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Literature / The Bourne Series

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Cain is for Carlos, and Delta is for Cain...

During the Vietnam War, David Webb is a foreign service officer specializing in Far East Affairs. While on assignment in Cambodia, his wife and children were inadvertently slaughtered in an action against the Viet Cong. Mad with grief he fled and joined Medusa, a special forces death squad made up of hardcore criminals. After the war, he was a recruited to Treadstone 71, a joint-Military Intelligence/CIA program that was going after the (real-life) legendary assassin, Carlos the Jackal. David Webb takes on the name of Jason Bourne as part of his plan to lure out Carlos the Jackal by taking credit for Carlos' kills, then kill him.

A long-running series of 17 (so far) Spy Fiction novels, three written by Robert Ludlum, the next 11 by Eric Van Lustbader, and as of 2020, a new rebooted series by Brian Freeman (which have no connection to the first 14 novels). The first novel, The Bourne Identity (1980), involves Jason Bourne losing his memory and being hunted through the streets of Paris by the CIA (who think he's dodgy) and Carlos the Jackal (who just wants to kill him). On his way, he meets (well, more or less kidnaps) a Canadian economist called Marie St. Jacques.

In The Bourne Supremacy, someone has started killing under the Bourne name and is threatening to cause a war between China and the West. To get Bourne to kill him, the CIA kidnaps Marie (now married to Bourne). Carlos the Jackal does not really feature here.

In The Bourne Ultimatum, Carlos issues a final challenge to Bourne, now in his 50s and a college professor.

The series consists of the following:

Robert Ludlum's original trilogy

  1. The Bourne Identity (February 1980)
  2. The Bourne Supremacy (January 1, 1986)
  3. The Bourne Ultimatum (February 25, 1990)

Continuation series by Eric Van Lustbader

  1. The Bourne Legacy (June 22, 2004)
  2. The Bourne Betrayal (June 5, 2007)
  3. The Bourne Sanction (July 29, 2008)
  4. The Bourne Deception (June 9, 2009)
  5. The Bourne Objective (January 1, 2010)
  6. The Bourne Dominion (July 19, 2011)
  7. The Bourne Imperative (June 5, 2012)
  8. The Bourne Retribution (December 3, 2013)
  9. The Bourne Ascendancy (June 10, 2014)
  10. The Bourne Enigma (June 21, 2016)
  11. The Bourne Initiative (June 13, 2017)

Reboot series by Brian Freeman

  1. The Bourne Evolution (July 28, 2020)
  2. The Bourne Treachery (July 27, 2021)
  3. The Bourne Sacrifice (July 26, 2022)

Made into a TV mini-series in 1988 starring Richard Chamberlain and Jaclyn Smith that was fairly faithful to the first novel, and a series of movies that drops the Carlos plotline and recasts Bourne as a Present Day black-ops CIA assassin.

These novels include examples of:

  • Amnesiac Dissonance: In the first novel, The Bourne Identity, a newly-amnesiac Bourne is horrified by the possibility that he was an assassin. Downplayed somewhat in later novels, where Bourne seems to be at peace with his past as a covert operative, unlike in the films where he is very much The Atoner.
  • Anonymous Ringer: Averted with Carlos the Jackal
  • Arc Words: "Cain is for Carlos, and Delta is for Cain." (and when it's not that, it's "Cain is for Charlie, and Delta is for Cain", and "Delta is for Charlie, and Charlie is for Cain". Ludlum loved this, apparently)
  • Ascended Extra: Johann, a minor henchman in the novel who is killed by Bourne in his second scene, is basically promoted to Carlos' Dragon in the '88 TV movie.
  • Attempted Rape: Marie is subject to this twice. Once in the first novel (Bourne saved her) and once again in the second (she manages to save herself).
  • Author Tract: Lustbader has a dislike with neoconservatives, and he shows it. Ironically, the original author Ludlum seems to have a mild dislike for leftists, as witness the free-market economist in The Bourne Identity favorably commenting on government policies of the 1980s.
  • Ax-Crazy: Carlos after he snaps. And he kinda enjoys killing for the hell of it before then.
  • Badass Bookworm: The protagonist. Long before he became Jason Bourne, David Webb was already a career diplomat and expert in Far East affairs - not to mention fluent in multiple languages. In his civilian life, he eventually becomes a college professor.
  • Bad Habits: Carlos the Jackal dresses up as a priest.
  • Batman Gambit: Asher Sever/Dominic Specter's plan in Sanction. He convinces Bourne to pursue a pipeline of anti-terrorist vigilantes in order to retrieve blueprint of impending terrorist attack. It turns out that the plan is decoy, the pipeline is bogus, Bourne, who is on the run from American intelligence, has been used by Sever to inject misdirections to US security forces
  • Becoming the Mask: 'Jason Bourne' was originally a false identity created for CIA operative David Webb, when he went undercover to carry out black-ops missions. However, owing to his amnesia, and other psychological issues, the Bourne persona gradually starts to dominate Webb's psyche. In the latter two Ludlum novels, the Bourne persona takes over completely when Webb, or his family, are in danger. And in the Lustbader continuation novels, he has essentially abandoned the 'David Webb' identity and now IS Jason Bourne.
  • Broad Strokes: Ludlum's original backstory for Jason Bourne, and the events of the first three novels, have become this in the context of the Lustbader continuation novels. All that has been retained from Ludlum's works is that David Webb was recruited by Alex Conklin to become part of a CIA black-ops program called Treadstone; he was given the false identity of 'Jason Bourne'; while on a mission in Marseilles he was shot repeatedly, nearly drowned in the Mediterranean Sea, and lost his memory; and that at one point, he was married to Marie. Virtually everything else from the original books has been ignored.
    • Also for the film series. Bourne is a US government operative, part of an organization called Treadstone, with amnesia who operates out of Europe. He meets a woman named Marie and deals with a man named Conklin. That's about all the films have in common with the books.
  • Bulletproof Human Shield: Subverted in The Bourne Legacy, as a terrorist attempts to use a fallen guard as a human shield, but is mowed down when the blast go right through the body anyway.
  • Canon Welding: The Bourne Sacrifice, the third installment of Brian Freeman's Continuity Reboot of the series, serves as a quasi-sequel to one of Robert Ludlum's non-series novels The Chancellor Manuscript. Bourne encounters the protagonist of that novel Peter Chancellor and the organization behind The Conspiracy that Bourne is dealing with is a successor to Inver Brass from the earlier novel.
  • Cold War
  • Comic-Book Time: Bourne is 50 in Ultimatum, which is set before the fall of USSR. In Deception, which is written by the new author, the same character mentions about Bali Bombing in 2005.
    • In Retribution (published in 2013, set around the same time), we're told that its only been around a decade at most since Bourne lost his memory, placing the events of Identity in the early 2000's (rather than 1980, when the first book was published).
  • Complexity Addiction: Maceo Encarnacion's plan to trap Bourne in Imperative. First, he smuggles her disabled lover, Constanza, to Mexico City airport. Because Bourne and Rebeka are on the run from a Mossad assassin, they happily join Constanza as her caretaker to avoid confrontation. Constanza then invites them to her house, feeds them some bullshit about her feud with Encarnacion, and supposedly pulls some strings to sneak them into Encarnacion's villa. How do they sneak in? Inside a casket delivered by Encarnacion's mortician. Why a casket could get in? Encarnacion's goon kills a servant of his, giving an excuse for a mortician transport to enter Encarnacion's villa. When Bourne and Rebeka are inside the villa, they are drawn in by the sound of a shower stream in Encarnacion's bathroom, which is a ruse meant to split them up. At that moment, from a closet, Encarnacion's son attacks them. It ever occur to Encarnacion that he could just hire a bunch of hired guns to mow Bourne down?
  • Continuity Reboot: The Bourne Evolution, the first continuation novel by Brian Freeman, is one. It completely ignores both the original novels by Ludlum, and the continuation novels by Lustbader. The story begins just a few years after Bourne lost his memory.
  • Contrived Coincidence: An atrocious one. In Lustbader's novels, a character can just use prosthetics and cosmetics and pass off as another character. That in and of itself is quite a stretch to believe, but the kicker is this word: HEIGHT. Apparently in Lustbader's universe everyone has the same height.
  • Crazy-Prepared: Bourne and Carlos are good at planning several steps ahead, which is why they're so good at their jobs.
  • Cruel and Unusual Death: Carlos likes to shoot people in the throat as it takes a while for them to die.
  • Dated History: Not only is the real Carlos the Jackal in a French prison, his reputation as a mastermind of terror is now regarded as mostly media hype. Far from being the perfect assassin, he bungled several of his operations.
  • Dead Person Impersonation: The original Jason Bourne was a member of a troop of black ops soldiers who the protagonist personally executed for war crimes during Vietnam. When Webb needed a new identity for his mission to find Carlos, he borrowed the name of his long-deceased coworker, as few people would remember him or care about where he'd been for the past decade.
  • Death by Adaptation: Alex Conklin, in both the 1988 TV adaptation and the 2000's film series. Also Marie in the film series. Interestingly, though both characters survived the Ludlum novels, they ended up getting killed in the Lustbader continuations. See Retcanon
    • Also, Carlos, the Big Bad himself, is killed in the 1988 adaptation, where he escaped in the book.
  • Dropped a Bridge on Him: In Legacy, where Lustbader kills Conklin and Panov right at the start of the story. In Betrayal, Marie is dead because of pneumonia.
  • Evil Counterpart: So many examples. Carlos. The faux Jason Bourne. Fadi. Leonid Arkadin. Nicodemo. Ivan Borz. Lennon. The novels are replete with antagonists who, like Bourne, are highly-skilled assassins and Master of Disguise.
  • Evil Old Folks: Carlos uses a network of elderly French veterans who feel let down by the country they served for leaving them in poverty in their old age; he repays them for their information and occasional active service for his organisation, buying their loyalty. In the third book, he finally pushes one of them too far with disastrous consequences for him.
  • Expansion Pack Past: Bourne, due to his amnesia. While Ludlum more or less filled in Bourne's backstory in the first novel itself, Lustbader continues to expand upon Bourne's pre-amnesia past. Scarcely a novel goes by without at least one character resurfacing from Bourne's past, or the central plot of the novel in some way relating to an old Treadstone mission of Bourne's.
  • Faking the Dead: Bourne does this in Deception after he is shot and grievously wounded by Arkadin.
    • In Retribution, it is revealed that Mossad agent Rebeka's death was faked in the previous book by her father, the Mossad chief; in order to allow her time to safely recover and provide Bourne with a motivation to avenge her near-death
    • In Evolution Bourne's death is faked by his Treadstone handler Nash Rollins in order to keep Medusa off-guard so that their leadership becomes complacent and they can be taken down. After the mission is complete, Bourne decides to stay 'dead' a while longer, as it makes it easier for him to operate behind the scenes.
  • False Flag Operation, with flavor of Shrouded in Myth: The whole point of Jason Bourne, at least in the original Ludlum books. Jason Bourne the assassin is a myth. He does not assassinate anyone; he just takes credit for prolific assassinations, which real murderers happily let him. The point behind this myth is to insult Carlos the Jackal and force him into the open to confront Bourne.
    • Deception also involves one plotted by a private security contractor, Black River, in collaboration with a hawkish Secretary of Defense. The plan was to shoot down an American airliner and implicate the Iranian government in it to provide the US Government with an excuse for an invasion.
  • Flanderization: Pops up badly in Eric van Lustbader's books. Especially problematic is how Bourne himself goes from a fallible badass to just... fallible.
  • Foil: Leonid Arkadin is this to Jason Bourne. Both are highly-trained killing machines, products of the Treadstone project. Both were mentored by Alex Conklin. Both eventually turned rogue at one point. And both have tragic backstories involving the deaths of loved ones. However, Bourne, despite everything that has happened to him, remains a force of good, whereas Arkadin became a terrorist. Also, Bourne, due to his amnesia, doesn't remember most of his tragic past, while Arkadin is constantly haunted by it, and even envies Bourne for the latter's memory loss.
  • Gay Paree: Averted
  • A God Am I: Carlos has a pretty massive ego.
  • High-Speed Missile Dodge: In a Chinook, no less.
  • Informed Attribute: The Old Man, the DCI in the new series. Everyone says he's great, The Chessmaster, The Magnificent Bastard, A Father to His Men. And yet he orders his DDCI to sever Bourne after Bourne just rescued the DDCI, fails to notice all terrorist schemes in both books of his appearance, and orders assassination on Bourne just because he hates Bourne.
  • Insistent Terminology: "CI", in Lustbader books. For reason unknown Lustbader always omits the "A" in "CIA" and "Agency" after "Central Intelligence". Made even more puzzling in that in his other novels, Lustbader uses "CIA" correctly.
  • Kissing Cousins: Carlos and his first cousin were lovers since childhood.
  • Government Agency of Fiction: Treadstone. Its precise nature, and the extent to which it is a full-fledged agency in its own right, has varied however - with the original Ludlum novels and the Freeman reboot novels depicting it as an independent organization closely affiliated with the CIA, while the Lustbader continuation novels lean towards the film's idea of it being a CIA program.
  • "London, England" Syndrome: Inverted - a guy has to specify he wants Vienna, Virginia, not Vienna, Austria.
  • Madness Mantra: Bourne in the first book (especially):
    • Find Carlos! Trap Carlos! Kill Carlos!
    • Find Treadstone! Find a message! Find a man!
    • Cain is for Charlie, and Delta is for Cain!
  • The Main Characters Do Everything: Soraya Moore, Boris Karpov, and Amun Chalthoum qualify. They are directors of nationwide spy agencies, and yet they are continuously found in the field. It never seem to occur to them that they can just delegate their own investigation.
  • Master of Disguise: Bourne's story was influenced by real-life 20th-century assassin Carlos "The Jackal", who was infamous for his ability to blend in and elude the authorities. See also The Day of the Jackal, another espionage thriller and resulting films where Carlos supposedly got his nickname. BournĂ©s light gray eyes are perfect for color-changing contacts, his hair is easily dyed, and he even underwent plastic surgery to make his face unmemorable. On top of that, not only is he so fluent in multiple languages that he can alter his accent in each in order to play a role, but he can assume a role on a moment's notice, from arrogant tourist to low class fisherman to purchaser of haute couture. As per the trope, Bourne even calls himself The Chameleon. A lot.
  • Mythology Gag: Brian Freeman's Continuity Reboot of the series, contains a number of overt and subtle references and easter eggs to Ludlum's The Bourne Identity.
    • From The Bourne Evolution:
      • The name of the company Carillon Technologies is taken from the hotel Carillon du Lac from the original novel.
      • A bar named Villiers (named after General Villers from Ludlum's novel) and a bistro named Bergeron (named after a dress-shop from Ludlum's novel) both appear.
      • The journalist Abbey Laurent, an auburn-haired Canadian woman who is dragged into Bourne's violent world and ends up falling in love with him bears more than a passing resemblance to the auburn-haired Canadian economist Marie St. Jacques from the original novel, who goes through a similar journey.
      • A number of people are killed by being shot in the throat, either by Bourne or by Miss Shirley. A shot to the throat was famously Carlos' Signature Move in Ludlum's novel.
      • There is an assassin wearing gold-rimmed glasses who targets the novel's female lead in both Identity and Evolution. Needless to say, in both novels, the assassin is killed by Bourne.
      • The name Medusa is taken from Ludlum's original novel, and the idea of it being a secret cabal manipulating governments and private organizations across the globe is borrowed from Ludlum's The Bourne Ultimatum.
      • At one point, Bourne uses the alias of American businessman Charlie Briggs in Evolution, as he did in Identity.
    • From The Bourne Treachery:
      • One of the aliases Bourne uses in the novel is George Washburn, the first alias he adopted (based on the name of the doctor who saved his life after his bullet to the head) in Identity.
      • The backstory of the original Jason Bourne, an American commando who was executed near Tam Quan during the Vietnam War by his own covert unit is retained, though it is acknowledged that due to the Setting Update, he cannot possibly be the same man that David Webb killed in this continuity.
  • Never-Forgotten Skill: Jason Bourne is introduced with having amnesia. However, his memory loss does not affect his combat skills in the slightest.
  • Oh, Crap!: Arkadin's reaction in the climax of Deception when three-fourth of his ninety-nine men cadre are blown in just two shots of anti-tank missiles.
    • In the first book, the first hint that Bourne's past was contentious is when he is leaving a waterfront bar in Marseilles and a customer he bumps into freaks out:
      "No... NO! You're dead! You could not have lived!"
  • The Purge: Two of Carlos' unnamed minions do this to Treadstone Seventy-One pretty much all by themselves.
  • Purple Prose/Sesquipedalian Loquaciousness: Books written by Lustbader suffered this greatly. See links on Flanderization above.
  • Put on a Bus: Disturbingly common in the Lustbader continuation novels.
  • Quest for Identity: The Bourne Identity
  • Rape Is a Special Kind of Evil: In the first novel, the men working for Carlos persuade Marie that they are detectives hunting Bourne and use her to capture him, then have her taken to the river to be killed. Bourne is able to escape and goes to rescue her, and finds the killer has decided to rape her first. Bourne's unfeigned outrage over this, and the fact that he came to rescue her at all, convinces Marie (and Bourne too, given that he still has no idea who he is) that he's not a villain after all.
  • Related in the Adaptation: A mild example in the 1988 TV mini-series adaptation of The Bourne Identity. In the book, David Abbott was simply the mastermind of the Treadstone project and had no personal connection to Bourne, apart from being one of his handlers. In the tele-film Webb/Bourne was essentially David Abbott's adopted son. Webb's father was an old friend and colleague of David Abbott (so much so that David Webb was NAMED after David Abbott).
  • Remember the New Guy?: Justified somewhat, due to Bourne's amnesia. Throughout the novels, Bourne continues to meet people whom he doesn't remember, but who know him very well and have played an important role in his forgotten past. Lustbader particularly loves using this trope in his continuation novels, with major characters like Soraya Moore and Colonel Boris Karpov among others having first met Bourne before his memory loss.
  • Replacement Goldfish: In Lustbader's books, Moira replaces Marie. Later, she herself is replaced by Rebekka.
  • Retcanon: The movies significantly influenced the continuation novels by Lustbader. For instance, Bourne is considered a Rogue Agent by the CIA, just as he is in the movies (whereas in Ludlum's novels he cooperates with the CIA in the latter installments. Also, characters like Marie and Alex Conklin were killed, just like they were in the movies, whereas they survived in the original books.
  • Retcon: See False Flag Operation. In Ludlum's novel, Bourne is no assassin; he's just a tough man who takes credit for other people's assassinations in order to appear as a rival to Carlos. In Lustbader's, Bourne was a full-blown assassin for the CIA, much like in the movies.
    • In the Ludlum novels, David Webb witnessed the deaths of his first wife and two children during a bombing and continues to be haunted by fragmentary memories even after his amnesia. In Legacy, we're told that David WASN'T present when his family was killed, and continues to feel Survivor Guilt over the fact.
  • Retired Badass: Technically, Bourne himself is one in Supremacy and Ultimatum. He's left Treadstone and the Bourne identity behind and settled down to a quiet life as a college professor in Maine, with Marie. In both novels, events force him back into the violent world of his past.
  • Rewarded as a Traitor Deserves: Irritable turncoat Alfred Gillette is promptly shot dead by Carlos' hitman, after serving his purpose.
  • Rogue Agent: Somewhat downplayed in the original Ludlum novels, especially compared to the movies. In Identity, Treadstone believes that Bourne has gone rogue because of his mysterious disappearance and inexplicable behavior (caused by his amnesia) and because he's being framed by Carlos. In the subsequent novels however, while Bourne has a strained relationship with the CIA and the US Government in general, he isn't exactly a rogue operative and even works alongside them.
    • The Lustbader novels play this straight, to bring the character more in line with his cinematic portrayal. Bourne is considered as a renegade operative by most of the American intelligence community, with the exception of a few allies.
  • Scary Shiny Glasses: During the Zurich lecture scene Ludlum lavishes attention on how much the light from the projector reflects off the lenses of the gold-rimmed glasses of the hitman.
  • Soft Reboot: The continuation novels by Eric van Lustbader. Legacy felt like a continuation of Ludlum's original novels, heavily relying on Bourne's Vietnam War-era backstory. However, starting with Betrayal, Bourne's backstory and the events of Ludlum's novels were largely ignored barring the odd reference, Comic-Book Time came firmly into effect, all surviving characters from the previous books were either Put on a Bus or Killed Off for Real, and Bourne himself increasingly began to resemble the character from the movies more than he did Ludlum's original creation.
  • Spanner in the Works:
    • Jason Bourne in Legacy. Stepan Spalko really has to choose someone weaker to be set up.
    • the truth of Sarah ibn Ashef's murder in Betrayal. At that climax of the book, CIA is under complete control of Karim, an Islamist supremacist who poses as CIA's Deputy Director. He breaks his cool and calm when Bourne reveals that truth.
  • Spared by the Adaptation: In Brian Freeman's Continuity Reboot of the series the original Jason Bourne, whom David Webb killed in Ludlum's novels, is apparently still alive...having assumed the identity of the assassin Lennon.
  • Split Personality: Bourne, in Ludlum's novels and the early Lustbader novels. On the one hand he is 'David Webb', an academic and family man. On the other hand, he is 'Jason Bourne', a lethal covert operative and a ruthless killer. While he tries to lead a normal life as Webb, the slightest hint of danger to his family causes the 'Bourne identity' to resurface. In Lustbader's novels once Marie dies, he more or less abandons the 'David Webb' identity and is consumed by 'Jason Bourne', though he continues to question who he really is, given that 'Bourne' was a construct created by Treadstone.
  • Swiss Bank Account: In The Bourne Identity, the only clue he has to his identity in the beginning is the details of a Swiss numbered bank account.
  • Vague Age: Due to Comic-Book Time and Broad Strokes being in effect, it's unclear how old Bourne is supposed to be in the continuation novels by Lustbader. He has the stamina and prowess of a younger man at his peak, but one novel contains a flashback to Bourne on a Treadstone mission 17 years ago! Lustbader's first novel Legacy reveals that Bourne has a grown-up son who's 27 years old but it's unclear if that son is part of the continuity of later novels since his existence is heavily tied to Bourne's Vietnam War-era backstory that Lustbader subsequently ignored.
  • The 'Verse: The series exists in the same continuity as several other Ludlum works, including The Matarese Circle, The Parsifal Mosaic and The Janson Directive.
    • Brian Freeman's reboot series exists in the same universe as Ludlum's The Chancellor Manuscript.
  • Villainous Breakdown: At the climax of Betrayal. Confronting Karim, Bourne reveals the truth of the murder of his sister, which causes the terrorist lunge up to him recklessly.
  • Wham Line: In Identity. "On March 25th 1968, Jason Bourne was executed at Tam Quan. You executed him."
  • Who Shot JFK?: In The Bourne Identity, Bourne comes across an article which implies that Carlos was the "man on the grassy knoll"...
  • Wretched Hive:
    • Kowloon
    • Nizhny Tagil in the new series.
  • Xanatos Gambit: Arkadin's plan in Deception. If Bourne survives the ambush in Bali, the trail would lead him to Nikolai Yevsen, an arms dealer whose business empire is on Arkadin's takeover list. If Yevsen kills Bourne Arkadin's vengeance on Bourne is fulfilled; if Bourne kills Yevsen then Yevsen's business is Arkadin's. Either way, Arkadin wins.
  • Xanatos Speed Chess: Bourne and Carlos are good at setting, predicting, and reversing traps. When they go directly against each other, this results in traps being double and triple reversed ''constantly''
  • You Have Failed Me: Although in general Carlos is a pretty decent villain to work for (compared to most, anyway), Koenig is done away on Carlos' orders for the glorious screwup that was the Zurich hit.

Alternative Title(s): The Bourne Ultimatum, The Bourne Identity, The Bourne Supremacy, Jason Bourne