Monday, July 11, 2005

Readings


“Good old Gleaner.” - Ian Fleming, The Man with the Golden Gun

In high school I had a friend named Blake who was a fan of Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels. Fleming also wrote the children’s book Chitty-Chitty-Bang-Bang, so there was more to him than just a preoccupation with espionage and the most famous member of the British Secret Service. But James Bond is without a doubt his legacy, and what Fleming will always be remembered for.

Blake loved the Bond movies, too, and he and I had actually watched a couple of James Bond flicks together at his house on videocassette. Blake was a Connery man, and he pointed out to me how different the Bond movies were from the Bond books.

Having recently read five of the Bond novels, and having seen DOCTOR NO on Spike TV seventeen times in the last thirty days, I realize how right Blake had been. The movie Bond and the book Bond were often very different characters.

I first read Fleming -- and Bond -- when I was in high school, and until this year I had not read him since. I had read a couple of James Bond short stories in 1985, which were published in For Your Eyes Only, a collection of five short adventures bearing no resemblance to the movie of the same name.

Anyway, it had been a while since I had read any Bond, and after Blake’s name came up in a conversation with another old friend a month or so ago, I decided to pick a James Bond novel as my next read. I chose Doctor No, a 1958 first edition which had been sitting on my bookshelf unread for a couple of years.

(I will interrupt myself at this point to note that, as I write this, McCartney’s “Live and Let Die” is being played on the radio. Ironic, no?)

I also find it ironic that my friend Tim and I managed to read Doctor No at the same time: me, in Seattle and while on vacation in South Carolina, and he while on vacation in Jamaica, which is where Doctor No is set.

As a gift, Tim brought back to me a copy of The Gleaner, "the Caribbean’s great newspaper" (Fleming's words), which has some relevance to the plot of Doctor No. The Gleaner is also the catalyst in The Man with the Golden Gun which leads Bond to his prey, Scaramanga, at 9½ Love Lane early in that novel.

In fact, Jamaica and The Daily Gleaner figure prominately in Bond lore. When Fleming first introduces James Bond in 1953’s Casino Royale, Bond is working undercover in a French casino, but we learn that he has been previously stationed in Jamaica, and that he is currently being run by a “control” who works the picture desk of The Gleaner in Kingston, Jamaica.

I am very pleased to have my own copy of The Gleaner.

Several James Bond adventures have been set in the Caribbean: Live and Let Die (1954), Doctor No, Thunderball (1961), The Man with the Golden Gun (1965), and the short stories “For Your Eyes Only,” “Quantum of Solace” and “Octopussy.”

Having recently experienced Doctor No both on the page and on television, I am torn between which I like more: the book or the movie. Normally the book wins out in these comparisons, but the movie has Connery, so the comparison is more difficult.

A Roger Moore man once pointed out to me that Connery was not an ideal movie Bond because Connery is Scottish and Bond was English. But in fact Bond was Scottish, and at the conclusion of The Man with the Golden Gun (Fleming's final Bond novel), 007 refuses knighthood by Queen Elizabeth on those grounds. “I am at home being a Scottish peasant,” he cables M. from his hospital bed in Jamaica, declining the honor, “and I will always feel at home being a Scottish peasant.”

So there you have it, Moore fans. Put that in your gun and shoot it.

I, like many Bond traditionalists, have always preferred Connery’s Bond to Moore’s. At least, I have thought so these many years. Roger Ebert agrees that Connery's Bond was best, and that man knows his movies. Yes, I would describe myself as a Connery man. But the irony is (more irony, folks!) that I involuntarily picture and hear Roger Moore in my head when I read James Bond books, try as I might to see and hear Connery in my imagination. Roger Moore has been in my head now five books running, and I don’t think he’s going anywhere.

You figure it out.

The Bond of the books exudes a calculated coldness that Connery captured well, but Bond’s cool-cat exterior masks inner-conflict fueled by indecision, missed opportunities and an aversion to killing in cold blood. The Bond of the books is often vulnerable and makes many mistakes. He’s much more human on the page than he is on celluloid.

Taking Bond’s humanity and vulnerability into account, perhaps Timothy Dalton was closer on film to the Bond of the books than any of the others.

And let’s not forget George Lazenby, who did one turn as Bond in the film ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE. People are surprised to find out that it’s actually one of my favorite Bond films. People are often more surprised to discover that many critics consider it to be the finest Bond film ever made. It is, however, little seen, mainly due to the fact that nobody knows who George Lazenby was and no one particularly cares. But the film was solid and very entertaining. I find it interesting that the character of Bond actually married (anybody remember that?), and his bride was murdered on their honeymoon by agents of Bond’s arch-nemesis Blofeld. ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE contains that tragic scene.

Little-seen, too, is a tepid Bond spoof from the 1960’s called CASINO ROYALE, which was the title of Fleming’s first Bond book. In it (the film, not the book) actor David Niven (who is incidentally mentioned by name in Fleming’s You Only Live Twice) plays an aging, retiring James Bond, and Peter Sellers is selected to succeed him as agent 007. The film, despite a stellar cast that includes Orson Welles, Woody Allen and Ursula Andress (who, coincidentally, played Honey Rider, Bond’s love interest in DOCTOR NO), is a mess.

And if it’s true that the Bond movies are different from the Bond books, then it is also true that there are Bond books that are different from the Bond books.

Earlier this year I read The Spy Who Loved Me, which again bears no resemblance to the film of the same name. The imaginative story, told from the perspective of a woman, follows young Vivienne in her quest for independence. She ends up working at a resort in the Adirondacks. As soon as the resort closes for the season, it is set upon by a group of mobsters and Vivienne finds herself in dire straights. In the last part of the book, a man shows up looking for a room for the night (it’s Bond, of course) and he ends up rescuing her from the gang of thugs.

That’s it. The whole book, part and parcel. No SPECTRE, no Blofeld, no Russians or cold war. No plans for world domination, no twisting, turning plot. Just the story about a woman who finds herself in a world of trouble in the Adirondacks and happens to be rescued in the end by a passerby who happens to be Agent 007 of the British Secret Service. He’s barely in the book!
Spy was the first of the five Bond books I have read so far this year.

Which brings me to a question that has occupied my mind since I finished the final chapter of Casino Royale a few hours ago: what next? More Bond?

I wonder what Blake would recommend?

1 comment:

Mothy said...

A single viewing of the movie "Boat Trip" will rid your mind of any Roger Moore/James Bond correlation.