You Only Live Twice: Ian Fleming Concludes the Blofeld Trilogy

You Only Live Twice takes place a mere 8 to 9 months after the events of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, which saw Bond get married only to have his bride, Tracy, killed by Ernst Stavro Blofeld and Irma Bunt while driving on the road to their honeymoon.  Bond has now become a despondent reckless shadow of his former self having mucked up the last two assignments given to him in the interim and M. is at a complete loss as to what to do with his best agent, 007.  M. discusses his concern for Bond with his friend Sir James Molony, a neurologist, admitting that he has even contemplated removing Bond from the Double-0 Section altogether.  Molony suggests that M. should give Bond another chance at an “impossible” mission to see if the agent might return to form if he were put into a situation that tested his resolve.  The reasoning behind this being that a fairly challenging mission might inspire Bond once again with the will to live.  “Nothing like death or glory to take a man out of himself,” Sir James Molony tells M.  It is with that in mind that M. briefs Bond in his office, and instead of a reprimand Bond receives a promotion and diplomatic mission to Japan to convince the head of the Japanese Secret Service, Tiger Tanaka, to share secret intelligence that Japan has gathered about the Russians, which the Americans have refused to share with the British government.

This would be the final book released within Ian Fleming’s lifetime, and the final book that saw Fleming complete his intense revision and editing process, a process that was denied for the subsequent posthumously released Fleming Bond books.   Written primarily in January and February of 1963 at Fleming’s Goldeneye estate in Jamaica where Fleming perennially wrote the Bond books, You Only Live Twice features a Bond who is far from the top of his game and a guarded admission from the characters pertaining to Britain’s loss of status amongst the superpowers while the United States and the Soviet Union were engulfed in the Cold War. For the first time, there is a sense of mistrust between the British and American government, which apparently stemmed from events that had unfolded around the time Fleming began writing the novel.   The British government had recently been embarrassed when 4 MI6 agents had been exposed as defectors to the Soviet Union with suspicions of a fifth defector still active within MI6.

Ian and Ann Fleming, 1963

Ian and Ann Fleming, 1963

One also gets the sense that Bond’s increasingly failing health parallels Fleming’s own physical deterioration.  With the Thunderball plagiarism trial looming later in the year, the dark mood of the novel is said to reflect Fleming’s own dark mood at the time of its writing.  Later that year, Fleming would visit the set of EON’s production of its 2nd Bond film, From Russia with Love, which would be the final Bond film that Fleming would get to witness.

Ian Fleming on the set of From Russia with Love, 1963

Ian Fleming on the set of From Russia with Love, 1963

Also that year, Fleming would release his nonfiction book Thrilling Cities, a travelogue of various cities he had encountered including his visits to Tokyo, which inspired him to set You Only Love Twice in Japan.   It was during these visits that Fleming befriended journalist Richard Hughes, who he decided to base the character of the Austrailian agent Dikko Henderson on as well as Japanese writer Tiger Saito, who was the basis for Tiger Tanaka.

Ian Fleming's nonfiction book, Thrilling Cities

Ian Fleming’s nonfiction book, Thrilling Cities

It’s Dikko Henderson who first teaches Bond about the Japanese concept of “On,” a feudal Japanese traditional obligation taken on in return for previous favors.  It’s morally and ethically central to traditional Japanese values for “On” to be repaid in some way shape or form, and that is how Bond decides to approach Tiger Tanaka by appealing to the “On” Tiger feels for the British government due to his education at Oxford while spying on Britain.  Combined with his resentment of the increasing Westernization of Japan due to American involvement, Tiger seems keen to help Bond provided that a sense of honor is maintained on both sides.

Prior to the end of the war, Tiger had been training to be a kamikaze pilot, but he had been denied the opportunity to complete his mission once the war had ended.  Tiger maintains strong ties to his traditional Japanese values, and he sees the opportunity to help Bond as a way of instructing and integrating Bond into Japanese culture.  To accomplish this, he tasks Bond with completing a favor of his asking (an “On” if you will).   Bond would be required to go undercover as a Japanese coal miner after facial alterations to appear Asian and after doing so he wants Bond to kill a foreigner named Dr. Shatterhand, who had fortified himself in an ancient Japanese castle with permission from the government to do botanical research.  Once it was discovered that Dr. Shatterhand had imported a multitude of poisonous vegetation, piranha, and snakes for this research, the grounds of the castle had become a popular attraction for Japanese citizens to commit honorable suicide, a “Garden of Death.”   After one of his own investigators disappeared and was presumed killed, Tiger decided that Dr. Shatterhand must be murdered and that Bond should be the one to do it in exchange for sharing the Russian Intelligence with the British government.

Once Tanaka begins to describe Dr. Shatterhand and his “ugly wife,” it becomes obvious to the reader that this must be Blofeld and Irma Bunt, but for some reason this doesn’t register with Bond despite Dr. Shatterhand’s Swiss background, which would have been Blofeld’s previous stronghold location from On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.  I suppose one could put this all down to Bond not being himself and still grieving, but I found it hard to believe that Bond couldn’t put two and two together until he was given a photo of Dr. Shatterhand and his wife just before going off on the mission.

Much of the book focuses on Tiger teaching Bond about Japanese culture and history and how to act in certain situations.  There’s some very interesting material in these passages, but Bond rarely gets to use his cover despite having his appearance altered.   Some readers might find the first two thirds of book frustrating for this reason, but I found it enlightening and entertaining.  When Tiger teaches Bond about the poetry of Matsuo Basho, he encourages Bond to come up with a haiku of his own and it is from Bond’s attempt that Fleming derives the title of this novel:

“You only live twice:

Once when you are born

And once when you look death in the face”

Tiger praises Bond’s attempt despite his failure to adhere to the 5-7-5 haiku structure.  In addition to this, Tiger sees to it that Bond receives training in the art of ninjutsu giving Bond a new identity as a deaf and mute Japanese coal miner.  He also introduces Bond to a remote Japanese island comprised of Ama (pearl) divers, where Bond could stay with a Japanese family until he’s ready to set out and swim towards Shatterhand’s castle.  It is there that he meets Kissy Suzuki, a talented Ama diver who chose to leave behind a possible Hollywood career after briefly flirting with becoming a film star.  Since Kissy is proficient in English, it’s decided that Bond should stay with her and her parents.  Kissy and Bond grow close and one could tell that there’s an attraction developing prior to Bond going off to confront Blofeld.

Once Bond penetrates the castle and the Garden of Death, he gets captured by Blofeld and submitted to the potential torture by having to sit over a volcanic geyser set to go off every 15 minutes.  Once Bond admits who he is, he is taken to another room where Blofeld intends to kill him with a samurai sword.  Instead, Bond grabs a nearby stave and fights Blofeld to the death eventually choking him.  Bond escapes via a warning balloon back to the sea where Kissy rescues him.  Unfortunately, Bond now has amnesia and because Kissy loves him she decides to keep his identity a secret so that they may live out their lives together.

It is towards the end of the novel that we get biographical details about Bond prior to his becoming 007. Once Bond is presumed dead, M. writes an obituary for The Times.  We learn the names of his parents, Andrew Bond and Monique Delacroix, who were killed when Bond was 11 years old in a climbing accident in the Aiguilles.  Bond then came under the guardianship of his aunt Charmian, who helped educate him until he enrolled into Eton College, an English boarding school near Windsor, where he lasted only “two halves” until he was forced to leave due to “some alleged trouble with one of the boys’ maids.” He completed his education at Fettes College in Edinburgh until he was 17 when he lied about his age to enlist in the Ministry of Defence where he served as a lieutenant during the war eventually promoted to the rank of Commander by the war’s end.  It is during this obituary written by M. that Fleming breaks the 4th wall admitting that “a series of popular books came to be written around him [Bond] by a personal friend and former colleague….If the quality of these books, or their degree of veracity, had been any higher, the author would certainly have been prosecuted under the Official Secrets Act.”  Fleming had once before tried experimenting with metafiction in the now expunged prologue to The Spy Who Loved Me when he tells the reader that Vivienne Michel’s story appeared at his writing desk as is and that the following is her account.   In You Only Live Twice, Fleming went further implicating his presence within the context of the actual fiction.  The comic book adaptation of the novel that appeared in the Daily Express from 1965-1966 features the actual covers of Fleming’s books during this segment of the story where we see Bond’s obituary.

Bond's obituary from the You Only Live Twice film adaptation, 1967

Bond’s obituary from the You Only Live Twice film adaptation, 1967

The novel ends rather curiously with Kissy curing Bond’s impotence by mixing toad oil into his food and becoming pregnant just as Bond latches on to a newspaper printing with mention of the Russian city, Vladivostok.  He tells Kissy that he must go there to see if he can recover his memory and leaves before Kissy could tell him of her pregnancy.  The issue of Bond having a child has never been developed any further neither in the Fleming cannon nor in any of the film adaptations.  The only other follow up to this occurs in continuation author Raymond Benson’s short story, “Blast from the Past,” which occurs outside of the continuity of the other Bond continuation novels.

This off-putting ending tends to sour the novel for most people, but I rather like that Fleming had decided to leave loose ends in this book rather than rely on a convenient ending where everything gets tied up neatly.  I think it reflects the dark wistful mood of the novel where Bond had been challenged to re-examine his thoughts on death, revenge, and honor.

Tiger’s instruction throughout the first third of the novel really serves to enlighten Bond to rethink much of the values he had taken for granted with his Western upbringing, particularly the notion of suicide and honorable death. Tiger informs Bond earlier on about the practice of seppuku, considered an honorable form of suicide where the person slashes their belly from left to right and then upwards towards the breastbone.   Before going off on his mission, Tiger offers him what could only be a cyanide pill in the event of capture to avoid torture, but Bond refuses invoking his poem saying that he would rather choose to “look death in the face.”  Once Bond goes off to the castle on his mission of revenge he takes much of his Japanese instruction to heart.  He could have informed Tiger of Blofeld’s true identity to get reinforcements or have Blofeld arrested in a raid, but he chose to keep Blofeld’s identity a secret so that he could satisfy his own revenge or die trying.   For these reasons, You Only Live Twice stands as one of Fleming’s darker Bond works and I think a pleasantly tidy ending with Bond returning to London unscathed would not have worked.  Bond needed to sacrifice part of himself to complete his mission, and the reader could sense that before Bond even approaches Blofeld’s castle.  Even though Bond physically survives the ordeal, the person he was died in that final confrontation with Blofeld therefore ending the novel with Bond as an amnesiac seems oddly appropriate.  It is only because Kissy loves him enough to save him and care for him that Bond makes a recovery.

Ian Fleming YOLT

You Only Live Twice may not be Fleming’s best Bond novel, but it’s an important Bond novel nevertheless. Not only do we get Bond’s final confrontation with Blofeld, we also get to see Bond challenge some of the very values he had taken for granted throughout the entire series.

Sources:

  1. Fleming, Ian You Only Live Twice. Jonathan Cape, 1964
  2. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/You_Only_Live_Twice_%28novel%29
  3. http://jamesbond.wikia.com/wiki/You_Only_Live_Twice_%28novel%29
  4. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cambridge_Five

Ian Fleming’s Masterpiece: On Her Majesty’s Secret Service

In January of 1962 Ian Fleming began work on his 11th James Bond book, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. The previous year, Fleming had successfully sold the film rights to his novels to EON who would begin production on their first Bond film Dr. No starring Sean Connery in Jamaica not far from Fleming’s Goldeneye estate. Fleming had anticipated the commercial failure of his previous Bond novel, The Spy Who Loved Me (an experiment that entailed Fleming writing the entire novel in the first person from a female perspective), and decided to return Bond to his roots with this latest effort.  Indeed, Bond begins the novel at the French seaside Casino resort Royale –les-Eaux, which served as the setting for the very first Bond novel, Casino Royale.  Here, Bond encounters a woman about to commit suicide.  He had previously saved her from disgrace at the casino where she nearly welched on a bet at the Chemin De Fer table until Bond nobly stepped in to cover her debt.  Now, he found himself by the shore preventing Tracy from drowning herself only to be captured and taken hostage by mysterious men who had been following the two of them all along. From the very beginning of the novel, Fleming re-positions this latest Bond adventure using some of the very elements that had made Bond successful in the first place.  There’s a gambling scene, a woman, and the presence of danger – all the elements that had made the earlier Bond novels such successful thrillers. While on the surface it may appear as if Fleming was playing it safe to recover from the commercial failure of The Spy Who Loved Me “experiment,” as one reads the novel, it soon becomes clear that for this adventure Fleming’s inspiration had been renewed.  While all the familiar elements of Bond would be present, Fleming found new ways to take risks and thrill readers once again with his fictional hero.

Richard Chopping's original dust jacket artwork

Richard Chopping’s original dust jacket artwork

Fleming weaves together an intriguing plot for Bond to navigate through for this adventure.  Ernst Stavro Blofeld had been introduced in Thunderball as the mastermind of SPECTRE (Special Executive for Counter-Intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge, and Extortion), an independent criminal organization with no specific state sponsored alliance comprised of previous members of SMERSH, the Italian mafia, the Gestapo, and the Chinese Tongs.  The organization had previously attempted to hold the western powers to ransom by stealing a couple of atomic missiles until Bond thwarted their plans in Operation Thunderball. Since then, Bond had been charged with pursuing any leads to SPECTRE and specifically with bringing in its leader, Blofeld. Bond begins the novel frustrated with his assignment to the point where he contemplates resigning from the British Secret Service altogether.  It then that he encounters Tracy and becomes transfixed on her after she had daringly driven passed Bond in her vehicle.  The attraction to Tracy is instantaneous, however, he soon finds that she is connected to one of the most dangerous French criminals.  She turns out to be the daughter of Marc-Ange Draco, a capu in the French criminal organization, the Union Corse. It was his men who captured Bond near the shore at the beginning of the novel.

Draco explains his actions to Bond as resulting from concern over his daughter. He genuinely extends his hand to Bond in friendship and implores Bond to marry Tracy so that Tracy might have a man to look after her.  This obviously sounds fairly politically incorrect for today, but Draco details Tracy’s story as a heartbreaking tale explaining why his daughter had become prone to depression and attempts at suicide.  Tracy’s mother had been dead for ten years, and Draco had sent his daughter to Switzerland to finish her education where she soon fell in with the wrong crowd becoming prone to “scrapes and scandals.” Draco continues,

 “ … as I now see it, the worm of self-destruction had somehow got hold inside her and, behind the wild, playgirl facade, was eating away what I can only describe as her soul . . . You know that this can happen, my friend, to men and to women.  They burn the heart out of themselves by living too greedily, and suddenly they examine their lives and see that they are worthless.  They have had everything, eaten all the sweets of life at one great banquet, and there is nothing left.  . .  She went off without telling me, and married, perhaps with the idea of settling down. But the man, a worthless Italian called Vincenzo, Count Julio Vincenzo, took as much of her money as he could lay his hands on and deserted her, leaving her with a girl child. . . And then, my friend, six months ago the baby died – died of that most terrible of all children’s ailments, spinal meningitis.”

This explains the self-destructive pattern that Bond had observed in Tracy before.  One can imagine that if Fleming had continued his “experiment” from The Spy Who Loved Me that there might be enough in Tracy’s woeful tale for Fleming to have tried to construct the novel from her point of view.  There is no evidence that Fleming ever considered this, and everything we do learn about Tracy is usually from either the perspective of her father, Bond, or the narrator.  For that reason, Tracy is a bit elusive as a character.  We certainly can ascertain much of her personality from the events of the book, but compared to other women in the Bond series she’s more intangible.

Despite Draco’s generous offers, Bond initially declines to marry Tracy. Instead, he offers to briefly look after her before going off to his next destination.  In exchange, however, Draco gives Bond some vital information regarding the whereabouts of Blofeld.  Bond learns that Blofeld is in Switzerland, and further investigation concludes that Blofeld had been in contact with the College of Arms investigating his claim to a title of nobility.  This is where Fleming’s research into the subject of heraldry and genealogy comes into play and where Fleming gives Blofeld his Achilles heel.   As far back as 1960, Fleming had commissioned Robin de La Lanne-Mirrlees from the actual College of Arms to investigate possible family background origins for both Bond and Blofeld to include in a novel.  Before Sean Connery was ever considered for the role of James Bond, Fleming had been inclined to find a way to incorporate a Scottish origin for Bond.  While Mirrlees failed to find an appropriate real life Scottish bloodline for Bond, he did find a family motto that Fleming would use for Bond that happened to fit the very credo of the character, “The World is Not Enough.” For Blofeld, Mirrlees found several variations of the name and suggested that a physical trait be used by Fleming as a marker to identify the link to his ancestry, which became the lack of earlobes.

Bond therefore goes undercover as a representative from the College of Arms to supposedly help Blofeld validate his claim to the title of Count.   The pretense used to arrange his meeting with Blofeld would be that the representative, a Sir Hilary Bray, needed visual confirmation of this physical characteristic in Blofeld in order for the research to continue.  Essentially, Bond appeals to Blofeld’s vanity, which is a theme that continues throughout the book.  The object is to convince Blofeld to leave his hideout in the Swiss Alps on the pretense of validating his claim to a noble title so that he can be apprehended somewhere where the British Secret Service could get to him.

For the setting of Blofeld’s stronghold, Fleming introduces us to the remote location of Piz Gloria, which was in fact an amalgam of various locations including the Sphinx Observatory at Jungfraugoch, Kitzbuhel in Austria, and Schloss Mittersill, a sports resort located in the Alps near St. Moritz where Fleming had previously gone skiing on family holidays.  Fleming actually based one of the most memorable sequences in the book, Bond’s escape from Piz Gloria skiing away from an avalanche, upon his own experience when he had once gone down a slope in Kitzbuhel that had been closed due to possibility of an avalanche.

Bond is able to fool Blofeld by appealing to Blofeld’s vanity regarding his ancestry long enough to scope out part of Blofeld’s plot.   This is where suspension of disbelief is needed.  Blofeld happens to have gathered a group of simple women under the guise of scientific research to cure their allergies.  In reality, Blofeld wants to conduct biological warfare by hypnotizing these women into poisoning England’s agriculture.  Blofeld’s plot isn’t sussed out until after Bond’s daring escape, but it is perhaps the one part of the novel that seems far-fetched although Fleming does attempt to ground it in reality despite the fantastical nature of the villain’s scheme.

Fleming takes a bold leap with Bond in this novel, however, by giving Bond the genuine desire to settle down and marry Tracy once he’s reunited with her.  Tracy saves Bond’s life by helping Bond get away from Blofeld’s men after Bond had just narrowly escaped the avalanche at Piz Gloria. With Blofeld’s men on his tail, it would have been only a matter of time until Bond would have been discovered if it wasn’t for Tracy helping to disguise Bond and drive him away from danger in her vehicle.  This is one occasion where the Bond girl gets to do more than just be a damsel in distress.  It is Tracy who drives the getaway vehicle and Tracy who risks her own life to get Bond to safety.  In a move considered daring for a Bond story, Bond proposes marriage to Tracy:

“Bond suddenly thought, Hell! I’ll never find another girl like this one.  She’s got everything I’ve looked for in a woman, She’s beautiful, in bed and out.  She’s adventurous, brave, resourceful.  She’s exciting always.  She seems to love me.  . . . Above all, she needs me.  It’ll be someone for me to look after.  I’m fed up with all these untidy, casual affairs that leave me with bad conscience.  I wouldn’t mind having children. . . We’re two of a pair, really.  Why not make it for always? . . . Bond found his voice saying those words that he had never said in his life before, never expected to say. ‘Tracy. I love you. Will you marry me?’”

It’s curious that the line about “untidy, casual affairs” recalls the words of Vivienne Michel in the very first paragraph of The Spy Who Loved Me.  Had Fleming decided to give Bond a touch of femininity? Perhaps the mindset of the character that Fleming explored in Vivienne Michel was a mindset that Fleming had desired to instill in Bond. Like Vivienne Michel, Bond had indeed become unsatisfied with his love life and now desired something more solid, a real partner for life.  This he found in Tracy.

Before taking the plunge into marriage, Bond was determined to capture Blofeld.  He visits Draco asking for his help in the matter as well as for his daughter’s hand in marriage.  Draco assembles his men to help Bond invade Piz Gloria by helicopter.  Fleming actually avoids giving many details of the actual fight between Draco’s men and Blofeld’s henchmen and instead gives the readers the final thrill of Bond’s pursuit of Blofeld down a dangerous bobsled run.  The climax is very thrilling and the fact that Blofeld gets away as the resort of Piz Gloria explodes in the background lends eeriness to the prospect of Bond’s wedding.  The ending of the novel is undoubtedly the most haunting of all of Fleming’s books.  Tracy gets shot by Blofeld and his henchwoman, Irma Bunt, shortly after the banquet while driving herself and Bond to their honeymoon.  Heartbroken, Bond could only respond by telling the young man who approached them:

“’It’s all right.’ He said in a clear voice as if explaining something to a child.  ‘It’s quite all right.  She’s having a rest.  We’ll be going on soon.  There’s no hurry.  You see’ – Bond’s head sank down against hers and he whispered into her hair – ‘you see, we’ve got all the time in the world.’”

Fleming captured the totality of Bond’s heartbreak with that final sentiment.  It could be interpreted in various ways, but I think the meaning I get from it is that Bond knows his fate as a loner is sealed.  The brief interlude with Tracy and the notion that he could have a family life had been a fantasy that he desperately clung to.  In her final moments, he did not want to let Tracy go.  He wanted that life that he imagined he’d have with her and he knows that the moment these first responders burst in and take her, their life together will be gone.  It’s probably the most poignant and emotional moment in the entire series.

Fleming later went on to say, “Well, James Bond couldn’t really be married.  I can’t have him settling down.  His wife would be irritated with his constantly going abroad, she’d want to change his way of life, his friends, and Bond would worry about the measles epidemic back home and his own faithfulness and – no it can’t be done.”

Only for a brief time, Fleming let Bond do what he would seemingly never do – marry a woman he loves.  Much is said about the character of Tracy being inspired by Fleming’s girlfriend during the war, Muriel Wright.  Wright, a naval dispatch rider and air warden, had been involved with Fleming in a long relationship.  By most accounts Fleming treated her poorly seeing other women, which had bothered her family.  Muriel Wright was killed in an air raid in March of 1944.  It was Ian Fleming who would later identify her body, an experience that seems to have echoed in the ending of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.

Muriel Wright

Muriel Wright

I highly recommend to anyone interested in reading the Fleming novels that they read On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.  While the resulting film of the same name is very faithful to the book in spirit, the novel provides its own very thrilling experience from beginning to end.  The artistry of Ian Fleming is on full display here and I believe that it stands alongside Casino Royale and From Russia with Love as among Fleming’s best work.   The word “masterpiece” has a tendency to be overused today, but I believe the word most definitely applies to Fleming’s novel On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.

Here’s the ending of the 1969 film from youtube for anyone who wants to view it:

Sources

  1. Fleming, Ian On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Jonathan Cape, 1963
  2. Helfenstein, Charles The Making of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Spies LLC, 2009
  3. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/On_Her_Majesty%27s_Secret_Service_%28novel%29
  4. http://blog.bookstellyouwhy.com/muriel-wright-ian-fleming-james-bond-girls
  5. http://spartacus-educational.com/2WWwrightM2.htm

The Spy Who Loved Me – A Look at Ian Fleming’s Discarded Bond Novel

In January of 1961 Ian Fleming retreated to his Goldeneye estate in Jamaica to write his 10th James Bond book. His previous novel, Thunderball, had been published despite Kevin McClory’s attempt to stop publication amidst accusations of plagiarism.   Not surprisingly, Ian Fleming was in a dire physical and emotional state.  He was no longer fit enough to ski at the Fleming family Christmas holiday retreat in St. Moritz.  The previous year, Fleming had suffered a coronary forcing him to spend a month at a London clinic. His relationship with his wife Ann had become terribly fractured.  Ann had never approved of Fleming’s Bond books because she found them distasteful and because her social circle also disapproved of them.  Both Ian and Ann were also each engaged in affairs.  Anne was seeing Hugh Gaitskell, a politician and Leader of the Labor Party while Ian was seeing Blanche Blackwell, mother of Chris Blackwell who would go on to become founder of Island Records and eventually become the owner of Fleming’s Goldeneye estate, a present day luxury resort.  Some believe that Blanche was really the love of Ian Fleming’s life and that the character of Honeychile Rider from Dr. No may have been based upon her.

Blanche Blackwell and Ian Fleming

Blanche Blackwell and Ian Fleming

Fleming decided to take an entirely different approach with his next book, which would become The Spy Who Loved Me.  Instead of writing it as a 3rd person omniscient narration has he had done with the previous novels, he decided to write in the 1st person from the perspective of a woman, Vivienne Michel, a French Canadian who had spent her late teenage years in England and whose tale was to focus on the various disappointments in her love life before the fateful night when James Bond saved her life. Bond in fact doesn’t appear until the novel has nearly ended.  Instead, the reader is treated to the story of the life of this woman and how she came to be in the predicament that would require someone like James Bond to save her.

It must have been a considerable risk to Fleming to approach his book this way, and while contemporary reviews had almost universally panned The Spy Who Loved Me as a trashy attempt at a romance novel, I actually found it very enjoyable and I think the novel’s status as the literary black sheep in the Bond cannon deserves to be re-evaluated. After the novel had been poorly received, Fleming explained to his publisher that, “I had become increasingly surprised to find my thrillers, which were designed for an adult audience, being read in schools, and that young people were making a hero out of James Bond … So it crossed my mind to write a cautionary tale about Bond, to put the record straight in the minds particularly of younger readers … the experiment has obviously gone very much awry.”

The novel does indeed come across as a cautionary tale by the end of the story, but I also believe that Fleming had an even more personal aim in mind when writing this book.  The novel opens up in a captivating way:

                “I was running away.  I was running away from England, from my childhood, from the winter, from a sequence of untidy, unattractive love-affairs, from the few sticks of furniture and jumble of overworn clothes that my London life had collected around me; and I was running away from drabness, fustiness, snobbery, the claustrophobia of close horizons and from my inability, although I am quite an attractive rat, to make headway in the rat-race. In fact, I was running away from almost everything except the law.”1.

Vivienne goes on to explain that she had been orphaned at early age and brought up by an Aunt in Quebec, who had sent her to “finishing school” in London to complete her transition into adulthood.  She continues to reminisce about her past as she finds herself now an overnight caretaker in a secluded motel about to close for the winter in upstate New York near the Adirondacks.  The music on the radio reminds her of the first of these “unattractive love-affairs” with an Oxford undergraduate named Derek.  They would meet up weekly on Saturdays, spend the day together and end up at a cinema where Derek would encourage her to explore her sexuality doing almost everything short of the deed itself in a private box where they believed they wouldn’t be noticed.  On the final Saturday of the summer before Derek would be off to return to school, he encourages her to complete the act of lovemaking in the theater box before being discovered by the owner of the theater and being thrown out in shame.  Despite Vivienne’s utter humiliation, Derek continues to pressure her to have sex with him until she finally relents to do it behind some trees in a field.  She felt as if she had to be “a good sport” about it and had been blind to the fact that Derek was looking to use her.

The setting of the cinema for Vivienne’s first sexual encounter was precisely how Ian Fleming lost his virginity according to Andrew Lycett’s biography.   Derek cruelly sends Vivienne a letter letting her know that he was actively engaged to another woman over the entire course of their relationship and that his mother would disapprove of her status as a non-English woman necessitating the need to end their affair.  Despite having her heart broken, Vivienne pulls herself together to become a journalist establishing a career similar to Fleming’s own journalism career at Reuters prior to his Intelligence service during the war.  It is there that she meets a German man who offers her employment in his foreign news agency.  Their professional relationship soon becomes physical, but as soon as Vivienne becomes pregnant, the German pays for her to travel to Switzerland to have an abortion and to terminate their relationship, which leaves her with the desire to “run away” as she had previously described.

After briefly reuniting with her Aunt in Quebec, Vivienne decides to drive on her Vespa scooter from New York to Florida to begin her life again, but decides to stop at a motel where these cagey managers offer her employment. The husband and wife who manage the place end up treating her cruelly, but since she wanted to make some money for her travels, she endured the husband’s advances.  When a knock on the door comes during a storm, Vivienne unwittingly lets in the two gangsters sent by the owner to apparently burn down the place as part of an insurance fraud scam.  They had intended to leave Vivienne’s corpse as evidence to imply that she started the fire to deflect any insinuations of arson. Their plans are kept secret from Vivienne while they subject her to beatings after her attempts at escape.  Just when the hoodlums are about to rape Vivienne, James Bond shows up by coincidence after having a flat tire along the road by the motel.

Needless to say, Bond rescues her from the two gangsters after foiling their plan.  The most controversial aspect of the book, however, involves Vivienne sleeping with Bond after being rescued.  It may be a fair criticism to say that while Vivienne begins the narrative as a heroine of sorts, she ends up in the role of a typical damsel in distress, which may be where Fleming’s book falls a bit short. She does attempt to help Bond at several points, but Bond basically does most of the work dispatching the two criminals.  Vivienne doesn’t linger too much on the graphic details of her sex with Bond, but I suppose there is enough there to make some readers feel as if the story ventures too far into the realm of erotica when most readers are accustomed to the Bond stories being thrillers.   I think that her sleeping with Bond certainly fits within the context of Fleming’s story.  After her two previous hallow sexual encounters, the point of her describing the act of making love to Bond was to contrast that experience with her previous ones.  Even though she knew Bond wouldn’t commit to her beyond that single night, her experience with Bond was the first she had with a man who had been kind to her, a man who literally risked his own life to save hers.   It might come off as a trite notion to get across in a novel and perhaps if Ian Fleming had been more creatively inspired, he could have done something even more original with the climax of this story, but as a reader I think it was bold to approach Bond in this way.

Perhaps the warning from the police captain to Vivienne may come across as even more trite to some readers, but it fits in with Fleming’s original intention of portraying Bond in a “cautionary” light. The captain tells Vivienne:

 “’Keep away from all these men. They are not for you, whether they’re called James Bond or Sluggsy Morant.  Both these men, and others like them, belong to a private jungle into which you’ve strayed for a few hours and from which you’ve escaped.  So don’t go and get sweet dreams about the one or nightmares from the other.  They’re just different people from the likes of you – a different species.’ Captain Stonor smiled, ‘Like hawks and doves . . .”1.

Indeed, when Vivienne first laid eyes on Bond, she thought he was another one of the gangsters there to torment her.   She was frightened because she recognized a kind of cruelty in him.  It is that very cruelty that Fleming wanted readers to see in Bond, which is why he tired of the notion of young school children reading his books praising James Bond as a hero.   Fleming seemed to be tapping into the same themes that we explore today when we analyze our iconic fictional heroes.  The notion that the same darkness may exist in the hero as it does in the villain is not a wholly original one, but I have to give credit to Fleming for at least attempting to explore this theme at a time when his readers wanted more of the same thriller material from him.

As Fleming himself admitted, the experiment of The Spy Who Loved Me failed commercially during the time of publication.  The Times review said, “The novel lacks Mr. Fleming’s usual careful construction and must be written off as a disappointment.”  Another critic wrote that the “author has reached an unprecedented low.”

Fleming himself requested that the book not be released in paperback in the UK and that there be no further printings of it. When Fleming sold the film rights to his Bond series to EON, he included a stipulation that only the title of The Spy Who Loved Me be used and that nothing of the plot should appear in any film adaptation of the book.  EON did eventually release The Spy Who Loved Me as a film in 1977 starring Roger Moore.  It is regarded as one of Moore’s best films, and the plot of the film shares absolutely nothing with the plot of the Fleming novel.  Instead, Bond partners with a female Russian counterpart spy to take down a maniacal villain intent on destroying the planet in order to establish his own underwater city.  As one might guess, the film requires a bit of suspension of disbelief, but it’s actually quite entertaining.

Fleming himself may have wished to discard his novel of The Spy Who Loved Me, but I think the book deserves to be re-evaluated not only by Bond fans but as a work of literature.  Vivienne Michel’s story is an engaging portrait of a woman’s coming of age during a time before the woman’s liberation movement of the 1960s and 70s.  It was written during a time when the notion of a woman exploring her sexuality was still considered taboo.  Today, we have an entire genre of romance and erotica novels that have reached a level mainstream acceptance and financial success.  One needs only to think about the success of Fifty Shades of Grey to see how much things have changed since The Spy Who Loved Me was published in 1962.  One can only wonder how far Fleming would have taken this “experiment” with James Bond had this attempt met with any measure of success. I for one wish he had the chance to experiment even more with Bond.  I think if we re-examine this novel today, many might see that perhaps Fleming’s “experiment” hadn’t failed after all.

the-spy-who-loved-me-novel

Sources:

  1. Fleming, Ian The Spy Who Loved Me. Jonathan Cape, 1962
  2. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Spy_Who_Loved_Me_%28novel%29#cite_note-FOOTNOTEChancellor200511-11
  3. http://www.theguardian.com/books/2012/oct/26/when-ian-fleming-tried-to-escape-james-bond
  4. http://literary007.com/2014/08/20/the-three-ages-of-bond-part-3-suffering-bond-1961-1964/
  5. http://spartacus-educational.com/WNblackwell.htm
  6. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hugh_Gaitskell
  7. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chris_Blackwell

Thunderball: The Bond Story that Killed Ian Fleming

Ian Fleming

Ian Fleming

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.”[1]

Ian Fleming

Ian Fleming

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.”[2]

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.

Kevin McClory

Kevin McClory

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.” [3] 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.”[4]

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.

Thunderball original dust jacket cover by Richard Chopping

Thunderball original dust jacket cover by Richard Chopping

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.

Never Say Never Again poster

Never Say Never Again poster

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.”[5]

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.

Sources:

  1. Footnotes for quotes 1-4 are from: Sellers, Robert The Battle for Bond. Tomahawk Press, 2007
  2. Footnote for quote 5 is from: Fleming, Ian Thunderball. Jonathan Cape, 1961
  1. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kevin_McClory
  1. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thunderball_(novel)
  1. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ian_Fleming
  1. James Bond Radio podcast interview with Robert Sellers : http://jamesbondradio.com/the-battle-for-bond-robert-sellers-interview-podcast-12/
  1. James Bond Radio Podcast interview with Sylvan Mason: http://jamesbondradio.com/jack-whittinghams-thunderball-podcast-013/

[1] Sellers, Robert The Battle for Bond. Tomahawk Press, 2007

[2] Sellers, Robert The Battle for Bond. Tomahawk Press, 2007

[3] Sellers, Robert The Battle for Bond. Tomahawk Press, 2007

[4] Sellers, Robert The Battle for Bond. Tomahawk Press, 2007

[5] Fleming,Ian Thunderball. Jonathan Cape 1961

Yes, Of Course James Bond Could Be Black

idriselba-jamesbond-tsr  idris Elba as Bond

Ignorant comments made by conservative commentator Rush Limbaugh have been circulating concerning the prospect of the choice of Idris Elba to play James Bond. This was after emails from the purported Sony Hack indicated that Elba appears to be a top pick made by Sony executives to play James Bond once Daniel Craig finishes his run as the iconic franchise character. I have personally chosen to refrain from reading the actual contents of the hacked emails because of the nature of how they’ve been obtained, but several news outlets have relished in releasing multiple stories picking apart whatever “insider” information they’ve combed through and capturing the attention of their readers with flashy headlines (ahem . . . cough-cough “Daily Beast”).   The recent story about Idris Elba as a future Bond will probably go down as a mere footnote in this larger media firestorm that has emerged from the Sony hack, yet it has become a hot topic of debate especially among Bond fans.  It has re-ignited certain debates about race in Hollywood and show business, and whether or not non-white actors will or should be considered for roles that might have otherwise gone to white actors in the past.

It’s an interesting topic to debate about no matter where you fall on the issue, but it’s also a controversial topic to discuss because certain opinions when taken out of context could unwittingly be perceived as racist. During his show Limbaugh said, “We had 50 years of white Bonds because Bond is white. Bond was never black. Ian Fleming never created a black Brit to play James Bond. The character was always white. He was always Scottish. He always drank vodka shaken not stirred and all that.”

Many news outlets have been quick to point out that Connery was the only Scottish actor to play Bond.  Pierce Brosnan is Irish, Roger Moore is English, George Lazenby is Australian, and current Bond Daniel Craig is English yet Limbaugh has never been up in arms about these non-Scottish actors playing Bond.  As for Bond’s Scottish origins in the source material, many have theorized that Fleming gave Bond his Scottish ancestry after Sean Connery was given the role.  Indeed, Bond’s Scottish origins are revealed in Fleming’s 11th Bond novel, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, which was written after Connery had been chosen to star as Bond in the first Bond film Dr. No.  There are some scholars who suggest that Fleming had decided on Bond’s origins before Connery had been cast, but judging from Fleming’s previous preference for American actor, composer, and singer Hoagy Carmichael for the role of Bond it would appear that Fleming was more concerned about the physical look of Bond rather than the ancestral origins of the actor who portrayed him.

en-commander-fleming                       Ian-Fleming-Dr-No-Set

Fleming, who initially disapproved of the choice of Connery to play Bond, had mostly modeled the character after himself as well as other men he encountered while he was a Commander in Britain’s Naval Intelligence Division during World War II.  Fleming oversaw many secret operations taking command of a unit called 30 AU (30 Assault Unit), yet Fleming never went into the field himself. He spent most of the war planning these operations at his desk and relying on men under his command to carry out the missions he designed.  The character of Bond, some Fleming scholars have theorized, was essentially created out of Fleming’s fantasy of imagining himself out there in the field carrying out the various missions he designed during the war.  Of course by the time he wrote his first novel, the war had ended so Fleming used the Russians as a frequent antagonist for Bond instead of the Nazis since Fleming himself decided that the stories he wrote should be current.

I don’t subscribe to the notion that someone is racist if they don’t think Bond could be played by a black man.  There are those in the Bond fan community who may agree with Rush Limbaugh to a certain degree because of the literary roots of the character.  Ian Fleming did indeed create a British character named James Bond who is undoubtedly white in the novels.  There is no use arguing about that.  It’s also true that the source material which comprises the James Bond novels was written in the 1950s and early 60s when there was little chance for diversity in the British Secret Service.  The film franchise has wisely chosen to keep the settings of all the films contemporary, however, and over the course of 50 years each and every film has been representative of the time in which it was made – a zeitgeist if you will.  If one keeps that in mind, it certainly makes sense that a black British actor playing Bond at some point in the future could become a reality.  I would argue that today it would be entirely plausible for the British Secret Service to employ agents of various racial backgrounds so there is no reason why Bond couldn’t be portrayed by a black British actor.  If Idris Elba were chosen, I’m sure the filmmakers will make it seem as if he were tailor made for the role just as they’ve done with every other previous Bond actor.

Even the earliest 1960s films with Connery sought to update the source material from the novels which were written a decade earlier. Hence, you won’t find Bond riding a jetpack in any novel, but the novelty of it was used for the 1965 film Thunderball.  Indeed, the filmmakers over the course of 50 years have chosen to update, alter, or change much of Fleming’s source material entirely to the point where there are many films in the franchise that don’t really have much of any connection to the source material other than perhaps the title or a handful of scenes.  There are still quite a few nuggets of scenes from the books that haven’t made it into a Bond film even in an updated form. Much of the story in the novel Moonraker hasn’t been adapted in any way for the films even though Bond filmmakers made a film called Moonraker in 1979, which consisted of a 3rd act inspired by the film producers’ desire to compete with Star Wars.  Last time I checked, I don’t think Fleming ever envisioned Bond going into space, but the film is still accepted as part of the film franchise cannon. If one suspends disbelief a little it’s actually quite a good entry given the time in which it was made.

1965's Thunderball. Note 003 is a woman.  Credit to James Bond Radio and to Jeroen van den Brom who sent them the photo.

1965’s Thunderball. Note 003 is a woman. Credit to James Bond Radio and to Jeroen van den Brom who sent them the photo.

I believe the role should ultimately go to whoever is the best actor for the part regardless of race or even gender (as long as it fits within the plans the filmmakers have for the character).  It was recently revealed to me in a still taken during 1965’s Thunderball when all the 00 agents are gathered that 003 was a woman in that film. It’s one of those things where you have to pause the movie at the exact spot to catch though, but imagine the possibilities of a female Bond or even just a female 00 agent.   I think there’s an infinite amount of story potential to be harnessed if filmmakers and audiences were willing to explore such a prospect.

Of all the iconic cultural franchise characters that have been around for 50 years or more, I believe James Bond would be a great place to begin introducing cultural diversity.  I’m not sure if audiences would be accepting of a black actor portraying Batman or Superman in my lifetime, but I don’t see why non-white actors shouldn’t be considered for these roles.  These are fictional characters after all. Saying that James Bond, Batman, or Superman have to be white is the equivalent of saying Santa Claus has to be white.  Why can’t fictional characters be whoever we wish them to be? We live in a time far removed from when the source material for these characters were created.  As we continue to make these characters relevant to our time, why not be open to the possibility that maybe some of these characters wouldn’t be white if they were created today?

– by Jack Lugo