The Other Jason Bourne
Before there was Matt Damon and Jeremy Renner, there was Robert Ludlum...
By Richard Luck, 14 August 2012
Due out in Britain in the second week of August, Tony Gilroy's The Bourne Legacy has movie fans wondering whether they'll be able to accept anyone other than Matt Damon in the role of amnesiac assassin Jason Bourne. Since i) the new film stars the Academy Award-nominated Jeremy Renner, and ii) he's not playing Bourne but the not-that-dissimilar Aaron Cross, audiences oughtn't to be too upset. No, the only ones who'll possibly be complaining are those for whom the character - real name: David Webb - is best left to the imagination. In other words, fans of the original Bourne trilogy written by Robert Ludlum.
At one point believed to be the most published author on the planet, native New Yorker Robert Ludlum served in the Marines before pursuing career as a stage actor and manager. He turned to fiction in the late '60s when he realised that there was more money to be made from writing words than delivering them. With a bibliography that includes best-sellers such as The Holcroft Covenant and The Osterman Weekend (filmed in 1983 by Sam Peckinpah), Ludlum was by no means a great wordsmith, but like Harold Robbins, Frederick Forsyth, Wilbur Smith and countless other authors who are frequently abhored by the critics but adored by the public, he knew how to spin a good yarn.
By far and away his best stories concerned the aforementioned agent Bourne. The adventures Ludlum's Jason gets involved with are very different to those that have made the movies so successful, however. While the book of The Bourne Identity begins along similar lines to Doug Liman's movie, it's not long before the assassin finds himself pitted against the most notorious terrorist on the planet Carlos The Jackal. With Ludlum writing his book in 1980 when Carlos (real name: Illich Ramirez Sanchez) was still very much at large, one wonders whether the man responsible for the 1975 OPEC raid contemplated pursuing the author for royalties. Then again, since he'd already been immortalised in print courtesy of Frederick Forsyth, whose The Day Of The Jackal sold by the million in the early '70s, it's more likely that Carlos was simply appreciative of the free publicity.
That Carlos was behind the bars by the time Liman and screenwriter Tony Gilroy came to make their movie might leave people curious why they decided to jettison Ludlum's Jackal plotline. The most straightforward answer is that the story they came up with - the Treadstone Project, the army of assassins, etc. - was more involving that than of the book's. It's also worth baring in mind that, five short years before The Bourne Identity hit cinemas, Scottish filmmaker Michael Caton-Jones shot The Jackal, a fresh take on Forsyth's story (previously filmed, quite brilliantly, as The Day Of The Jackal by Fred Zinnemann in 1973) that featured Bruce Willis in a range of ill-fitting wigs and Richard Gere with an ill-fitting Irish accident. The sort of movie that's best handled at a distance with tongs, you can't blame Liman and Gilroy for deciding to leave Mr Ramirez well alone.
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As you might have guessed by now, the subsequent Bourne movies - Paul Greengrass's The Bourne Supremacy and The Bourne Ultimatum - have even less in common with the equivalent titles in the Ludlum series. In the case of first follow-up book, the tale takes place almost entirely in China where the British handover of Hong Kong is thrown into jeopardy by a hostile takeover of the Communist Party. In Ludlum's take on Ultimatum, meanwhile, Jason is again pitted against his old adversary Carlos who's determined to slay his most dangerous foe before succumbing to old age.
His last Bourne book published in 1990, Robert Ludlum would continue to write until his somewhat spectacular death in 1997 from injuries sustained in a fire. Since then, further Bourne thrillers have appeared courtesy of Eric Van Lustbader, he of the Sunset Warrior cycle of novels. The first of these books was entitled The Bourne Legacy. Now what do you think the odds are that the book bares any relation to the soon-to-be released film?!