifiable enemy.)

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After I finished listening to the Harry Potter books, I heard a podcast where someone was critical of the first film, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. His criticism was around the idea that since films and books are different, a film based on a book shouldn’t simply try to recreate the book, which was interesting because that is the very thing I love about the first Harry Potter movie. It wasn’t exactly clear to me what the reviewer wanted. My thought about the Harry Potter films is that they get progressively worse, which is to say that as the books get longer, they become harder to render in film. The longer any book, I imagine, the more difficult it will be to render the story for the screen.

I think the film adaptation (the Matt Damon version) of The Bourne Identity did more of what this critic wanted. Beyond the basic premise of a highly trained U.S. operative suffering from amnesia, it bears little in common with the book. (One major example is the romantic interest. In the book, it’s a brilliant Canadian economist, in the film, it’s a down-on-her-luck working class girl. In the book, the love interest survives. In the films, she is killed.) Some of the changes from the book to the film I’m sure have to be. The world changed dramatically over the years since The Bourne Identity was written. There are some things in the novel that are anachronistic—phone booths, for example, which go away in the film—and other things, cell phones for example, that didn’t exist.

As we still never judge a book by its movie, it’s probably good in this case not to associate the the book with the movie to any extent. (Whereas at least the first Harry Potter film seemed like it was just as I imagined it.)

It’s been years since I read the rest of the trilogy—The Bourne Supremacy and The Bourne Ultimatum (the order is alphabetical as I recall)—and I don’t know if I’ll go back and re-read (or listen to) them. I note that the character of Jason Bourne was extended beyond the trilogy by other writers, but I doubt if I will attempt them.

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Let’s agree that a lot of work goes into both writing a book and making a film. A book is a solitary pursuit—an author, showing up every day to a writing desk and putting words on paper. Film-making is a team sport. We praise the director as the one who makes the film, but it’s a long list of people who work with a director (see end titles for any film).

What is funny to me is considering the demands that books and films make on their respective audiences. There is more actual work involved in making a film (based on the number of people working on the film x the hours worked), but a film makes little demands on our time. It simply asks that we sit for a couple of hours and watch.

Reading a book requires effort. You can’t really be doing anything else (although listening to a book certainly opens up some possibilities). The film is imagined and the book requires imagination. It’s not that films are easier. They are complicated enterprises. But the compelling novel is impressive to me.

The thing that I appreciate so much about the Ludlum novel (or the Clancy or …) is the way it can focus my attention for such a long period of time. It grabs me and urges me to continue to find out how it will all end.