Thunderball: The Bond Story that Killed Ian Fleming
By Jack Lugo
Ian Fleming’s 9th James Bond book Thunderball (1961) has been steeped in controversy since its release. The ensuing legal battles would have repercussions for the official James Bond film production company, EON, that would remain unresolved until fairly recently when EON obtained the rights to use the fictional organization SPECTRE and its leader Blofeld for its current films. Indeed, EON has not wasted anytime. The 24th official James Bond film due to be released in November 2015 bares the title of SPECTRE, and the casting of Christolph Waltz for an unnamed role in this upcoming film has led many to believe that Waltz may very well likely be playing the iconic villain. For many years prior, however, EON was prohibited from using SPECTRE or Blofeld in any of its films because the rights belong to someone else. The name Kevin McClory has become infamous among Bond fans. He is often portrayed as the antagonist of the Bond franchise itself due to his staunch opposition to EON culminating his many various attempts at launching his own rival James Bond franchise. Perhaps the most tragic misfortune, however, was suffered not by EON but by Ian Fleming himself, the man who created James Bond.
Since the publication of the first James Bond novel Casino Royale in 1953, Ian Fleming had enjoyed immense success as a novelist. While some high -brow British literary critics of the time initially dismissed the Bond books as “sex, snobbery, and sadisim” the novels sold very well and became popular with American audiences in particular. Ian Fleming had created a character based mostly on himself and his own fantasies. Fleming had been a Commander in Britain’s Naval Intelligence Division during World War II. Although Fleming had never experienced any action in the field during the war, he had designed a number intelligence missions during the war and commanded his own intelligence gathering unit called 30AU (30 Assault Unit). Some of the men in this unit may have served as Fleming’s inspiration for the character of Bond, but Bond’s refined tastes, style, choice of beverage and food all very closely resembled those of Fleming himself. It has become widely accepted that Fleming most likely created the character as an escapist fantasy allowing Fleming to experience the kind of danger and adventure that he could only imagine from behind his desk during the war.
Although his success as a novelist brought him acclaim, Fleming had very much desired for Bond to make a transition into film. Film was entirely different medium for the character and Fleming must have recognized the lucrative opportunity there was in a successful film series. The character of Bond, however, was considered to be a risky venture for film studios. The adventures contained sex and violence and the character of Bond himself as depicted by Fleming was nothing more than “a blunt instrument wielded by the government.” Some feared the character would be unlikeable and that audiences would refuse to embrace a man who had a “license to kill” in cold blood if need be. Most of all, however, the fact that this character worked for the British Secret Service instead of the American CIA or FBI meant to many that American audiences would remain indifferent to the character. In 1954, Fleming reluctantly sold the rights to Casino Royale to CBS resulting in TV broadcast adaptation of the story with American actor Barry Nelson starring as “Jimmy Bond,” an American agent. The broadcast went mostly unnoticed and today the film can be viewed on youtube, but needless to say this early attempt at adapting Bond to the screen had been a failure.
Fleming then agreed in 1958 to allow for comic strip adaptations of his Bond stories, which he hoped would garner more attention for his character despite his initial reservations. The James Bond comic strip would have an impressive run until 1983 and remains highly regarded among Bond fans.
Still, in the late 1950s Fleming was still seeking out a way for a Bond film to be produced. The question only remained as to whom Fleming would sell the rights to the Bond films. Unfortunately, it was during this period when he was trying to catapult Bond to the next level that Fleming began to lose his initial inspiration for the character. In one letter Fleming wrote:
“Terribly stuck with James Bond. What was easy at 40 is very difficult at 50. I used to believe- sufficiently- in Bonds and blondes and bombs. Now the keys creak as I type and I fear the zest may have gone” . . . “Though I may be able to think up some episodes for him in the future, I shall never be able to give him 70,000 words again.”
It is with this mindset that Fleming entered into a partnership with producer Kevin McClory. They had met through a mutual friend, Ivar Bryce, who had helped McClory finance his first film as a producer called The Boy and the Bridge. McClory had previously worked on various films in low-level capacities and recently decided to become a film producer in his own right. McClory insisted that James Bond’s first film should be an original story instead of adapting one of Fleming’s previous novels. McClory had become enamored with the idea of filming an underwater adventure prior to encountering Fleming and felt that the character of James Bond would be the perfect vehicle for his filmmaking ambitions. Fleming was initially very impressed with McClory and his friendship with Ivar Bryce further solidified his desire to let McClory make an attempt at the first Bond film. Fleming wrote, “After seeing your work on The Boy and the Bridge, there is no one who I would prefer to produce James Bond for the screen. I think you would have fun doing it and a great success.”
Bryce and McClory had previously began a production company as partners called Xanadu Productions. It would be through this production studio that MClory would attempt to make the first Bond film, but McClory’s attempts met with several obstacles. McClory despite his previous credentials was still an inexperienced filmmaker when it came to large productions. He had ambitions of also directing the Bond film as he had with The Boy and the Bridge despite the fact that he lacked much of the technical knowledge and experience required for filmmaking on a larger scale. The fact that he wanted to do a James Bond story featuring an unprecedented amount of underwater scenes also meant that the film was bound to be expensive placing an enormous risk upon any financial investors. Finally, although Fleming was a naturally gifted novelist, his attempts at screenwriting often failed to take advantage of the visual medium of film. His initial film treatments for the proposed project relied heavily on dialogue and internal monologue explaining the story. Rather than depicting action scenes so that audiences can view the action on screen, Fleming would write long dialogues where Bond was told what had happened.
McClory, Fleming, and Bryce decided to hire professional screenwriter Jack Whittingham to take the initial premise of a Bond film with underwater action scenes and complete a usable screenplay. Whittingham was unimpressed by Fleming’s screenwriting attempts and saw that he had a challenging task in front of him. Whittingham wrote, “In my view Fleming’s film treatment was terribly bad, was tripe, and completely inappropriate for film development.”  Sylvan Mason (Whittingham’s daughter) later said, “Film is visual, you can tell an awful lot by just visuals. You don’t need streams of dialogue explaining things. And that was the difference. Fleming was a wonderful writer in his written descriptions, but that didn’t work on film.”
Whittingham worked independently on a screenplay using some of the previous screen treatments but largely creating his own original Bond story. Initially, Fleming wanted to use the mafia as the main villains who would steal atomic bombs and essentially demand a ransom. After feeling as if he had overused the Soviet spy organization SMERSH, Fleming decided that he would invent a new villainous organization and he decided to call it SPECTRE (Special Executive for Counter-intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion). It would comprise of members of SMERSH, the Gustapo, the mafia, and Chinese Tong. At the head of the fictional organization would be a man called Ernst Stavro Blofeld. Fleming also changed the title of Whittingham’s screenplay from Longitude 78 West to Thunderball.
When McClory fell through on delivering the financial backing necessary to produce a film, Fleming decided to use the screenplay that had been commissioned from Whittingham as the basis for his next James Bond novel, Thunderball. Once advanced copies of the novel reached Kevin McClory, however, McClory filed an injunction to stop publication on the grounds of plagiarism on behalf of Fleming. While McClory couldn’t stop publication of the novel, he would continue to pursue the matter in court despite the fact that his partner Ivar Bryce refused to support him. Bryce ultimately supported Fleming while Whittingham, despite his ill health, testified on behalf of McClory.
In November 1963, the plagiarism trial would begin. The case would last a mere 9 days before Fleming relented and decided to settle with McClory. Fleming had already sold the film rights to his Bond novels to producers Cubby Broccoli and Harry Saltzman, who formed EON in 1961 and produced the first Bond film Dr. No in 1962 starring Sean Connery. Whittingham, who later regretted his support of McClory, revealed in a letter that Fleming had suffered 2 heart attacks during the court case. Fleming’s ill health became the primary reason for settling the case after three years of fighting McClory through various legal actions. Indeed, Fleming would suffer a fatal heart attack nine months after the conclusion of the trial.
The settlement gave Ian Fleming the rights to the novel provided that the author credit be changed to “based on a screen treatment by Kevin McClory, Jack Whittingham and the Author.” The film rights, however, were relinquished completely to Kevin McClory. This meant that McClory could produce a Bond film without the sanction of EON. Broccoli and Saltzman, leery that McClory would produce a rival Bond decided to enter into a one-time only partnership with McClory allowing McClory sole producer credit for 1965’s Thunderball. With Connery as Bond, Thunderball went on to become the highest earning Bond film until 1973’s Live and Let Die.
Unfortunately for EON, the legal agreement between EON and McClory regarding Thunderball gave McClory the right to remake Thunderball after a period of 10 years. Furthermore, EON was legally prohibited from using SPECTRE or the character of Blofeld in their films because it was considered to be intellectual property of McClory that was won in the settlement. The EON films had already featured Blofeld and SPECTRE in several Bond films, but this would prevent EON from using SPECTRE or Blofeld again until just recently.
McClory wooed back Sean Connery to play the role of James Bond for 1983’s Never Say Never Again. Connery had previously quit the role and had been openly disgruntled with Cubby Broccoli, who was now the sole owner of EON. McClory’s film competed with EON’s Bond film Octopussy starring Roger Moore as James Bond. While EON’s film ultimately out performed Never Say Never again at the box office, it didn’t prevent McClory from further pursuing his film rights with Thunderball. McClory attempted to make a 3rd remake of Thunderball in the late 90s and early 2000s called Warhead 2000 A.D. At one point it was rumored to star ousted Bond actor Timothy Dalton as James Bond, but the film never materialized. McClory had partnered with Sony for the proposed project, who had obtained the rights to Casino Royale and were threatening at one point to package both McClory’s “Warhead” film and Casino Royale as a package to launch their own James Bond franchise. MGM who had previously partnered with EON fought this and the two parties settled. Once Sony acquired MGM in 2004, EON was able to obtain the rights to Casino Royale and promptly released their adaptation of Fleming’s first Bond novel starring Daniel Craig as James Bond in 2006.
Kevin McClory died in 2006, but his estate maintained his rights to Thunderball including SPECTRE and Blofeld. Finally in November 2013, a settlement was reached between MGM, Danjaq (EON’s parent company) and the McClory estate to resolve the legal disputes that had been ongoing for 50 years. EON now has the rights to Thunderball, SPECTRE, and Blofeld. Just as in 2006 when they wasted no time producing Casino Royale after having recently obtained the rights, it would appear as if EON is eager to do the same by christening the upcoming 2015 film SPECTRE.
Ian Fleming, however, seems to have paid the ultimate price in this whole saga. Having recently read his Thunderball novel, I was reminded of what a brilliant writer he was. Even though he may have taken the premise of the story from Whittingham’s screenplay, his use of language and his descriptions of events, places, and characters are uniquely his. While Whittingham deserves his credit for the plot of the story, I think Thunderball ironically proves just how good a writer Ian Fleming was despite the controversy. Fiction writing and screenwriting are quite different in terms of the skill sets that writers must use. Screenwriting is all about providing the audience with the necessary visuals to comprehend the plot and the characters involved in the story. Fiction writing requires a rich use of descriptive language to bring the reader into the story. In a novel a reader can access the sensations of the protagonist through language. In a film, it’s up to the actor to convey to the audience what the character is feeling.
The novel ends with Bond recovering in the hospital after a near death underwater duel with the villain Emilio Largo. Domino Vitalli, after having learned that Largo had killed her brother decides to betray her guardian and help Bond. After having been tortured on board the Disco Volante, Domino escaped just in time to save Bond when it appeared that Largo was about to kill him in underwater combat. Domino shoots Largo with a spear gun saving Bond. Back in the hospital, Bond is determined to find Domino’s hospital room despite his injuries and the fact that he had been recently given a sedative. What follows is the end of Ian Fleming’s novel:
“Inside the small room, the jalousies threw bands of light and shadow over the bed. Bond staggered over to the bed and knelt down beside it. The small head on the pillow turned towards him. A hand came out and grasped his hair, pulling his head closer to her. Her voice said huskily, ‘You are to stay here. Do you understand? You are not to go away.’
When Bond didn’t answer, she feebly shook his head to and fro. ‘Do you hear me, James? Do you understand?’ She felt Bond’s body slipping to the floor. When she let go his hair, he slumped down on the rug beside her bed. She carefully shifted her position and looked down at him. He was already asleep with his head cradled on the inside of his forearm.
The girl watched the dark, rather cruel face for a moment. Then she gave a small sigh, pulled the pillow to the edge of the bed so that it was just above him, laid her head down so that she could see him whenever she wanted to, and closed her eyes.”
At the end of this story Bond was physically and mentally exhausted to the point of collapse. Ironically, the subsequent fallout and legal disputes resulting in Fleming’s settlement with McClory would fatally do the same to Bond’s creator. Ian Fleming only saw the first two EON produced Bond films starring Sean Connery. The 3rd Eon film, Goldfinger, would propel the Bond franchise to an entirely new level of success. Ian Fleming died of heart disease on August 12th 1964 at age 56. Had he lived longer, perhaps he would have been able to enjoy the fruits of his success. It is widely believed that the stress and the fatigue of the plagiarism case versus Kevin McClory contributed to his ill health. Thunderball may very well likely be the James Bond story that killed its very creator.
Author’s note: Much of the research and quotes for this blog post came from reading Robert Sellers’ book The Battle for Bond as well as from listening to James Bond Radio’s podcast interviews with Sellers and with Sylvan Mason, the daughter of Jack Whittingham. If anyone is interested in finding out more facts concerning this topic I strongly encourage you to check out those incredibly thorough resources. I just wanted to see if I can put together a more concise account of these details for the purposes of this page. All the credit for the research that appears here should go to them.
- Footnotes for quotes 1-4 are from: Sellers, Robert The Battle for Bond. Tomahawk Press, 2007
- Footnote for quote 5 is from: Fleming, Ian Thunderball. Jonathan Cape, 1961
- James Bond Radio podcast interview with Robert Sellers : http://jamesbondradio.com/the-battle-for-bond-robert-sellers-interview-podcast-12/
- James Bond Radio Podcast interview with Sylvan Mason: http://jamesbondradio.com/jack-whittinghams-thunderball-podcast-013/
 Sellers, Robert The Battle for Bond. Tomahawk Press, 2007
 Sellers, Robert The Battle for Bond. Tomahawk Press, 2007
 Sellers, Robert The Battle for Bond. Tomahawk Press, 2007
 Sellers, Robert The Battle for Bond. Tomahawk Press, 2007
 Fleming,Ian Thunderball. Jonathan Cape 1961