There are two James Bonds out there in the imagination of the world. One of them is the nasty fellow to be found in the books. The other is the cool dude to be found in the films, the one who has fired the imagination of the men of the world with his suavity, his Britishness (“Learn to speak English like James Bond (007)” read a poster which lined the streets of Mumbai for a while), his ability to get the girl and his way with a gun.
This year, Penguin India re-released all the James Bond novels with new introductions and deliciously retro covers (there was one in which a nipple was concealed by the cunning placement of the head of a motorcycle courier). No doubt, many men of a certain age actually went out and bought fresh copies of Casino Royale (2006), the second film version of which had just come out, featuring the scene in which Daniel Craig—the seventh in the line of cinematic James Bonds—emerges like a male Aphrodite from the foam in form-fitting trunks. The last time such a female hoo-ha was made about a wet man was when Colin Firth walked out of the water as Mr Darcy in Pride and Prejudice (1995).
If that sounds like it was designed to appeal to a female audience, it should not come as too much of a surprise. There is much in Fleming’s writing which approximates to that of the writer of 188-page romance novels.
Never say die: The next Bond film, starring Daniel Craig and 21-year-old Gemma Arterton, is nearing completion under the working title Bond 22.
Take Casino Royale (1953). The man who has been licensed to kill has been sent to defeat Le Chiffre (or the Number) at gambling. He does this by page 150 or so, and spends the rest of the book agonizing about his love for Vesper Lynd, the first in a series of women with odd names—Ursula Andress in Dr No (1962) as Honey Ryder; Honor Blackman in Goldfinger (1964) as Pussy Galore; Jane Seymour in Live and Let Die (1973) as Solitaire. Vesper breaks his heart (“Their love and his grief were relegated to the boxroom of his mind. Later, perhaps they would be dragged out, dispassionately examined and then bitterly thrust back with other sentimental baggage he would rather forget.”) and sets him up to be a serial monogamist.
As you can see from the lines he tries on his women (see box), there is a terribly dated quality to Ian Fleming’s prose. At times he reads like someone who would be at home turning out romance novels. Bond’s expression can be:
u All of the above
No, there are no other options, not in any of the 13 books.
Doesn’t sound like a nice man to know? From the literary evidence, Bond was, to begin with, a racist bastard. Among his beliefs, all offered as pearls of wisdom: “Few Asiatics are courageous gamblers” (From Russia With Love, 1963); “The highland Turks are all right but the Turks of the plains are no good” (From Russia With Love, 1963); “The Chinese Negroes of the West Indies have all the intelligence of the Chinese and all the vices of the black man” (Dr No, 1962); and the worst of all: “Koreans are rather lower than apes in the mammalian hierarchy” (Goldfinger, 1964).
However, it is at least a fully developed character that emerges from the books. He has a rather juvenile sense of humour (see box). He is brand-conscious, as crime novelist Ben Schott points out in his introduction to the re-issued Goldfinger: “Bond smokes Chesterfields, drinks Mouton Rothschild 1947, shoots both a Walther PPK and a Leica and, of course, drives an Aston Martin Mark III.” He is a smoker who enjoys his sixty-a-day habit, it makes him feel good to be alive. He likes people who smoke and is suspicious of people who don’t. His alcohol habit keeps pace: half a bottle of hard spirits a day.
In the films, Bond is a peg, a straw man. He has no personality at all, which is why a series of actors (Sean Connery, George Lazenby, Peter Sellers, Roger Moore, Timothy Dalton, Pierce Brosnan) have played him without anyone bothering about these frequent changes. Each change does not occasion any outrage; it merely sets the stage for a discussion on whether the new Bond will measure up to Sean Connery, who is held to be the uber-Bond.
For Bond is an opportunity for the camera to travel, for it to record the endless legs of another Bond woman, some pretty model, some actress who can wear a bikini and a ball gown with pizzazz, and who will kiss him goodbye in the end with the right degree of tearful renunciation of one of the world’s great lovers.
How great? In Live and Let Die, Solitaire kisses him. “I hoped I would one day kiss a man like that,” she says. “And when I first saw you, I knew it would be you.” In Goldfinger, Bond meets the aforementioned Pussy Galore, who is said to be a lesbian. He duly does her and then says, “They told me you only like women.” To which she replies, “I never met a man before.” That great.
But modest with it. When Tatiana Romanova says that he is very handsome, “Like an American film star,” she is startled by his reaction. “For god’s sake! That’s the worst insult you can pay a man!”
The James Bond films are a powerful franchise. They have huge budgets, great action sequences, a beautiful woman and a cynical disregard for plot. The owners know that the figure who walks through them is a fantasy of fast cars, loose women, dangerous living and derring-do, an idealized self-image that haunts men’s dreams.
The films disregard the books. Of course, if you have managed to spin 20 films out of 13 books, you have to stop bothering too much about the originals. Octopussy (1983), for instance, started life as a weak short story in which a rum-soaked old spy commits suicide by throwing himself into the arms of an octopus on a deep-sea dive. The Bond take on that? A Fabergé egg is found on a dead British spy. This leads Bond to discover a plot to kill thousands of people and weaken Nato’s defences. Oo-er.
But while Anthony Burgess lamented the fact that there weren’t going to be any more James Bond books, the literary franchise has not been as powerful as the cinematic one. While Young Bond limps along, in the same half-hearted manner as the Young Sherlock Holmes, John Gardiner’s attempt to extend the James Bond life with 14 books that included For Special Services and Role of Honour, ended in failure. Eventually, poor Gardner was forced to leave his home and sell his books, to such penury did he descend. Raymond Benson produced another three but have you ever heard of Doubleshot? Or The Man with the Red Tattoo? This is one instance in which the films have wiped the slate clean. No one bothers with James Bond on the page, no, no one even sees much of the cartoon strip. But on the screen?
There are many more films where that one came from and a lot more actors who will keep Judi Dench’s M in tight-lipped rage.
PS: Peter Sellers played James Bond in the first Casino Royale , an early spoof of the franchise. He’s an elderly Sir James Bond, knighted for his services to the crown, and he takes on SMERSH.
(The centenary birth anniversary celebrations of Fleming kick off in London on 28 April. For details, go to Ianflemingcentenary.com .)
(Jerry Pinto is the author of Helen: The Life and Times of an H-Bomb.)
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