Adapted from: The Bourne Identity by Robert Ludlum
Starring: Matt Damon, Franka Potente, Chris Cooper, Brian Cox, Clive Owen
Written by: Tony Gilroy and W. Blake Herron
Directed by: Doug Liman
On a stormy night on the seas near Marseilles, a man's body is dragged out of the ocean by the crew of a fishing boat. There are bullet holes in his back, but he is, miraculously, still alive. After a little emergency surgery, during which a Swiss bank account number is found surgically implanted in his hip, the man slowly recovers but finds that he has lost his memory. The Swiss bank account could hold the key to his identity so he begins following several breadcrumbs to Paris, uniting with a woman named Marie. As he delves deeper into what increasingly looks like a dark and terrible past, his former employers, the CIA, have decided he has gone rogue and start their attempts to take him out.
Doug Liman had been a fan of Robert Ludlum for years and would later become friends with the author in his attempts to get The Bourne Identity made (if you are interested in the infamously turbulent production of this film, may I direct you to Den of Geek's excellent retelling). He brought Tony Gilroy on board to write the screenplay. Talking to The New Yorker, Gilroy states that “those works were never meant to be filmed. They weren’t about human behavior. They were about running to airports.” The first screenplay had fallen into the Ludlum trap of more is more and Gilroy was not impressed. In fact, he called it 'an absolute piece of shit' and, on the verge of refusing the project, Liman pushed Gilroy for his ideas. It was then that Gilroy suggested what would prove to be the best decision they could have made in adapting this novel. Get rid of everything but Jason Bourne; "I guess your movie should be about a guy who finds the only thing he knows how to do is kill people."
The geopolitical landscape out of which Liman and Gilroy's Bourne is hatched is a very different one to that of the novel. Published in 1980, Ludlum has the post-Watergate/Vietnam world to play with, capitalising on Cold War uncertainty and the real life crime figure of Carlos the Jackal to craft a story that spans a contemporary Europe with a past rooted in Asia. Bourne is a Vietnam vet here and part of a global sting operation that positions him as an assassin, but don't worry folks, he's sort of but also not really because Ludlum doesn't really want to do an anti-hero. It's a very busy novel, packed full of exposition, conversations and a love story that borders on outright cheese. At times, it's a lot of fun to read; at others, it is a complete slog. Ludlum loves words. Lots of them. Lots of wordy descriptions of just about everything and he often takes many of them to offer up a simple puzzle piece necessary to the ongoing plot. Gilroy's stripped back approach is, therefore, most welcome.
The major changes from the novel are as follows: Bourne becomes a full-fledged government assassin, the rivalry with Carlos the Jackal disappears (as does the Jackal himself) and Conklin, offered redemption for not believing Bourne in the novel, maintains his nefarious government figure role. Canadian government employee with economic nouse to help Jason and love interest, Marie St Jaques, becomes Marie Kreutz, a German wanderer whose street smarts help to ground Bourne and assist his quest. The plot is the simpler 'man has amnesia so man tries to find out who he is whilst the dodgy black ops organisation he's a part of tries to stop him.' As a narrative, it is easier to follow and with a momentum that the film-makers never struggle to maintain. Though Supremacy and Ultimatum would emphasise further the post 9/11 context in which they were set (and practically ignore outright the books from which they take their names), Identity keeps its focus small.
In paring back the story, Gilroy sets himself the challenge of having to convey a lot of information without having much room to do so. Ludlum has the benefit of being able to describe Bourne (at length) or offer up flashbacks to explain his past in exposition-heavy chapters. Gilroy solves this by placing Bourne in certain situations that allow his actions and learned behaviour to speak for him. Take, for instance, the scene where two police officers attempt to kick him off the park bench on which he is sleeping. First of all, he slips into German while conversing with them, registering shock at the shift into a language he cannot remember knowing before further exhibiting deadly skills. When the situation escalates, Bourne automatically shifts up a gear as his hand-to-hand combat training takes over and he takes them both out with ease.
Similarly, the diner scene, probably the most loquacious Bourne gets during the franchise, tells you everything you need to know about Bourne's acumen, laying hints to his past and his ongoing dilemma in just a few lines. Ludlum takes nearly half the book to get his readers up to speed with this and the novel is sometimes so busy with other information that Bourne's plight at the heart of it all can get a little lost. Gilroy keeps both him and the audience front and centre, the audience learning everything at the same time as Bourne. We might get the benefit of seeing Conklin in action at Treadstone, but we are in the dark with Jason and it is a fast way of getting the audience on board.
It helps that Damon completely sells Bourne with his performance here as his automaton-like fighting skills give way into the shock at what he has just done or his frustration at not understanding why he knows all of this stuff. Damon's everyman quality has become one of his key characteristics as a movie star and often cited as the reason behind some of his more successful movies such as The Martian. At this stage in his career, Damon was a rising star in desperate need of a hit, his previous two pictures The Legend of Bagger Vance and All the Pretty Horses deemed box office failures. Indeed, at this time, more was being made of Ben Affleck's star turn in rival thriller adaptation, The Sum of All Fears, an eventually unsuccessful reboot for Tom Clancy's Jack Ryan character (funny how things work out sometimes).
Damon, like Gilroy, recognised that Identity is "an action movie that’s character-driven" and he is more than up to the task of bringing a character that is essentially a blank slate to life by finding the humanity in his frustrations. Bourne may not say much, but Damon is able to convey a lot about what he is thinking with a simple look, something which would become increasingly relied upon as the franchise continued. In Ludlum's Identity, much is made of Bourne's everyman appearance (augmented by surgery to make him more anonymous) and so Damon's casting proves to be another masterstroke here. His lean, regularly clothed figure cuts a sharp contrast to the be-vested Rambos of the action genre, or the tuxedoed Bond, his more immediate espionage rival. There's also an incongruity in Damon's appearance, his boyish looks contrasting beautifully with his ability to calmly kill people with his fists.
In the novel, it is revealed that Cain, Bourne's assassin alias, is a fiction, a lure to bring Carlos the Jackal out of hiding. Bourne spends some of the novel wrestling with the idea that he might kill people for money and it is easily the most interesting moment in the unveiling of his psychology. How does he square that away with himself in his post-amnesiac state? How does he move forward if the memories of killing people come back to him? It is the exploration of human behaviour that Gilroy believes thrillers do not do, but it's there, albeit briefly. Ludlum chickens out and there's a real "hurray, he's a good guy after all!" sense to it. Gilroy keeps Bourne as a government assassin, but one whose mission was to silence a deposed African dictator intent on revealing American secrets and it fails because Bourne has a crisis of conscience.
Immediately, Gilroy seizes on that moment of turbulence that the literary Bourne has and continues to expand it across three movies. It adds a depth to his character and a moral conundrum for him to explore. Treadstone is likewise expanded, a global collection of assets, designed to kill when necessary in order to "keep the world safe." But the cost is high. When the Professor, another Treadstone operative sent to kill Bourne, says to him, "look what they make you give," it becomes the underlying theme of Bourne's quest; he turns over his identity to Treadstone (we learn later that his name is not even Jason Bourne, it' is David Webb) and he spends the next two films attempting to seize that back again. The happy ending, in which he gets to hide in Greece with Marie for a bit, is shortlived. They make you give everything.
Damon's laconic assassin has fast become a symbol of the murky morality that our post 9/11 world now operates in, a victim of secret government operations and functioning in a world of constant surveillance. With the latest instalment taking in Snowden and social media, Bourne is a figure that has the ability to adapt to a new environment. His core narrative of a man struggling to know himself and reconcile his past is a universal one. Gilroy recognising that as the important element of Ludlum's story and adapting accordingly has given us an adaptation that carries over just enough of its source material whilst crafting something pertinent to its contemporary setting.