James Bond, as seen in the new film, Casino Royale, is closest in spirit to Ian Fleming’s original creation. Or so the publicity for the movie has been telling us. This is a radical departure because over the past two decades, the movies have tried to distance themselves from the books in terms of content and interpretation.
Who reads the books today? A lot of people, it turns out. Abroad, they still sell in the thousands. Even in India, where the books have lost much of the old resonance, they still do an average of 500 copies a year: a fair number for an old backlist.
The books were not an instant success. But neither was Harry Potter or, at the other end of the spectrum, Waiting for Godot. But in 1963, exactly ten years after the publication of Casino Royale — and way before the movies became as big as they are now — the Booksellers’ Trade News recorded the fact that only seven British paperbacks had ever touched the magic million figure and two of them were James Bond books — Dr No and From Russia, With Love. The books constituted a publishing phenomenon.
Were the books really any good? They have been called dated, badly written, xenophobic, chauvinistic and replete with sex, sadism and snobbery. Dated, yes, but they were written for the time and they did create a break from the club hero genre — Sapper, Dornford Yates and their ilk which today have just nostalgia to recommend them — that was the formula until Fleming came along. But so what? They are enjoyable. Classics, like diamonds, are forever. And the Bond books are classics of commercial fiction, a genre that has never really got its due.
They were not trying to be literary, so why judge them by that yardstick? But guess what! They are now on the Delhi University literature syllabus. It is a nice irony that the blurb for John Le Carre’s masterpiece, The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, was written by Fleming.
|Covers of some of the most popular James Bond novels|
Not all of Fleming’s writing was formulaic. For all doubters I would recommend Quantum of Solace — from For Your Eyes Only — with its Maughamesque flavour, which I would stick my neck out to rate as one of the best short stories ever, or the following lines from From Russia, With Love: “The trains on the other lines were engineless and unattended — waiting for tomorrow. Only Track no. 3, and its platform, throbbed with the tragic poetry of departure”. Not quite James Joyce but definitely not Nick Carter either.
When seen in counterpoint to some long sections, like the amazing story of John Players cigarettes told over five pages in Thunderball, we see the narrative variety that marks a good genre writer. But it is as a thriller writer with snappy dialogue that Fleming excels:
“This case isn’t ripe yet. Until it is, our policy with Mr Big is to live and let live.
Bond looked quizzically at Captain Dexter.
“In my job,” he said, “when I come up against a man like this one, I have another motto. It’s live and let die.”
Xenophobia, I think, is too strong though there is no doubt that it reflected the anti-Russian cold war feeling as did almost all the western thrillers of the time — much like the Osama characters of today. But to me they are certainly less jingoistic than the flag-waving books by Clive Cussler. The sex-sadism-snobbery argument will rage on, and there is certainly a point here, but as Tom Lehrer so neatly put it, “Filth, I am glad to say is in the eye of the beholder.” Besides, there is such a thing as too much political correctness.
The books were escapist fantasy but they offered a sort of cynical realism and a level of detailing that had not been seen before. Fleming could arguably be called the father of product placement; such was his passion for detail. Everything was signature or branded: black oxidised Ronson lighter, Rolex oyster perpetual chronometer, Jack Daniels bourbon, Mouton Rothschild ’53, Tattinger ’45, Blanc de Blancs Brut ’43, Waterford drinking glasses. The specificity painted a clear picture.
The geography was lived; you would need to visit the place before you can get a better feel for Jamaica. The descriptions were marvellous: be it a card game at Blades, the golfing duel with Goldfinger, flora or fauna — particularly his vivid underwater world — were all meticulous without being tedious.
One must not forget that the movies derive a lot from the books. What would the movies be without Universal Exports, the double-O prefix, M, Q, Moneypenny… the list could go on. These are all given us by an extremely creative imagination. To these the movies added their own trademark elements like the Monty Norman theme, spectacular title and opening sequences, the theme song, the Bond girl concept, the droll one-liners and new characters like Jaws. The movies have a world of their own, but somewhere underneath is the oft-forgotten fact that the creator of this world was a naval intelligence officer called Ian Fleming who laid down the blueprint in his novels. Remembering the adage ‘never judge a book by its movie’, one could do worse than read them. So go see the movie, and read the books. You will live twice.
Thomas Abraham is the CEO and President, Penguin Books India