James Bond: The Literary Character

30 08 2014

I have been a James Bond fan since I was a kid. While I didn’t get to see a James Bond movie in theatres until I was in my teens, I was able to catch them on occasion on television (since they were somewhat “edited” for prime time consumption). But, my experience with Bond has always been with the feature films. I finally took the time to read the original Ian Fleming novels, and I now have a slightly different view of the Bond character. WARNING: I discuss information that will give away spoilers or important plot points, so continue at your own risk.

First, A Warning

If you ever get a chance to read the original Fleming work, be warned: they are a product of the time and the author. Fleming was an intelligence officer during World War II, involved in the planning of some “harsh” operations. He was also a monied Englishman. Those elements, coupled with what appears to be a degree of both sexism and possibly latent racism, certainly colour his writing. It is typical 1950’s and early 1960’s fiction: women aren’t up to “men’s work”, and the only Real Gentlemen are British. Every other non-English citizen, and every non-white person, always comes up short in some way.

Phrases and names that are, today, considered insulting or degrading appear fairly regularly. If you are willing to look past this, underneath are some interesting stories. However, don’t expect a huge amount of depth or texture. Even with multi-volume story arcs, Fleming tends to wander a bit, and apparently changes his mind as to what or who the bad guys really are.

They Aren’t Like The Movies (Sort of)

Unlike the movies, what you won’t find are a lot of gadgets that act as deus ex machina as they do in so many of the films. The 1962 movie Dr. No features the fewest gadgets. The rest, even the most recent 3, still feature Q-branch toys that can help save the day. Except for a brief appearance of the “special briefcase” (which also appeared in the 1963 film From Russia With Love), a rudimentary tracker in Goldfinder, the trick geiger counter in Thunderball, plus the hidden knives in his shoes, Bond is largely gadget-free. No machine guns hidden behind headlights. No rocket packs, bombs in key fobs and such.

In fact, the Q character (Major Boothroyd) only appears briefly in one book, Dr. No, when Bond switches from the Beretta to the Walther PPK (along with a Smith and Wesson revolver). Otherwise, he isn’t there. Q Branch is mentioned at various times, but they don’t figure in nearly as prominently as Q and his department do in the movies.

You also won’t find the quips and one-liners like in the movies. The major antagonists aren’t nearly as “super-villian-y” as they are in the movies, and only one (Ernst Stavro Blofeld) appears in a 3-part story arc. We first encounter him, and SPECTRE, in Thunderball. He reappears in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, and meets his demise in You Only Live Twice. SPECTRE disappears with Blofeld (as SMERSH did after Goldfinger and the death of Auric Goldfinger).

What They Are Like

James Bond is a reasonably intelligent and imaginative agent, but also brutal, callous and somewhat cold. Not surprising, given the job he is expected to perform. He can be, at times, a bit of a jerk. While he likes the so-called “high life”, he doesn’t appear to be all that knowledgeable on things associated with it. We don’t get to hear his philosophical take on fine wines or certain types of food. He appears to eat an inordinate volume of scrambled eggs and bacon, not exactly food associated with “fine living”. He has no real signature drink. What he does do is drink a lot, and almost continuously. Between the booze and the unending cigarettes, it is astounding that he doesn’t succumb to a respiratory or coronary event, or to a failed liver.

Bond also takes a beating. It is rare for a novel not to end with him spending a substantial amount of time in a hospital, or on his way to one. Unlike the movies, he doesn’t seem to always end up with the girl at the end. Instead, he ends up in (or around) intensive care. The mass of scar tissue he has accumulated must be impressive, to say the least.

What Bond does get, though, is the girl during the story. And brace for disappointment: the by-play with Moneypenny is completely absent. Instead, he has a new female target (who often plays a central role in the story) with each book or short story. Every time he hints that each could be “the one”, he conveniently loses touch with all but one, and that one (his short-lived wife, Tracy) is assassinated by Blofeld. It’s not like they disappear as if they never existed. Instead, we get hints with a wistful “I wonder what happened to…” during internal monologues. Only his one secretary, Mary Goodnight, appears in multiple books as a kind of Bond girl. Otherwise, the supposedly “important” women turn out to be rather unimportant in Bond’s future activities.

A Reasonable Pace

The novels and short stories, generally speaking, move at a reasonable pace. There are moments where we get “treated” to long excerpts from the official files, and in You Only Live Twice, about 3 pages of details on deadly plants and their effects. You can usually skim those and still keep the thread of the story. It isn’t hard to read a novel in a single day at a moderate speed. You’ll have to learn to wade through an occasional sea of British slang from the 1950’s (it appears that “sunburn” actually means “suntan” in Fleming’s vernacular, although occasionally he does mean a real sunburn, and there are an awful lot of “racing changes” during driving sequences. Apparently everyone has a need to show they can shift without a clutch). He also will, from time to time, use French or German when in those regions, but again, you can generally get what he is trying to say from the context.

What you won’t get (like in the movies) are lot of characters with real depth and texture. Even Bond is barely more than a two-and-a-half dimensional character, despite all the internal monologue we get to hear. These aren’t deep explorations of the human condition. They are lightweight thrillers meant to escape the real world. They don’t shed any real light on what the Cold War was like, and they turn what was a somewhat scary part of human history into a bit of a cartoon.

The Villains

Where the books come up a bit short, in my mind, are with the main villains. They tend to be a bit pedestrian. The most powerful were Blofeld and Auric Goldfinger. Beyond those two, the rest are slightly more powerful officers of the KGB or some standalone criminal element. Their henchmen are generally even more expendable than they are in the movies. While Bond certainly takes a beating, the defeat of each person he comes up against appears even more pre-ordained than the movies, and the final “big battle” is often something of an anticlimax. They all go the same way: there is a fight, Bond gets the crap kicked out of him, and only about half the time does he finish off the bad guy himself.

Perhaps the biggest disappointment was Fransisco Scaramanga, at least when compared to his movie counterpart. Instead of getting a cold, urbane, cultured assassin, what we get is a short-tempered, ill-spoken lout who has uncanny aim. In the movie, he is a high-priced killer. In the books, here is a gun-for-hire who doesn’t always kill, and his fees are laughably small (even when adjusted for inflation). Movie Scaramanga is an artist. Book Scaramanga is the consummate mechanic. In the end, it isn’t a battle of wits and talent between two of the most skilled killers in the world. It is an unremarkable battle, similar to a short-lived, two-man drunken brawl, between two thugs.

But The Core Is There

I think that the movies were, for the most part, better and more exciting. In an over-the-top world of agents with a licence to kill, the movie villains are truly super-villains. Their primary henchman is a true test for Bond. Even with the continued reliance of Q and his warehouse of plot-saving deus ex machina devices, the movies tend to be a better story to follow. The low point in the movies, though, started with The Spy Who Loved Me and ended with A View To A Kill. The descent into near-camp of that era made some of those my least favourite movies (and some relied very little, if at all, on the books for story material). But even those tend to be somewhat more exciting than the books.

The movies that feel closest to the Fleming vibe of the novels started with Casino Royale in 2006, and continued with Quantum of Solace and Skyfall. Personally, I would like to see someone go back and mine a few of the original books to retell some of the stories, but substitute Quantum for SPECTRE and SMERSH. I wouldn’t necessarily use all of the books. But I think a multi-movie story arc exists that could make for a compelling story. Maybe I’ll give it a go myself, even though I know I can’t get them made on my own (if at all), given I don’t have the rights to the stories or the characters (let alone the necessary connections to get a movie made in the first place).

The books could have been so much more, without necessarily having to turn into massive literary works. Something more akin to the depth (at least in the plot) that we got from Tom Clancy would have made Bond and his adventures more compelling. Make the villains more powerful, and put a bigger story around the collection, and there could have been an even better story that was told. It would have also been nice to see Fleming grow as a writer. The style and pacing of his last collection of short stories (last published as Octopussy and The Living Daylights) reads nearly identically to Casino Royale. Unlike other writers, Fleming didn’t try to expand or explore his skills as a writer. It isn’t that his writing style is bad. It isn’t. But it can be a bit obtuse at time, and the phrasing he uses sometimes requires a sentence be re-read to understand what he wanted to say.

I would recommend anyone who has more than a passing interest in the Bond universe read the Ian Fleming novels. They bring out a dimension in the Bond character we don’t see in most of the movies. They give some insight into what Bond, the character, could have been, even if he is actually a deeper and more introspective character in the later films than in the books. Bond never gains any extra dimensions in the books. But the novels add a different flavour to the character and the universe he acts in.

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