In search of the Bourne identity

In search of the Bourne identity

Robert Ludlum’s series on Jason Bourne 
has had a long and checkered history — 
in his books and their numerous screen 
adaptations. Here is demystifying the intrigue that has dogged the US intelligence operative, and how his legacy endures in the latest Bourne film — where Jason Bourne is conspicuous by his absence

By Vir Sanghvi

Published: Fri 24 Aug 2012, 7:57 PM

Last updated: Tue 7 Apr 2015, 3:00 PM

It’s been a long and varied journey for Jason Bourne. He’s travelled from the pages of a Robert Ludlum novel to television and then to the big screen and now, he seems to have wandered out of the picture entirely. The most notable thing about the new 
Bourne film, The Bourne Legacy, is that even though people keep talking about him, Jason Bourne does 
not even make an appearance. Instead, the action centres around an entirely new character.

To see this in perspective, try and imagine a Bond movie without James Bond. People would keep talking about the adventures of 007 but the story would focus on an entirely different secret agent, say 003 or 004. Or imagine a Batman movie in which the Dark Knight took no part. Each time Commissioner Gordon went to the roof of police headquarters to send out the Bat signal, Batman would fail to respond. Instead, a new superhero — Mongoose Man or Rat Man perhaps — would turn up in response to Gordon’s call.

Would any of us bother to see a Bond movie that had no Bond? Or a Batman movie without Batman? And yet, the significant thing about the Bourne legacy is not just that the film got made but that enough people are willing to countenance the idea of a Bourne series without the central character. The Bourne Supremacy did surprisingly well at the American box-office in the weekend following its release and its revenues vastly exceeded the expectations of most pundits and of the producers themselves.

But then, there is something strange about Jason Bourne’s journey through media over the decades. When Ian Fleming wrote Casino Royale, the first Bond book, he scouted around for a movie deal and quickly sold the film rights. Though Casino Royale became a TV show, Bond took a while to reach the screen. But when he did, he was recognisably the spy that Fleming had created. Similarly, though Batman has undergone many transformations over the decades, all the movie Batmen have remained close to various comic-book avatars.

With Jason Bourne, the situation is more complicated. I remember buying The Bourne Identity when the book first came out. By then, Robert Ludlum was an extremely successful author of airport bestsellers, most of which involved far-fetched conspiracies by secretive cabals of powerful men. I had little time for Ludlum’s brand of fiction but The Bourne Identity was significantly better than anything that Ludlum had ever written. Even critics who normally sneered at Ludlum’s books were surprisingly restrained about this one and many conceded that it was strangely readable.

Nobody remembers the book now but it was all about the hunt for Carlos the Jackal, the most-dreaded terrorist in the world in the 70s and 80s. Ludlum suggested that Carlos had a sort of secret identity and lived in Paris. This was not true but it was sufficiently plausible to give the book a sense of coming straight from the headlines — something that could not be said of Ludlum’s other novels.

Ludlum was obviously pleased by the response The Bourne Identity evoked. Even though the principal plot twist in the novel was that Jason Bourne was merely an identity used by a US intelligence operative called David Webb, the Bourne tag stuck and two later books featuring Webb used Bourne in the title.

Despite the novel’s popularity, there was no move to turn it into a movie. Instead, it became a TV mini-series with Richard Chamberlain as Jason Bourne. That series stuck pretty closely to Ludlum’s original plot and Carlos was still the primary villain. I thought that the later books might inspire more TV shows but nothing further was heard of any film or TV versions.

Many, many years later, after The Bourne Identity had been more or less forgotten and after the real Carlos had been captured, Hollywood finally turned its attention to Jason Bourne. By then, the original plot seemed less plausible. It turned out that Ludlum had actually been wrong in all his surmises about Carlos. So, a new plot was needed.

But Hollywood went further. The movie version of The Bourne Identity not only invented a new story (while retaining some elements of the novel) but it also invented a new Bourne. The character, as played by Matt Damon, was nothing like the handsome leading man essayed by Richard Chamberlain. Instead, he was a short, confused sort of guy who made the most sense when he used his fists.

Two further movies which had very little to do with Ludlum’s Bourne followed. As has often been noted, the success of those movies made it impossible for the James Bond series to continue with Bond as a wisecracking, gadget-crazy guy. So, the Bond series was rebooted with Daniel Craig in the role, portraying a character who had clearly been influenced by the Bourne of the movies.

Why, then, is there no Jason Bourne in the latest movie?

The director, Paul Greengrass, who made the last two Bourne movies, says that he did not want to return to the series. And Matt Damon would not come on board with a new director. That, at least, is the official version.

But I do remember, right after the third movie was released, reading that Damon had indicated his willingness to do a fourth Bourne. Clearly, something went wrong and they are not willing to tell us what it was.

When Damon and his director backed out, the producers had to decide whether Bourne would become a James Bond or Batman-like franchise, where different actors could play the lead role. Sensibly, they decided that Jason Bourne had to be Matt Damon. So, the new movie is less a sequel and more of a spin-off. The action is set in roughly the same time frame as the second half of the last Bourne movie. This allows the script to refer to Jason Bourne’s activities during this period. But the story deals with another operative and his troubles with the same guys who have been persecuting Bourne.

You’ll have to see the movie yourself to decide what you think of it. In my opinion, it is a bit of a dud. Though the script is by Tony Gilroy (who also directs), who worked on the first three Bourne movies, I found the story confused and hollow. For the first 30 minutes or so, I had no idea what was happening and even when it all came together it still did not make much sense.

On the plus side, the acting is good. Jeremy Renner and Rachel Weisz make an excellent lead pair with real chemistry. And by the end, when the picture hits its stride, the action can be engrossing — assuming you are still awake by then. (I have to say that I dozed off in the middle.)

From all accounts, the movie will recover its investment and may make a reasonable profit if the initial momentum continues to hold. In that case, we may get used to a Bourne series with no Bourne but only Renner and other agents like him.

I guess that’s fair enough. This Jason Bourne had very little to do with Ludlum’s original creation. So why not add a few new characters?

On the other hand, nobody is ruling out the return of Matt Damon to the series either. The new movie suggests that Jason Bourne is still around somewhere. So why shouldn’t be 
come back and resume 
his rightful role as the face of the franchise?

And who knows? They could even return to the Bourne of the novels.

Though Ludlum died after the first movie came out, there have been innumerable new Jason Bourne novels written by Eric Van Lustbader, who was hired by the Ludlum estate to keep the character alive on the bookshelves.

So, no matter what happens, the Bourne industry will continue to thrive.

(Vir Sanghvi is a celebrated Indian journalist, television personality, author and lifestyle writer. To follow Vir’s other writings, visit

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