Celebrating 70 Years of James Bond
“THE SCENT and smoke and sweat of a casino are nauseating at three in the morning. Then the soul-erosion produced by high gambling – a compost of greed and fear and nervous tension – becomes unbearable and the senses awake and revolt from it.”
These words by Ian Fleming in his first novel Casino Royale introduced readers to secret agent James Bond, 007. The book was published slightly over 70 years ago, yet time hasn't faded Bond's significance.
So how did the journey begin?
Former British Naval officer and confirmed bachelor, 43-year-old Ian Fleming found himself in a situation where he would be compelled to enter into matrimony. To distract himself from what he termed as the agony (of a lifelong commitment) Fleming immersed himself into his dark and dangerous world of espionage, where unlike in the real world, Fleming was in complete control.
The book changed Fleming’s life and redefined the spy thriller genre.
Those introduced to Bond via the films of Sir Roger Moore or Sir Sean Connery or Pierce Brosnan will be astonished by the serious and at times grave tone of the book.
The literary Bond is far from the stoic and witty hero who effortlessly overcomes insurmountable challenges. Fleming said that he didn’t “regard James Bond as a hero, but at least he does get on and do his duty, in an extremely corny way.”
Fleming’s Bond is an everyman, who is often morose, acerbic, sullen, and reckless. When Bond is almost killed by an exploding bomb in his hotel room, he does not rise from the rubble and deliver witty one-liners, instead, he almost faints and vomits.
When he suffers one of the many setbacks in the novel, he confesses feeling “beaten and cleaned out”.
After Bond is kidnapped and tortured, he suffers not only from physical injuries but also psychological trauma that causes him to question everything he stands for.
Bond wonders if the West really has moral superiority over the East in their war of ideologies.
“Maybe patriotism is weird. Maybe being a macho killer who works for the government is wrong.
“When one’s young, it seems very easy to distinguish between right and wrong, but as one gets older it becomes more difficult.”
The Bond is almost a paradox -- he is irresponsible and immoral in his drinking, smoking, and gambling, yet is an unflinching patriot who won’t hesitate to sacrifice himself for the cause.
The character arc of Bond is Nietzschean. He begins as a hard man thinking that “women were for recreation. On a job, they got in the way and fogged things up with sex and hurt feelings and all the emotional baggage they carried around.”
In time he falls in love with the heroine of the piece, the bewitching Vesper Lynd, and evolves into a kinder and gentler human being.
But when the love of his life, betrays him, he becomes much harder than before.
Fleming purposefully leaves it to the reader to decide if Bond really fell in love with the novel’s Vesper or if it was Bond using her as a crutch on his road to recovery from the brutality and the humiliation of the torture.
Part of the aim behind Bond’s sexual interest in Vesper was to “put the repairs to his body to the final test,” since the prolonged torture involved Bond repeatedly being struck in his genital area.
A lot has been made about the sexism in the novel. In fact, the ‘offensive’ bits have been expunged or replaced in the 70th-anniversary editions of the books. It is important to state the novel itself isn’t sexist and neither does it promise sexism. The sexism emanates from the central character’s perspective and is presented as an unlikeable and undesirable attitude. This makes censoring the text counterproductive.
The final few chapters are almost like a depiction of a collapsing marriage, perhaps driven by Fleming’s fears about his own situation.
Fresh from their mission, Bond and Vesper holiday at a seaside resort. But both are disturbed, paranoid, and unstable owing to ordeal he underwent and the nature of their job. Despite that, Bond is willing to quit his job and even marry Vesper. The secrets and suspicions take a toll on their relationship; they become distant and uncommunicative and the ending is heartbreaking.
Fleming was a master storyteller who was adept at both the epic and the intimate. Fleming’s vivid descriptions of the world and the people surrounding Bond were cinematic and immersive. Yet he made a point to be precise and succinct, perhaps a result of his career as a reporter. There is depth in the novel for those looking. Fleming, via Bond, is philosophic and, introspective about his life and the ideological war between the left and the right.
Fleming was purposefully vague about Bond’s physical appearance. This is a ploy often used by authors so that readers envision the character in their mind which makes the hero more relatable.
The only clues were when Vesper remarks that Bond “is very good-looking. He reminds me rather of Hoagy Carmichael, but there is something cold and ruthless in his .…” The sentence remains incomplete. Fleming also mentions Bond’s dark hair and grey eyes, but nothing more.
“James Bond” is now one of the most recognizable fictitious characters in the world that symbolize heroic panache, but Fleming never had such ambitions when he chose the name. Fleming named his protagonist after a well-known ornithologist because he felt it was the dullest name he ever heard and fitting for an ordinary man who finds himself in extraordinary circumstances.
Casino Royale was a huge success, leading Fleming to write eleven more novels and two collections of short stories featuring Bond.
Despite its success, Fleming didn’t think his works had any social or literary significance, except a deleterious one. He knew that elite critics slammed them for having too much violence and too much sex, but Fleming added that “all history has that.”
If one looks at the cinematic portrayals, Timothy Dalton’s interpretation comes the closest to Fleming’s Bond.
In 1961, President Kennedy named the Bond novel From Russia with Love as one of his top ten favorite books, this elevated both Bond's and Flemings's stature.
Bond scaled new heights of fame when the film series was launched in 1962.
The evolution of Bond from the pages to film was necessary to make him appealing to a mass audience. Bond’s moral conflict and moodiness were replaced by certitude and humor. As the series became a phenomenon, Bond became a superhero, a global sensation, and a household name.
Sadly, Fleming never lived to witness the phenomenal success of his creation.
But the words always guide the series.
Whenever the films looked like they were losing their way, the filmmakers returned to Fleming.
The faithful and clever adaption of Casino Royale in 2006 starring Daniel Craig gave the series a new lease on life.
Bond is likely to be a global phenomenon as long as mankind lasts.
The first actor to ever play Bond wasn’t Sean Connery, it was American actor Barry Nelson in an hour-long live-televised play on CBS based on Casino Royale. The splendid Peter Lorre player Le Chiffre while Linda Christian was Vesper. This was an Americanized version of Bond.
Graphic credit: YouTube screengrab