Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Introducing Old Spies To New Readers (And Viewers)

Agent 86 [Maxwell Smart] was a little boy who would go into flights of fancy and flights of empowerment but who really didn't think things through very carefully. Siegfried was [slips into Siegfried's voice] contemptuous, he vas supercilious, he always had za answer, und everyone was not as good as he vas [resuming regular voice] — but he was defeated by Max 100% of the time. And I can just imagine little kids saying, “Yippee! We bested the bad authority!” -- Bernie Kopell ("Siegfried"), interviewed.

Were we to apply the same analysis to James Bond, we might have to amend “little boy” to “adolescent boy,” but otherwise the template fits. And Sebastian Faulks adheres to the template, as laid out originally by Ian Fleming. Faulks' The Devil May Care (Amazon) takes place in the late 60s and Bond is in recovery. He's reeling. He's been the convenient punching bag for one too many villains, and he lost his wife in a botched attempt on his own life. Worse than that, the Rat Pack is now a bunch of has-beens.

Against this backdrop Bond is called into duty, and performs to spec: he beats the bad guy in an early competition of wits, corrects an incompetent French waiter, snoops around a certified lair of evil while wearing nothing but his bathing suit — then receives the sort of physical punishment that kills most mortals.... I won't bother with the rest, because what matters is the entertainment factor. And I was as entertained by Faulks as I ever was by Fleming, which is to say: fair to middling.

It's possible that, as Michael Dirda suggests, Faulks stuck to the Fleming template just a little too closely. Even when I was a kid reading the Bond books for the first time I had the impression that the author finished the books in a state of exhaustion, not exhilaration; the dramatic high-water mark is usually achieved shortly after the halfway point, when Bond is captured and tortured. How he survives and escapes makes for a spellbinding read. The long slog back to his Jamaican retreat and the girl beneath the mosquito netting, however, is just that — a slog — and little more.

Faulks understands the appeal of Bond's physical torment, and pulls that narrative as tautly as Fleming ever did. He also takes advantage of Fleming's penchant for lectures. Again and again Bond receives accounts of the British Empire ruining the rest of the world while in pursuit of their own benefit and pleasure. In fact the villain's chief motivation is to punish Empire Britannia for her imperial transgressions. Bond doesn't bother to counter the accusations with rhetoric of his own, or even to register that he's heard the complaint. As he gets closer to his goal of defeating and killing the villain, he accrues a few personal motivations, but even those aren't particularly deep-seeded. His response is basically, “I don't care: you're going down.” Again: vintage Fleming.

But again, as the book winds down to its complete full stop, so does the author. I get the impression that Faulks considered the new assignment a bit of a lark, which is too bad. Had he applied himself a little differently, he might have actually improved the Fleming template.

As for Agent 86, the movie looks like it's a mess. I can't say I'm surprised: recapturing the charm of the original Get Smart television series is a nearly impossible feat. Kopell has it right: Max is a little boy surrounded by adults. With good direction Steve Carrell could probably hit the right “little boy” notes. The trickier role is Agent 99. In the show's first episode, when Barbara Feldon is introduced as Max's co-agent he looks her up and down and says, “Why you're a girl!” as if he can't decide whether to be insulted or completely twitterpated. 86 may be a little boy, but 99 is his babysitter — and no-one falls harder for a 16-year-old babysitter than an eight-year-old boy. What makes the predicament so delicious is the notion of near possibility: play your cards right, and the babysitter might just fall for you (and then what do you do?).

If there's a Hollywood writer who understands that, I've yet to make their acquaintance — Stephen Spielberg is probably the last director to get in touch with his inner-eight-year-old, and on this score he's getting a little creaky. But let's say the Get Smart movie-makers have the naif-babysitter mix just right: what are the chances they've peppered it with biting political-social commentary?

No, it's best to just stick with the original series — which is, to date, still the best DVD investment I've made on behalf of our family.


Yahmdallah said...

I cracked a Fleming Bond once, and while I could see how it would appeal, I didn't get very far into it. I was surprised how much more of an SOB Bond was in the book, tho.

ジョエル said...

I'm so out of touch over here I didn't realize the new smart movie was out until I read your blog. Having grown up on the re-runs on Cable, I'll look forward to someday being able to see it when it comes to Japan or I go back home.

Sorry to hear it's a disappointment. Although the series has been somewhat hit and miss. I recall the naked bomb (which I also saw re-run on cable as a kid) was pretty awful