Saturday, March 5, 2016

The Cult of Ian Fleming

When one looks at the history of the spy genre from the standpoint of significant innovation and precedent, Ian Fleming's claim to a place in it would seem to rest above all on two things. One is his successful synthesis of past important influences as diverse as Sax Rohmer and Somerset Maugham in thoroughly updating the "clubland"-type adventure for the post-war world. The other is his pioneering work in Moonraker and Thunderball on the structure and style of the techno-thriller that Frederick Forsyth, Craig Thomas and Tom Clancy were later to make careers from.

It is, perhaps, a narrower basis than one might imagine from the status of James Bond as fiction's most famous spy. Moreover, a place in literary history of this kind, even one more central than that, is not the same thing as artistic accomplishment of more enduring kinds--and being of interest to the hardcore student of a literary form not the same thing as having an enduring wide appeal such as would go on making for bestsellers generations later. Quite the contrary--a writer who was important for their ideas or style often ceases to interesting in that way when the ideas have become commonplace, or the style dated, and what they have to offer less than obviously transcendent in that way likely to impress the casual book buyer just looking for a good read.

It may be argued that Fleming falls into this category. By today's standards, the books' relatively slow pace and "literary" narrative style, as well as their tendency to lavish attention on their mundane aspects while treating the sensational briefly--in brief, the technique of the "aimless glance"--makes what is often a light serving of action to begin with still less satisfying. Additionally his Bond is not only a less glamorous and exciting figure than the movies present, but often a weary, grouchy, bad-tempered and bigoted middle-aged man who seems even older than his years--at times a mouthpiece for a creator who was in many ways out of date in his own period (and worse now), and at other times a butt of his author's jokes in tales with much more parody than one might expect. (Indeed, I've already written quite a bit about that first shock I experienced on picking up Thunderball.)

Moreover, it might be said that the place the original Bond novels occupy in the history of the form pales next to that of the Bond movies in the history of cinema. Far more responsible for James Bond's fame, this was due to, above all:

1. Intensified cinematic pacing. (The structuring of a film around "thirty-nine bumps" as Richard Maibaum called it, giving the audience a surprise, a twist, a bit of action--some kind of shock--every three minutes or so.)
2. Their use of the set piece, and particularly the frequency, variety and scale of the set pieces. (Think of it this way. From car chases to ski chases, underwater fights to aerial fights, is there any basic type of action scene they didn't use in those first half dozen '60s-era films? And already by the decade's end, they'd reached a point where it was just about impossible to go bigger.)
3. Their editing and photography--again, most evident in those set pieces. (The close shots and long takes and jump cuts and undercranking and exaggerated sound effects are what give the fights their punch.)

Along with the marketing of Goldfinger and Thunderball in particular (which pioneered the wide, big opening-weekend type of release, and ruthless merchandising), these were what set the pattern for the big action blockbuster that, with the success of Star Wars, which thoroughly assimilated the lessons of the Bond movies, became Hollywood's bread and butter.

These are specifically cinematic accomplishments, which have relatively little to do with the material Fleming contributed--as Maibaum pointedly declared in a 1964 New York Times article, when he recounted paying the author the "left-handed compliment" of saying that his work had "an untrans­ferable literary quality," and then telling the reader more bluntly that as bumps went, he simply did not have "nearly enough for the kind of films [they were] trying to make."

Indeed, it can be said that the films made it harder for us to enjoy Fleming's novels, and not only because they have created such a different image for the character (enduring a decade and four films into the "back-to-the-original" Daniel Craig era, and perhaps even enjoying a revival), but because they changed the thriller genre as a whole. The swifter, more action-packed Bond movies and swifter, more action-packed movies to which they led in general, have not only changed our expectations regarding film, but print fiction as well, which responded to that cinematic influence. Reading Clive Cussler's Sahara, for example, I felt that for the first time I'd had the experience of reading a book that felt like a summer blockbuster, and since then later writers like Matthew Reilly have only striven to realize this more completely, as the films have themselves become faster and more crowded.

The upshot is that, apart from the rather limited coterie of people who actually know and like the original Fleming novels on their distinctive terms, the evocation of the Ian Fleming brand name in its all authority means something quite different from what most people think it means.

Still, in fairness, I suppose one can say the same of just about all of the aged IPs lumbering zombie-fashion across the pop cultural landscape.

Review: Trigger Mortis, by Anthony Horowitz
The Bond Girls of Trigger Mortis: Pussy Galore, Logan Fairfax and Jeopardy Lane
Just Out . . . (The Many Lives and Deaths of James Bond, 2nd edition)
My Posts on Ian Fleming's Novels
Just Out. . . (James Bond's Evolution)
Too Many Spies?
Just Out . . . (The Forgotten James Bond)
My Posts on Matthew Reilly
My Posts on James Bond
From Screen to Page: Reading Ian Fleming
Reflections on the Dirk Pitt Series

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