Monday, June 15, 2009

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Casting Coup: Moonraker

It's interesting, the things that can go wrong in an adaptation. Take, for instance, Moonraker.

Ian Fleming's third novel in the James Bond series is my favorite. The villain is debonair and colorful; the girl is an actual, developed human being; the plot is spectacular, leaning more on suspense than on action and sex; and there's a bridge game. It is the finest of the SMERSH-era Bonds, yet it is also the first one that has no connection whatsoever to the Soviets. Both exciting and mature, Moonraker is where Fleming finally got comfortable with the work, and it is here that we first see what he is capable of.

The film version, of course, is notorious for its awfulness. Retaining the book's title and the name of the villain, the 1979 Moonraker is a walking blunder that fails as a Bond film, a suspense thriller, an adventure movie, a sci-fi flick, etc. It's watchable in the same way rubberneckers watch car accidents. It's just...ugh. I cannot believe they turned such a classic novel into such dreck.

When they finally decided to use some of the plot in a Bond film, it was for Number 20 -- Die Another Day, which surely deserved better than what it became. Rosamund Pike and Toby Stephens aside, the film is a mess, but at least it retains certain plot elements of the book: A knighthood bestowed on a British citizen who is actually a foreign menace. Said villain using the device that made him a national hero to destroy his enemies (the good guys). A duel between hero and villain at a country club called Blades (bridge in the book, fencing in the film). Hell, Miranda Frost (the aforementioned Pike) was even named Gala Brand in the original draft! Alas, the film came quite short of hitting the mark.

I guess the problem is the source novel. It just doesn't match the established Bond formula. If they had gone with it before You Only Live Twice, it might have worked, but once insane things like kidnapped space capsules started happening, where else was one to go? While the title refers to Britain's first nuclear missile that Drax is developing, the book is short on action sequences or that sort of intrigue, with Bond and Gala mostly sleuthing about. There are a number of memorable sequences, of course. For instance, Bond fights off Drax's henchman Krebs with a bottle in his room. And, of course, there is the explosion on the beach that sends chalk collapsing on our heroes in an attempt to smother both them and the investigation. As well as the fact that the villain's plan is to send a rocket with an atomic warhead straight into the heart of London. Balls.

But there is no final fight with the villain. All the deaths happen off-screen. Even the juicy details -- the villain's identity revealed to the world, the launching and deflection of Moonraker, the comeuppance -- are all related via a radio broadcast. Yet this actually builds the suspense, since we're right there with Bond and Gala, only knowing through what we hear whether their plan actually worked.

Oh, and how memorable is that final sequence, by the way? Gala and James kidnapped and taken to the radio station powering the Moonraker -- in the heart of London! Escaping in time to deflect the nuclear missile to Drax's private boat in the middle of the ocean! Just as Drax raises the Swastika, revealing himself to be a Nazi agent all along! Not knowing if the plan has worked until the next chapter! God, what a novel!

I'd contemporize the piece, of course, but I like the idea of Drax being a Nazi who has passed himself off as a British POW all these years. Sixty years of formulating a plan, collecting resources, rounding up others sympathetic to his cause. Brilliant. And it would still be a test rocket headed for the heart of London. And it would still focus on the characters, possibly one of the best example sof Fleming's ability to write fully-developed three-dimensional character arcs. More action would be thrown in, of course, but it would remain mostly faithful to the original novel.

Featured in Moonraker: James Bond, M, Bill Tanner, Miss Moneypenny, Loelia Ponsonby, May Maxwell (more on these characters).

Who is He: Assistant Commissioner of Scotland Yard, responsible for the Special Branch, Gala Brand's boss. Down-to-earth and trusting of Bond, the two become friends and allies.

My Choice:

Jack Davenport (Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest, Marple: The Body in the Library)
Davenport has both the authoritative look and the loosey-goosey manner. John Cleese's choice for James Bond, he could certainly fit the suit and demeanor.

Who is He: Chairman of Blades, the private club of which M and Drax are members. Basildon and M become concerned when they suspect that national hero and member in good standing Hugo Drax may be cheating at cards. It is Basildon who suggests M bring someone in, and it is eventually up to him to clear Bond for visitation into the Holy Sanctum.

My Choice:

Frank Thornton (Gosford Park, Are You Being Served?: The Movie)
A veteran British actor who has been a part of my life since I was a child. Thornton has that old-fashioned British stiff upper lip, the reserve, the snobbery. He and Michael Gambon could have a ball together playing the members of an exclusive, uptight club. The concern for publicity and protecting his members would be executed perfectly with Thornton.

Who is He: A physicist working on the Moonraker project. Walter is but another henchman working for Drax.

My Choice:

Udo Kier (Armageddon, Andy Warhol's Dracula)
Kier is creepy. Like a creepy effing Nazi scientist. Like Dr. Walter. Case. Closed.

Who is He: Drax's "muscle". Distrusting anyone from the outside, Krebs snoops through the rooms and luggage of both Bond and Gala. He and agent 007 get into a fist fight, but Bond uses a bottle to get out of it. Krebs takes great pleasure in torture, especially when it involves a blowtorch and a beautiful girl.

My Choice:

Armin Rohde (Run Lola Run)
A pudgy fellow, Rohde fits the description we are given of Krebs, who mostly seems to be a Peter Lorre type. Rohde isn't too bad of an actor, though I notice he doesn't seem to have done any English-speaking roles. This is fine, though, as Krebs is mostly silent and a German.

Who is She: The Bond Girl. A Special Branch agent working undercover as Drax's secretary. Gala is a fine policeman, engaged to be married, and able to resist Bond's advances (not that he makes many). It is Gala who discovers Drax's plan to bomb London, Gala who deflects the missile to kill Drax, Gala who manages to keep her dignity even as her clothes are blown off by an explosion. Gala, actually, is one of the kick-assiest Bond Girls in history, which just adds to the puzzle of her not being used in a film yet. Bond doesn't always have to get the girl, you know. Example: Quantum of Solace.

My Choice:

Amanda Holden (Marple: 4.50 from Paddington)
In that one program I watched with her, she embodied Gala Brand. Take-charge and professional, but also humorous and sexy. And she never let a man get under her feathers. She did a bango job of it, and she could do very well as Gala.

Who is He: A POW during the Second World War, Drax suffered through amnesia before being identified by his dogtags. Though he remembers little before the war, he has built a name and fortune for himself through savvy investments and overall business skills. A national hero, he is bestowed a knighthood as he prepares completion on the Moonraker rocket. In reality, Drax is Hugo von der Dreiche, a Nazi who stole a British citizen's dogtags on the battlefield. He has been planning his vengeance on England all these years, culminating in the launching of Moonraker with an atomic warhead attached, straight into the heart of London.

Originally played by: BAFTA Award Nominee for Best Supporting Actor (The Day of the Jackal)

Michael Lonsdale (The Remains of the Day, Munich)

My Choice: Academy Award Nominee for Best Actor (Pelle the Conqueror), Golden Globe Nominee for Best Actor in a Drama (Hawaii) and Best Supporting Actor (The Exorcist)

Max Von Sydow (Minority Report, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, The Seventh Seal, Awakenings, the upcoming Shutter Island)
Yes, he's old, but isn't it time we have Bond square off someone intellectually? Ejiofor vs. Von Sydow would be kick-ass! Besides, Von Sydw is a wonderful actor, multi-lingual, able to give us various accents. I thought for the longest time he was British or German, but he is Swedish, though he lives in France. Able to give us both the menacing Nazi and the charming intellectual. Von Sydow was a Bond villain before -- he played Blofeld in Never Say Never Again, a non-canon Bond film from 1983 -- and it's time he returned in a bigger, juicier role.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

I'm afraid to look Udo Kier in the eyes. I think he's going to steal my soul, Dementor-style.

Gala Brand is an awesome name. And I do like my Bond girls intelligent.