I’ve gaped at car chases, grinned from ear to ear over sly one-liners and left theaters flushed with the gory glory of Daniel Craig’s stone-faced massacres. No arguments here: theatrical James Bond is the perfect feel-good character for a whole sect of males. Cars, women, subterfuge and wit — that’s not a hard pill to swallow.
I never gave much thought to the root of it all: Ian Fleming’s books (sorry, Guv’na). When I first devised to read Casino Royale, Fleming’s first Bond book of twelve, I imagined opened pages with scrolling images of seduced ladies, brutal gun battles and evil, slightly disfigured bad guys. This is not the case, however. What Fleming’s Bond taught me, and entertained me thoroughly with, is a whole different world with a whole different Bond, and one that more men should experience.
Read more after the break.
The old rule in writing is “show, don’t tell”. In film, we take for granted that we’re being shown James Bond for who he is, what he does; in prose, though, this description reaches an entirely different level. We get to hear 007’s thoughts, his cool, calculated manner — and we get a glimpse of his humanity and fallibility.
After the initial, knee-jerk discomfort (it does feel alien after watching 007 only through cinematic portrayal), seeing Bond’s thoughts along with Fleming’s clipped, British narration is both comfortable and enjoyable. The prose is beautiful, flowing smoothly and with a grim demeanor that mirrors the story’s leading man. Fleming is insightful and purposeful in his description of gambling, the elite rich and, especially, the world of the secret service agent. Given Fleming’s real-life history with the British Secret Service, this shouldn’t be that surprising.
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. — Casino Royale
Before we draw a bead on things Bond is not, it’s worthwhile to note what he still is. Suave. Stylish. Dashing. A slightly womanizing lady killer (“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”). The man is not emasculated, that’s for sure.
My Three Favorite Bond Novels
Female Russian double-agent. The Orient Express. Altercations in Istanbul. From Russia, With Love is the Memento of Bond novels — with a plot that shakes its reader with endless plot devices that — despite their confusion — absolutely work in the end.
Bond’s cross-the-pond duo with Mr. Felix Leiter makes his strongest splash in Thunderball and the dynamics between the two drive the imagination with a downright electrifying plot. Think: the opposite of the Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew crossover.
Forget the big-budget, Moore-helmed debacle. Moonraker was a fine novel — maybe one of the best — that shouldn’t be compared to its celluloid dud. The premise: a former Nazi rocket scientist placed into the anxiety-riddled drama of the Cold War and not a single laser in sight. Total win.
– Eric Y.
But Bond is — and this is another sudden and shocking realization — only a pawn, playing out a tiny role in a big war. If he fails, the world won’t be destroyed. The British government will lose a chunk of money and an opportunity at a juicy target. They leave this up to Bond’s largely inflexible role as a gambler in a game of chance. This is Baccarat, not Texas Hold’em; Fleming explicitly shows that the cards, and not Bond’s wile, are the deciding factor in the mission’s main exercise.
What’s more, 007 is not a killing machine. He doesn’t use extraordinary gadgets. He’s not even sure if he wants to keep being a spy. The Bond story that we see is more about real subterfuge, trickery and dumb luck than shootouts and epic car chases (ok, there is a decent car chase, but it’s nothing like the explosion-happy epics that grace just about every Bond flick).
Bond is cerebral; he certainly has that cold calculation that anchors his character in the films. But with Bond’s main attribute, in fact, the center of the book’s theme, being his thoughts rather than his actions, there’s a fundamental shift in how we perceive 007. We see him think through every situation thoroughly before it happens. This is the actual drawn-out preparation process, not the snap decisions that make us want to fist pump in every Bond film ever. In fact, if one really squints, it’s almost possible to see Bond as a very cool nerd. Whoa.
He’s also a philosopher. Check out this tumble of perceptions as Bond describes his first two double-oh kills to Mathis and his ensuing confusion over the book’s bad guy, Le Chiffre:
“The hero kills two villains, but when the hero Le Chiffre starts to kill the villain Bond and the villain Bond knows he isn’t a villain at all, you see the other side of the medal. The villains and heroes get mixed up.”
That doesn’t sound like something Connery would spout with a cool Scottish drawl.
To be sure, Fleming’s first book, just like its movie remake in 2006, is a creation story. The Bond that exits stage left is a very different man than the confident but non-standout player the curtain rises on.
But these differences, which seem disappointing when compared to the dashing film Bond, actually carry weight as a boon to male readers looking (consciously or otherwise) for a role model figure. Fleming’s Bond is actually accessible. He makes glaring errors. He gets through by luck, the help of his friends and his well-measured actions. And yes; he loves.
The suave, sleek, panache-filled movie Bonds present an immensely enjoyable foundation for a pedestal figure. Enjoying Casino Royale won’t take away my passion for that. But seeing the different angle on a character we all know and love, one who’s less of a God, one who we can identify with because, well, he has shortfalls too — that creates an entirely different relationship with the character. If you think you know Bond, take the plunge. One of our favorite heroes deserves to be fully understood.