Monday, October 3, 2011

From Screen to Page: Reading Ian Fleming

As is the case with the vast majority of those who picked up their first Ian Fleming after the 1960s, my expectations were formed by the films. As it happened, the first Ian Fleming novel I ever picked up happened to be Thunderball (1961).

The opening scene of the film version (1965) opens at the funeral of a SPECTRE operative involving, among other things, a memorable attempt on Bond's life, a jet pack flight and the special features on a certain Aston Martin.

The novel's opening has Bond treating a cut on his face, feeling "ashamed of himself" because he has been to drinking too much (and losing money at cards!) by the boredom and stress of "more than a month of paper-work," during which his life was apparently not dissimilar from that of any other harried bureaucrat.1

Not only was this much less entertaining than the way the movie' opens, but Bond's life seemed dull, our hero weary and worn-out and frankly looking a bit like a loser – things Bond should never appear to be. And things quickly got worse. When M calls Bond into his office he upbraids him for his "'mode of life,'" and inflicts on him a speech rather like Edward Fox's in Never Say Never Again (1983) (a piece I'd earlier imagined was purely a creation of the health-obsessed '80s) before sending him off to Shrublands to get clean.2.

The next chapter begins with Bond meeting the taxi taking him there, and forming an impression of his driver that leads him to some sweeping generalizations about Britain circa 1961. Feeling that the cabbie has not shown sufficient devotion to his duties, Bond reflects that the young man's manner in receiving his fare is "typical of the cheap assertiveness of young labour since the war."3 "This youth, thought Bond, makes about twenty pounds a week, despises his parents, and would like to be Tommy Steele," a regrettable result of his having been "born into the buyers' market of the Welfare State, and into the age of atomic bombs and space flight."4

Reading that Bond seemed to me, despite his sophisticated hedonism, a stodgy crank on the wrong side of the generation gap, unreconciled even to the Britain of Harold Macmillan, let alone the Swinging Britain of the 1960s with which I associated the figure - fiftysomething rather than the thirtysomething the character was supposed to be.

I stuck with the book all the same, thinking that I could at least look forward to better when the adventure got started. Not only was the opening sequence absent, however, but there was no Fiona Volpe, no rocket-firing motorcycle, no chase through the Junkanoo. There was an underwater battle at the end, but it fell far short of the big-screen version, where the Disco Volante shed its cocoon as a Coast Guard cutter blasted it, and Aquaparas rained from the sky, and the clash culminates in a frantic struggle on the bridge of Emilio Largo's yacht before it runs aground and explodes . . . and while Bond does end up with Domino by the story's close, rather than being whisked into the air with her by skyhook as the credits roll, he is visiting her in the hospital where she is recovering from  Largo's abuse, a rather less James Bondian conclusion to my way of thinking.

In short, my disappointment was not significantly alleviated by the time I'd finished the book.

I turned to Moonraker (book 1955, film 1979) after that, and found it even more of a letdown. The first third of the novel was swallowed up by the matter of Drax's cheating at cards (including a lengthy description of the game in which Bond gives Drax his comeuppance that I found almost unreadable). There was little action after that, the story only getting going in the last third or so, during which there is not even a proper shootout or bit of hand-to-hand combat (though there is a decent car chase). Bond doesn't even get the girl this time. Gala Brand, as it turns out, is happily engaged. And even as travelogue the book falls flat, Bond never getting away from his home turf in southeastern England, with most of it set along a small stretch of coast around Dover.

My skim of a few other Fleming novels left me with a similar impression, and I soon set aside the series in disappointment. However, I later revisited Fleming, and eventually found myself reading through his whole series.

The Bond of the books is quite different from the Bond of the films - a formidable secret agent who enjoys the good life, but not a superman living out an unending fantasy of violent action, luxury and sex. While he may be the "best shot in the service" (as we are told in Moonraker), being on an airliner as it flies through a storm can make him nervous, and his sleep is not untroubled by nightmares (as we learn in 1954's Live and Let Die) – the moments of vulnerability more frequent and conspicuous. The locations he visits are not always glamorous, or the accommodations enticing, with Fleming's portrait of Jacksonville and Saint Petersburg, Florida in Live and Let Die, or the motel that is the setting for much of The Spy Who Loved Me (1962), standing out as examples of quite the opposite in my recollections, while in Diamonds Are Forever (1956), the impression Las Vegas makes is of an oppressively crass, tacky, clattering tourist trap. Bond is exceptionally successful with women, managing to win over some who would ordinarily be quite resistant to male advances (like Tiffany Case in Diamonds and Pussy Galore in 1959's Goldfinger), but his record is not unblemished by rejections (by his secretary Loelia Ponsonby, for instance, and even granting her engagement, Gala Brand takes no interest whatsoever).

The novels tend to start slow, and even when they do get going, don't have Bond fighting as many bad guys, or using as many cool toys, the action and gimmickry generally less extravagant. (Indeed, it is the villains who typically employ the few bits of gadgetry seen – like the walking stick-gun and the nail-studded chains Le Chiffre deploys from the trunk of his car in 1953's Casino Royale, or the copy of War and Peace with a gun in its spine in 1957's From Russia With Love.)

Bond also tends to take rather more of a beating in the books than on-screen – often as a result of torture tough on his pride as well as his body (like Le Chiffre's use of a carpet-beater in Casino, or Wint and Kidd's stomping of Bond with football cleats in Diamonds Are Forever, or the KGB's brainwashing of Bond in 1965's The Man With the Golden Gun, after which Bond is subjected to brutal electric shock therapy to undo the damage). Not surprisingly, the adventure frequently leaves him requiring an extended period of convalescence (as in Casino, in Moonraker after his subjection to a steam hose, after the events of From Russia With Love - where unlike in the movie (1963) Rosa Klebb actually got him with the poisoned blade in her shoe - and after his escape from Dr. Shatterhand's fortress in 1964's You Only Live Twice, and yet again after his confrontation with the titular character in The Man With the Golden Gun, again in contrast with the film (1974) where he gets away unscathed).

Bond gets bored, depressed, ambivalent about the meaning and significance of his work, in Casino confessing to his French colleague Rene Mathis that "this country-right-or-wrong business is getting out of date" in a world where "History is moving pretty quickly . . . and the heroes and villains keep on changing parts."5 The moment passes, but such thoughts do recur, with Bond feeling sure in "Quantum of Solace" (story 1960) that his government is on the wrong side of the issue when he is charged with firebombing a cabin cruiser ferrying arms to Fidel Castro's rebels. He gets anxious that between the "two or three times a year that an assignment came along requiring his particular abilities" he is going soft – that small portion of his career outside which he is little different from any other senior civil servant of his time and place.6 His daily life is comfortable, and sometimes more than that (the cars he gets to drive, like his Bentley, are luxurious), but on the whole comparatively pedestrian, and there are times when it gets to be a grind like everyone else goes through (as seen in Thunderball) – the sort of thing one might expect from a novel by Graham Greene or John le Carré rather than Fleming. He even has qualms about his relations with women, brooding over the "conventional parabola" of his affairs, and the way they concluded with "tears and the final bitterness . . . shameful and hypocritical."7

And he does appear to get worn down over the course of the stories. Where he responds to Vesper Lynd's murder in Casino by making his fight against SMERSH personal, he goes to pieces when Tracy is murdered by Ernst Stavro Blofeld, leaving M wondering what to do with him in the book You Only Live Twice – quite unlike what we see in the opening of the film version of Diamonds Are Forever (1971), in which he has purposefully set off on a mission of revenge. In short, even granting their distance from how the intelligence business really works, Bond is much more human, the novels about him rather more realistic, than Fleming's reputation suggests.

Yet, there is no question that the books laid the groundwork for the films. Casino Royale introduced the protagonist and his mode of life, at once luxurious and dangerous. Live and Let Die offered the series' first taste of James Bondian action, complete with larger-than-life villains with armies of henchmen, surreal, spectacular hideouts, and over-elaborate death-traps from which Bond makes narrow escapes. Moonraker presented the first of Fleming's mad villains possessed of high technology, plans for mass murder, and ambitions that are geopolitical in scale. Goldfinger was the first to begin the tale with Bond engaging in a bit of action as he winds up a previous mission. Thunderball gave us SPECTRE - and on the whole later books tend to come closer to the big-screen versions, even the more flamboyant ones, like From Russia With Love Dr. No (book 1958, film 1962) and On Her Majesty's Secret Service (book 1963, film 1969).

However, where Fleming developed the essential elements slowly (and employed them inconsistently) over the course of the series, it was the genius of the films to bring them all together in a single formula at the outset;  build on what was most-suited and dispensing with what was least-suited to the side of the novels it opted to develop - the extravagant, larger-than-life action-adventure, globe-trotting and often science fiction-tinged, in which the travel was first-class all the way and there was somehow always time for another kind of action as well; and in the process, invent the "adrenaline" movie that has been king of the box office ever since, as well as pop culture's principal template for cinematic depictions of sophisticated Casanova-ism for the rest of the twentieth century.

It was also their genius to widen Bond's appeal far beyond what might be expected given the source material. Part of this was the removal of the films from political reality, making them easier to take as escapist fare. In contrast with the early Cold War earnestness of the novels, the conflict's presence was muted in the films. SMERSH was out and SPECTRE in from the very start, the latter replacing the Soviets as the villains in Dr. No and From Russia With Love (1963), and Mr. Big made an independent actor instead of a Soviet agent in Live and Let Die (1973). The writers were perhaps more aggressive in their treatment of "Red China," which replaced the Soviets as sponsors of the villains in Goldfinger (1964) and The Man With The Golden Gun. Even this had limits, however, China's relationship with Francisco Scaramanga reduced to that of a landlord taking his rent in the form of the occasional hit, while in the 1967 film version of You Only Live Twice limits the country's connection of China with SPECTRE to a brief implication - and in the big-screen version of Diamonds Are Forever, China is as much a victim of Blofeld's scheming as the U.S. and the Soviet Union.

Indeed, a measure of professional respect, and even occasional cooperation, becomes part of the relationship between the British and Soviets from The Spy Who Loved Me (1977) on, and continues all the way up to the last Cold War-themed Bond film, The Living Daylights (story 1966, film 1987). Such Soviet bad guys as do appear, like From Russia With Love's Rosa Klebb, General Orlov in Octopussy (story 1966, film 1983) and The Living Daylights' General Koskov, are renegades pushing their own agendas, with Orlov and Koskov both shot dead by the Soviets themselves for their treachery. The really bad guys were the opportunists and extremists out to exploit the situation, as in From Russia With Love, Diamonds Are Forever and The Spy Who Loved Me.

Moreover, on the occasions when Bond does play Cold Warrior, he does so as a professional, rather than an ideologue or a man pursuing a vendetta, and such clichés of right-wing paranoia as trade unionists and ethnic minorities being willing tools of Soviet and Communist subversion (prominent in the novels) are absent from the films. If Bond himself has any opinions about what he is doing, they are rarely (not never, but rarely) expressed, and the racialism, the disdain for uppity proletarians and young people, the dislike of the welfare state and decolonization which are overtly and explicitly present in the books can only be found in the films only by "reading them against the grain" (and sometimes, hardly at all).

Not unrelated to this is the treatment of Bond's own social position. As Jeremy Black has observed in his study of the series, Bond's "mode of life" is "apparently cost-free," and his sense of "'class' apparently unconnected with money or birth . . .  a matter of style, not economics."8 The characteristics that mark Bond as a creature of privilege sniffing at the behavior of the lower-born are downplayed or even eliminated entirely (there being no mention of the private income he enjoys, for instance). Certainly a fair amount of snobbery remains on display, but Bond's "wisecracks and the absence of pedigree and social stuffiness" made it "possible for 1960s audiences to identify with him and to imagine that he was their type of hero."9

As Black put it, Bond is "more a cosmopolitan man than a man of class," and up to a point such cosmopolitanism carried over to downplaying the "Britishness" of the Fleming novels (even as Bond became an internationally recognized icon of Britishness).10 Just as the villains were much less likely to be instruments of Soviet policy or international Communism than exploiters of the Cold War situation, they were much more likely to be menaces to humanity and the world as a whole rather than enemies of Britain as such. In the film versions of Moonraker, Diamonds Are Forever and On Her Majesty's Secret Service, for instance, the threats to British interests seen in the novels are turned into global threats, and the producers never set any of the films wholly, or even primarily, inside Great Britain (the film Moonraker taking Bond to California, Venice and Brazil before sending him into orbit). This, too, would seem to have contributed to the international appeal of the films.

Nonetheless, significant as the achievement of the filmmakers has been, the series inevitably showed its age, and the 2000s saw a highly publicized reboot of the series, during which the producers loudly trumpeted an intent to return to the vision of the original novels.

Such a course struck me not only as counterintuitive, but frankly absurd.

When Bond first appeared, the Cold War was in its most highly charged and volatile early period, and World War II was only a recent memory, making for a very different context for espionage, one with a dramatic tension the early twenty-first century does not even begin to approach. Britain may have been in decline in the 1950s, but it had not yet been reduced to the status of a "normal" country, its claims to being a global player rather more credible. This period was also the start of the nuclear age, the jet age, the space age, with all that implied for the feel of Bond's world, and we can hardly substitute for this today. Much the same goes for the dynamics of Bond's relationship with M, with Moneypenny, with the Bond girls (feminism being non-negotiable). Bond's griping like the Edwardian Etonite who created him about "Those kids today" or sitting in his office at Universal Exports worrying he is losing his edge seemed even less plausible. And if anything, it seemed likely the films would play down rather than play up the original Bond's snobbishness and self-indulgence (his smoking, his womanizing). In the end all that left was a (somewhat) greater realism in the treatment of the plots and the action, and this is hardly enough to set the series apart, the series bound to give up what remained of its distinctiveness, its special appeal, its personality if it followed that path.

So far, the reboot has only borne out such expectations.

NOTES
1. Ian Fleming, Thunderball (New York: Penguin, 2003), pp. 1-2.
2. Fleming, Thunderball, p. 3.
3. Fleming, Thunderball, p. 9.
4. Ibid.
5. Fleming, Casino Royale (New York: Penguin, 2002), p. 135.
6. Fleming, Moonraker (London: Jonathan Cape, 1975), p. 15.
7. Fleming, Casino Royale, p. 149.
8. Jeremy Black, The Politics of James Bond: From Fleming's Novels to the Big Screen (Westport, CN: Praeger, 2001), p. 211.
9. Black, p. 212.
10. Black, p. 211.

New Review: The Politics of James Bond: From Fleming's Books to the Big Screen, by Jeremy Black
9/25/11
The End of James Bond?
8/28/10

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