Forget the book, just see the movie
It’s a curious fact that today’s movie franchises are largely based on American comic books and English popular fiction.1 The Harry Potter series, of course, was a gigantic success right out of the starting box. The Middle Earth series, in contrast, took decades to find an audience. The Hobbit was published in 1935. The Lord of the Rings trilogy was complete in the mid-fifties, but didn’t take off until the sixties.2
Regardless of your opinion of the quality of the two series of books,3 there’s no doubt that they commanded a huge audience, an audience that demanded and commanded that they be made into film. The James Bond series, however, took a far different course. And if Ian Fleming (right,with Sean Connery) hadn’t been driving down a certain street in Georgetown on a certain day with a certain woman, it’s quite possible that the legendary franchise never would have existed.
Fleming started the Bond series with Casino Royale in 1953, in part to calm his fears about marriage. Fleming, like Bond, liked pussy a lot more than he liked responsibility, and now in his mid-forties he was giving up freedom — giving up everything! What better time to start writing about a younger, smoother dude who had it all, who didn’t have to give up a damn thing to get any woman he wanted?
Fleming’s thrillers were a huge hit in England, but scarcely caused a ripple in the U.S., which was hardly a surprise. Redolent of the Old Etonian, old school tie, public school ethos of ruling class England, about which most Americans knew precisely nothing,4 the books helped reassure the English that even though the world had largely been taken over by gum-chewing, crew-cut oafs with plaid sport jackets and appalling accents, a chap who knew how to fill out a dinner jacket and order a decent port could still get laid.
Quite by accident, I stumbled across a second-hand paperback edition of Dr. No when I was thirteen. What struck me was that whoever wrote the book (this Fleming guy had to be an adult of some sort, after all), had the mind of a thirteen-year-old. Any book that featured giant squids5 and naked chicks was hitting me right where I lived!
I wasn’t the only one who felt that Fleming wrote like a thirteen-year-old, and by the late fifties he appeared to be tiring of all the cracks he was collecting from the highbrows. Fleming hung out with a pretty hip crowd, which included Graham Greene, whose tales of Catholic guilt, soaked in adultery, alcohol, and ennui, were considered far more than mere “entertainment.”
In For Your Eyes Only, a collection of short stories, Fleming tried his hand at the ennui, angst, and acedia6 thing, portraying Bond as the self-congratulatory man of the world who learns too late that he has only observed life instead of living it. He followed this with The Spy Who Loved Me, having a suspiciously good time pretending to be a “common” Canadian girl — the kind who worries about the size of her chest and her “sit-upon” — who gets the fuck of her young life at the hands of the cruelly handsome, cruelly passionate 007.
In early 1960 Fleming happened to be in Washington, DC, visiting friends, including “Oatsie Leiter,”7 a well-heeled and well-connected southern girl who was pals with the Kennedys and had given JFK a copy of Casino Royale when Jack was undergoing one of his many stays in the hospital. Oatsie was taking Ian for a drive when she saw Jack and Jackie walking near their house on N Street in Georgetown. She presented Ian, who was then invited to dinner.
That night, Ian was a hit. When the conversation turned to Fidel Castro, then at the start of his long run as all-around thug and hemispheric pain in the ass, Ian suggested that he could be disposed of via psychological warfare. Have the CIA drop leaflets over Cuba saying that they had sprayed the island with a radioactive substance that, accumulating in a man’s beard, would render him impotent. Fidel, being a Latin, naturally favored his dick above all things, even his beard, which he would shave off. A slick-faced Fidel, shorn of all his charisma, would inspire laughter instead of fear and fascination, and the revolution would collapse of its own weight.
Once Kennedy was elected, Henry Luce’s Time-Life organization was determined to prove to America’s new leading man that it could suck up to the President even more aggressively than Ben Bradlee’s Newsweek crowd.8 Hugh Sidey, king of the presidential suck-up, wrote an article about Kennedy’s reading habits.9 Placed at number nine, a few steps below Stendahl’s Rouge et Noir, was From Russia with Love.First impressions do count!
After the Bond books took off in the U.S., Fleming was finally able to sell the film rights, to Albert Broccoli and Harry Saltzman. The first Bond flick,Dr. No, directed by Terence Young and starring Sean Connery as Bond, proved to be one of the loudest of the opening guns of the sixties. Before Bond, movie heroes “chased” girls. Bond fucked them.10 ) Because Bond was English, sophisticated, and “witty,”11 he was allowed the kind of sex life that American private eyes and spies only enjoyed in books.12 The film was a massive hit, making Connery an international star. The follow-up, From Russia with Love, was even better, and the third, Goldfinger, was, of course, one of the most hyped films in history.13
Poor Fleming missed most of the fun. He was already seriously ill when Dr. No came out, and managed only one more “real” Bond thriller, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service,before fading from the scene. And his books have faded as well. Out of print for years, they’ve almost disappeared from both second-hand stores and libraries. The new reissues are only showing up in the biggest chains.
But what of that? The remake of Casino Royale, while not quite as cool as dancing penguins, seems to be headed for a record gross for a Bond film. Director Martin Campbell has taken the slam-bam action of films like The Bourne Supremacy and Mission Impossible III and melded it with the cell phone intrigue that played such a big role in The Departed. Daniel Craig makes a serviceable Bond, supposedly “more human.”14 Writers Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, and Paul Haggis have come up with clever dialogue that allows Eva Green (as “Vesper Lynd”) to be just as cool as James. Like all thrillers these days, there are about ten double-crosses in the last ten minutes, so many that I stopped counting, but nothing’s perfect.
So why not do the whole series over again? Casino Royale is getting a lot of praise for being more gritty, less glitzy, like the book.15 So remake them all according to the book! And when they do Dr. No, pay particular attention to this episode, when Jim is whipped into shape by his Jamaican island buddy, Quarrel: “Up at seven, swim a quarter of a mile, breakfast, an hour’s sunbathing, run a mile, swim again, lunch, sleep, sunbathe, swim a mile, hot bath and massage, dinner and asleep by nine.”
It does sound cozy, doesn’t it? All that sunbathing and massaging? Maybe a little too cozy. A black man and white man together in a “bungalow,” just the two of them? Where are we, anyway? Brokeback Beach?16 Where is Leslie Fiedler when we need him?17
Out of respect for the refined sensibilities of BL readers, I will not offer rankings of my favorite Bond film/villain/girl/gadget/car/line.
- Kudos to George Lucas for creating a franchise all on his own, even though I must confess that my devotion to the Star Wars series started to fade midway through The Empire Strikes Back. [↩]
- A friend of mine in Vietnam read the Ring in real sixties style: cranked up on speed, he blew through all three volumes in 48 hours. [↩]
- I dislike both, naturally. [↩]
- As proof of this statement, Microsoft Word (American version) doesn’t even know that “Etonian” is a word. Eton, “the most expensive and snobbish school in England” as old Etonian George Orwell put it, is probably the most snobbish school in the whole world, if not the most expensive. [↩]
- The squid didn’t make it into the film version of Dr. No. As the first of the Bond films (in 1963), the budget just didn’t allow for a big-screen architeuthis. [↩]
- Yeah, I had to look it up too. It means “moral sloth or lethargy” — kind of a Catholic thing. Any kind of guilt, and they’re on it. [↩]
- If you are a writer, put this in your notebook: “Meet more women named ‘Oatsie.'” [↩]
- I know young people will find it impossible to believe, but there was a time when Time and Life (then a weekly) were considered the most important media outlets in the U.S. Publisher Henry Luce, probably unknown to anyone under fifty, was the Rupert Murdoch/Rush Limbaugh/Bill O’Reilly of the day, hated by all right-thinking liberals, who were convinced that he was the cause of 75 percent of their problems. [↩]
- Among other things, Sidey claimed that Kennedy read at 2,000 words a minute, a lie concocted for him by the White House. [↩]
- Dr. No was deliberately “cold.” Bond shoots an unarmed man (“that’s a Smith & Wesson. You’ve had your six”) and more or less rapes a Chinese chick. (She did have him set up to be murdered, but still. [↩]
- The Bond books, as many people have pointed out, were not witty. But Americans didn’t know that. [↩]
- The Bond craze, coupled with the election of our youngest, most dashing President, initiated “from the top down” sexual liberation, with a heavy emphasis on sports cars, Italian suits, and champagne. This would quickly be overwhelmed by the “bottom up” youth culture sexual revolution, obsessed with music and drugs. [↩]
- The success of Goldfinger made spy shtick omnipresent in U.S. popular culture. Everyone from Doris Day (The Glass-Bottomed Boat) to the Beatles (Help) copied the Bond flicks. Even today, Michael Myers’ Austin Powers riff on the Bond franchise was enough to turn a former SNL “star” into a near-billionaire. [↩]
- This is the studio’s line. I don’t know why the critics are buying it, unless they’re hoping for a set of autographed cufflinks. [↩]
- Casino Royale was the first Bond book, and Fleming, who was in fact no stranger to angst and boredom in his own life, made Bond no stranger to despair. In fact, most of the Bond books start with Jim feeling both used and useless, when an unexpected change in his schedule gives him a “free” day. A day where anything can happen! And usually does. [↩]
- In the opening chapters of Fleming’s last Bond, The Man with the Golden Gun, there are strong suggestions that the professional assassin Scaramanga, who is more or less set up as the anti-Bond, is gay. But the conclusion of the book makes nothing of this. It wouldn’t surprise me if someone other than Fleming finished the book, but I doubt that Ian intended to have Jim and Scaramanga end up in bed together. [↩]
- In “Come back to the raft, Huck, honey,” cited by Pauline Kael in her brilliantly snarky review of Billy Wilder’s The Fortune Cookie, Fiedler explored classic American odd couples such as Ishmael and Queeg-Queeg and Huck and Jim. [↩]