Sunday, January 17, 2010

007


Last Christmas I was given the beautiful Quantum of Solace hardback edition, which was the first James Bond that I had actually read. Being British, I have of course seen nearly all the films, which are mostly a blast except for the disastrously-misjudged later Brosnan films.

Having enjoyed the short stories contained within the QoS compilation (actually the anthology books For Your Eyes Only and Octopussy and The Living Daylights in a single volume) I decided to set myself the aim of reading all the Fleming Bond novels during 2009. Over Christmas I finished The Man with the Golden Gun, completing the task.

So what did I think? In a word, excellentandfun. I suppose the films have a reputation for being enjoyable, whilst being formulaic and focused on the gadgets and girls. Today, a lot of the films seem very much a product of their times (for example, Moonraker) and have not aged very well. In contrast, the books seem almost timeless (save for the language used, which I will talk about later) and, for the most part, are focused on tightly-plotted stories and building suspense. The gadgets are sidelined and gimmicks are few and far between; one thing the books and films have in common is the love for the ladies, but you can hardly blame Fleming for that...

Being a child of the 80s I always had a great affection for the Roger Moore era of Bond films: these were wisecracking, leery, gadget-filled romps to space, underwater, and exotic locations. Having read Fleming's version of Bond, I can now see that these films almost completely missed the point; Connery and Craig seem much closer to how things should have been. Another surprise in reading the books was how much good stuff was discarded when making the films: as I mentioned, the quest to be "current" led to the dropping of excellent stories for frequently cringe-inducing gimmicks. Going back to Moonraker there is no relation to the book other than the name of the Villan: what was a really nice spy procedural (with an explosive burst of action at the end) became a campy romp including Jaws (plus romantic interest) and a laser fight in space. Star Wars had just come out, and they were clearly keen to tap into the science fiction market; this is symptomatic of the mistreatment of the books in the service of the "new". This is why the Craig-era films have started out so promisingly. Casino Royale maintained the core (and most of the plot) of the novel with the changes only being those necessary to put it in a modern setting. Quantum of Solace, whilst an original story, again focused on a simple and tight plot and had three-dimensional characters.

That is not to say that the books are masterpieces, and are consistently great, which they are not. Fleming clearly lost interest when writing the last 2 or 3 and dropped into formula. Was he influenced by the films that came out during his lifetime? The first 10 or so novels are hugely enjoyable though, and certainly not a homogenous unit. They are (as expected) for the most part spy thrillers but what sets them apart is Fleming's taut plotting, attention to detail, and overall tension and drive. These were Cold War books, and reflect upon this with the running thread of villanry coming from behind the Iron Curtain in the guise of organisations like the KGB and SMERSH. Whilst the films obsess over the gadgets, Fleming mostly ignores them and instead has a fetish for the details that Bond finds important. What he did was early "branding": specifying brands and types of weapons, clothes, food, cigarettes, drink etc. adds to Bond's character by showing you what kind of a man he is. We know what particular marmalade, jam, and honey he likes, and where he buys them from. In the short story 007 in New York, we even get a recipe for "Scrambled Eggs James Bond". I loved all the little details that Fleming sprinkled throughout the books, which show Bond up as a stubborn, occasionally snobbish, and certainly complex man much more successfully than a car that shoots missiles from its headlights does.

Fleming was certainly not afraid to mix things up. The Spy Who Loved Me turns things on their head by being from the viewpoint of the Bond girl, and is told in first person. Bond does not even show up until after halfway through, which was a genius move to build up expectation and tension. Moonraker spends a bunch of time building up the villan (Drax) through a detailed description of a bridge game designed to expose him as a cheat. Quantum of Solace is a character piece in which Bond is simply the audience to an anecdote, and The Hildebrand Rarity describes a murderous fishing trip with the identity of the killer never resolved.

One criticism which the books (genrally unfairly) receive relates to the language and attitudes contained within. Misogynist, racist, homophobic, and xenophobic are all used to describe Bond. The problem that I have with these arguments is that we are looking back to the 60s through current-day glasses: Fleming was using the language of the time which did include the use of "Negro" and "Negress"; at that point a strong female character was a rare thing; and it was in the Cold War: the general view in the West was that the Reds were evil. Bond reacts against some instances of sexism, racism and homophobia in the books, which is not to say that he was perfect: his dismissive and exploitative attitude towards women helps make him the complex character that he is. The attitudes of the time lead to some unintentional (or were they?) laughs, with The Man with the Golden Gun suggesting that homosexuals can't whistle and dares the reader to try. I don't think Fleming has any great love for Asians, though, and is particularly down on Koreans in Goldfinger.

So, finally, which were my favourites? Overall I enjoyed Live and Let Die the most, with great settings, a genuinely unsettling Voodoo plot (not the watered-down version of the film) and nasty plot twists including Felix getting limbs eaten off him by sharks. Other standouts included Casino Royale, Moonraker, and Goldfinger. The strand running through these is that they bore little (save for Casino Royale) resemblance to the films of those names. I really enjoyed the project, found the books to virtually all be gripping reads, and loved the world that Ian Fleming created. They also made a lot of plane and airport time go by a lot quicker.

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