Page to Screen: Octopussy (1983)

based on characters by Ian Fleming


1983 was a weird year for the Bond franchise. You see, Thunderball had a weird, long copyright battle that ultimately resulted in Ian Fleming retaining the film rights to the novel itself, while writer Kevin McClory retained the film rights to the screenplay upon which the novel was based, which he, Jack Whittingham, and maybe Fleming had written together. In the mid-seventies, McClory began working to get a Thunderball adaptation to the big screen, and he finally succeeded with 1983’s Never Say Never Again, starring the original Bond himself, Sean Connery. So Roger Moore’s Bond, wry and aging rather gracelessly, was pitted against Connery’s Bond, the suave savage. Pecuniarily speaking, Octopussy won out, in terms of box office, but does it still hold up?

Octopussy opens with the death of Agent 009, found dressed as a clown at the British embassy in East Berlin and bearing a fake Fabergé egg. When the real egg turns up at auction in London, James Bond is sent to investigate and tail the buyer—after Bond switches the real egg for a fake one, of course. The buyer is Kamal Khan, an exiled Afghan prince whom Bond tails to India. As he begins to investigate why Khan is apparently trying to raise money by selling fake Fabergé egg, Bond discovers that Khan is in cahoots with the mysterious Octopus cult, composed of entirely women and led by the mysterious woman only known as Octopussy.

Y’all, I don’t want to rag on Roger Moore for being older than Bond should be. It’s not his fault he was a fun, bankable Bond that people wanted to see. Who doesn’t want a cut of that sweet, sweet Bond money? My friend Natalya (who inspired this project in the first place) read his memoir and assured me that he (at least in book form) is delightful and charming. All this being said: he’s just too old to play Bond at this point. He was fifty-six at the time, and it’s just hard to buy him as the Bond the screenplay wants him to be. I mean, Skyfall spends much of its plot on how busted up Craig’s Bond has gotten, and Craig was only forty-four at the time. (It is also, I’m starting to suspect, objectively the best Bond film. More on this when I’m done with the Bondathon.) At a certain point, Bond is seduced by Magda, Octopussy’s right-hand woman, and her coquettish downing of champagne comes off as less enjoying herself and more trying to drink an ocean before bedding a man so much older than her that their age difference can legally drink. It’s sad, since Moore’s Bond does have his own immense charms, but it’s clear that’s it’s beyond time for him to leave the franchise. He thought so too, having asked to leave after the last film, but Never Say Never Again made Eon brass quake in their boots. They asked him to stay for continuity’s sake. Alas!

As a film, Octopussy continues the trend of trying to remain grittier than the dizzying heights of Moonraker—the ultimate villain allows for some complex shading to the always fantastic General Gogol, M’s Soviet counterpart, which keeps it from being a simple “Capitalism good! Communism bad!” Cold War story. Of course, it’s not as gritty as For Your Eyes Only: Octopussy is absolutely infamous for having Roger Moore’s Bond save the world while dressed like a clown in its third act, because its third act is centered around a circus. What people don’t tell you is that the rest of the third act is about Octopussy extracting revenge on Khan by having her band of lady circus performers beat the living daylights out of Khan’s lackeys. Is it unrealistic to have Octopussy’s Circus of half-naked ladies get the better of dudes with guns? Yes. But is it awesome? Also yes. Of course, this being the James Bond franchise, it’s two steps forward, one step back when it comes to women. While For Your Eyes’ Only’s Melina got her own character arc and everything, Octopussy, while supposedly capable (she handles herself well in a fight), becomes utterly useless at the last and must be rescued by Bond. It’s a shame, because Maud Adams is such a terrific actress for a part like this—if this part was better written.

Exoticism and orientalism is always something to watch in Bond films, but it keeps itself from going too far with India in this film. There’s two locations and Bond spends a lot of time on the street, which makes it feel like real life instead of a sound stage. Plus, Bond’s contact in India is Vijay, who cracks even worse puns than Moore’s Bond and clearly loves every second of it. (You can see Bond falling in love with his atrocious puns at a certain point.) The other supporting characters fare better, too: Q actually gets time out of the office! Yay, Q! But, ultimately, Octopussy, despite its alarmingly bad title (my college roommate and I sang variations of the title to the tune of “Goldfinger” to each other after I watched it), remains quite a slight entrant in the Bond canon. I usually try to write reviews as soon as humanly possible, so everything’s fresh, but circumstances kept me from my desk after I watched this. So this review was hard, because it just hadn’t made enough of an impact. I prefer blindingly good and blindingly awful, please—mediocrity need not apply.

Bottom line: Octopussy is a fairly middling entrant in the Bond canon, hampered by Moore’s having already aged out of the role and its own dicey relationship to reality. For completionists.

I watched this film on Netflix Instant.

4 thoughts on “Page to Screen: Octopussy (1983)

  1. I couldn’t agree more: for completionists. The first and second acts work well, but the third act is just a catastrophic failure of blandness. I’ve seen Octopussy plenty of times, but I can’t remember half of the resolution. It’s that dull.

  2. I read Roger Moore’s autobiography and enjoyed it. He definitely felt that he was too old to play Bond after For Your Eyes Only, but the studio kept throwing money at him. From all I’ve read of Moore he’s a major league goofball and loves kidding around on set. Not at all Bond-like.

Your Thoughts?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s