The “True” Bourne Identity (1988)


Richard Chamberlain as the “true” Jason Bourne

In the past decade, Universal Pictures distributed three movies that are (loosely) based on the three novels Robert Ludlum wrote and that bear the same names. In 2002, The Bourne Identity was produced, in 2004 followed by The Bourne Supremacy, and in 2007 by The Bourne Ultimatum. The movie trilogy was very successful and profitable, and rightfully received positive critiques. Matt Damon stars in all three movies, playing the role of Jason Bourne / David Webb. Matt Damon is one of a very few who is able to convincingly play extremely different roles and characters – whether it be an alleged assassin, a young genius, or a puppet.

I am, however, an even bigger fan of Robert Ludlum and his novels. In my view, his Bourne Trilogy is unparalleled in the realm of espionage thrillers, although John le Carré comes quite close, albeit writing in a very different style. I cannot even start explaining why it is so outstanding, complete, and thrilling – I read the entire Trilogy three times, each time discovering heaps of details I had missed earlier. I’m afraid that if you haven’t already, you just have to read it.

Most people know about the recent movies starring Matt Damon, but fewer know about the 1988 television movie adaptation, directed by Roger Young. I had not heard about it until recently, but when I learned about it, I watched it immediately. I was absolutely stunned. Yes, I liked the more recent Trilogy very much, but what disappointed me what that it had surprisingly little to do with the books. The Universal Pictures movies, for instance, do not even mention Carlos, the terrorist and assassin Jason Bourne was tasked to take out. In the novels of Robert Ludlum, David Webb was trained to be Jason Bourne for the sole reason of taking out Carlos. Almost everything that happens in the books revolves around this key theme. For instance, when Bourne gets shot and subsequently suffers from amnesia, the bits and pieces that he does (start to) remember, the skills that he still possesses, and the surfacing evidence confuse him, because they indicate that he is a professional assassin, which conflicts with his benign character. Bourne himself thus falls for the fabricated myth of Jason Bourne’s reputation that was created to lure Carlos out of his invulnerable hiding places. The recent Trilogy is definitely worth seeing, but it is a stretch to say that it is based on Ludlum’s writings.

New versus old

The 1988 version had a budget that was only a tiny fraction of the more recent movies. For me more importantly, it stays way closer to the book. Roger Young and his colleagues did a stunning job in turning the book into a movie, a formidable achievement given the complexity of the novel. While first watching it, it was almost as if I had already seen the movie – some scenes were almost exactly as how I had imagined them when reading the novel. The details are right and the sceneries are gorgeous.

Yes, the 1988 film is not nearly as fast-paced as its more recent version. Yes, Richard Chamberlain seems a bit slow as Jason Bourne for a supposedly highly trained spy and assassin. Yes, Jaclyn Smith‘s high-pitched voice is a bit obnoxious when she gets excited playing her role as Jason Bourne’s lover and supporter. And yes, even the 1988 version is painfully simplifying with regard to the novel. But despite that The Bourne Identity (1988) lasts three full hours, it is worth every minute.

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One comment on “The “True” Bourne Identity (1988)

  1. Richard Chamberlain was 52 years old (almost 53), when the miniseries aired. I guess that’s why he was . . . slow. For a man in his 50s, he still made a pretty damn good action leading man. And fight scenes back in the 80s were not like they are now . . . except in martial arts films.

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