This past Friday, Matt Damon reprised his most famous role as amnesiac assassin Jason Bourne. Though I have yet to contribute my $20 — I blame our new puppy — Jason Bourne had a great opening weekend, topping the weekend’s box-office charts and grossing $60 million (the second-best opening weekend in the franchise’s history). Damon turned 45 last October, but Jason Bourne is by all accounts nearly twice that age based on his 1980 debut in Ludlum’s The Bourne Identity. Damon looks good, but Bourne looks better.
Though already a seasoned and successful spy novelist, not even the late, great (Wesleyan alum) Robert Ludlum could have predicted the commercial success of Jason Bourne when he sat down to write The Bourne Identity. The 1980 thriller would be followed by The Bourne Supremacy in 1986 and the The Bourne Ultimatum in 1990. Ludlum’s work achieved a perfect balance between accessibility and sophistication: more fast-paced than his contemporary Le Carré, but with a far more elevated sense of character and plot than most airport thriller authors. (I read Identity in 1995, the same copy my dad had purchased and read when it pubbed 15 years before. After I finished it, I read the next two, and after that everything else Ludlum wrote, The Holcroft Covenant being one of my other favorites).
Between the release of the second and third installments was a 1988 mini-series that received a lackluster reception. Despite this, Bourne would go on to be so big a sensation that even after Ludlum’s death in 2001 the character would live on in the works of other authors writing under the consent of Ludlum’s estate. After Ludlum’s death, Eric van Lustbader picked up the series starting with The Bourne Legacy, and has gone on to pen nine more Bourne thrillers. The movie franchise grew so big that it could survive without its main face, Matt Damon. When he declined a role in The Bourne Legacy, Jeremy Renner — fresh off his Hurt Locker critical success — was cast as Aaron Cross, and another Cross installment is already in the works. (Perfectly, the first Bourne without Damon shares the title of the first Bourne without Ludlum.)
With the wild success of the book and film franchises evident, the question becomes the following: why didn’t Bourne die with the end of Ludlum’s trilogy and the failure of its 1988 screen adaptation? In short, the Bourne series would never have survived if it were not a book. Without the book series, Bourne is just a mini-series that gets developed, flops, and dies. (The impetus to write this post came from a recent conversation I had over drinks with former Universal president Kevin Misher, who green-lit Liman’s Bourne and with whom we’re collaborating on a project here at Inkshares.)
What is it about Jason Bourne? He is America’s spy. Our Bond. He is, actually, America. The original David Webb (Bourne’s former self) was a professor and linguist trained by the CIA and inserted into Vietnam in an attempt to lure out Carlos the Jackal. Like the Bourne of Liman, Greenglass, and Gilroy, that Bourne awakens not knowing who he is but with, to borrow the words of another franchise, “a very particular set of skills.”
But more deeply, just like with the counterculture messages at work in classic westerns, Bourne’s amnesia is ours, and his quest for identity mirrors our own. Bourne is our sin, our loss of ourselves in the fog of war.
(There’s a great book by Wesleyan professor Richard Slotkin called Gunfighter Nation that discusses this in the context of Westerns.)
Doug Liman saw that quintessentially counterculture Bourne when he began developing The Bourne Identity. The “IP” from a Hollywood sense was dead, but the love for Bourne persisted in the book universe. Importantly, America had been brought back to a war in which it lost its sense of self, and once again Jason Bourne was our vehicle for self-assessment as a nation. The Global War on Terror had brought us back around to Bourne again. Albert Finney’s waterboarding-fueled brainwashing of David Webb is our political machine’s brainwashing of us. Edward Norton’s articulation of “sin eating” to Renner’s Aaron Cross in Legacy is the ultimate articulation of of Bourne — and all the Treadstone operatives — as the sharp end of the spear that stops the rest of society from having to rouse itself from that fog of war.
Herein lies the great lesson of the Bourne franchise: the book is the leanest way to test a story and see if it connects with an audience. It also means that if at first we don’t succeed in the adaptation, we know the market is still there for it.
Be it a Ludlum or van Lustbader novel, a mini-series or a feature film, Bourne always struggles to remember, but his fans never seem to forget.
I wrote this with @dskelley, a rising senior at Wesleyan whom we are lucky to have as an intern here at Inkshares.