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Some Thoughts On Fleming and Bond...

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#1 DavidJones



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Posted 07 May 2014 - 08:28 PM

I may be wrong in this, but James Bond doesn’t have much character, and the little he does have is never truly exploited. He seems to be fastidious, from his clothes and food to how he likes his cocktail. He even takes the adage ‘five a day’ to mean showers instead of vegetables. He’s also tough, snobby and dour. The rest of him is filled in with Fleming’s own attitudes and opinions, to the point where he becomes everything Fleming wished he could have been. Even his reminisces, such as his beach holiday memories at the beginning of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, are Fleming’s, not Bond’s. He appears to be a cipher with aspirations to become a character. In the books, he is an avatar for Fleming, and characterised in the films by whoever plays him – if it’s acerbic Connery or the twinkly-eyed Moore – and, finally, he is our own avatar, our object of self-projection.


The films changed him slightly to make him more appealing to audiences: for example, he is witty – always something people wish they were – and smoother with the ladies. In place of more substantial characteristics, they put crowd-pleasing accoutrements like stunts, gadgets and cars – anything, in other words, to give the audience something to think of when they thought of this soulless cypher alternately dressing like an insurance broker or a guest at a royal wedding.  


It seems there’s a great deal of effort by Eon when referring to Fleming’s work (and also by William Boyd in his press interviews for Solo) to make out as though the literary Bond was this deep, tortured character who hates himself more with every killing he causes. It’s become such a cliché to ‘go back to the spirit of Fleming’ that it’s anyone’s guess what it actually means. It sounds commendable, certainly, as is any stated intention by filmmakers to stay faithful to the original source, though it loses credibility when one actually pauses to think what is a spirit of Fleming and, if it’s in the room, is it holding its head in his hands and trying not to look at the Roger Moore section of the DVDs?


Is it the fight with a giant Octopus at the end of Doctor No? Or is it the more serious tone of From Russia with Love, in which Fleming was consciously trying to pen a ‘straight’ spy thriller in the mould of Graham Greene and Eric Ambler? This latter point also addresses another misgiving about his work and that is the unevenness.


Despite From Russia…., he was never as serious a writer as John Le Carre or Len Deighton or even Helen MacInnes, who often characterised her work with globe-trotting. Neither is it apparent that Fleming was in possession of a sense of humour. Consequently, he seems to fall between two stools. The repartee of the inherent in the films can be found more readily in The Saint novels, or any of the British thrillers of the 30s and earlier and even as far back as the Bulldog Drummond stories, at which point it turns into Wodehousian whimsy. It was the filmmakers, particularly Terrence Young, who put the wit – as effective, it proved, as the most lethal gadget – in Bond’s arsenal. 


It was also in Drummond – and also the well-intentioned thuggery of Mike Hammer – in which Fleming found the elements he wanted for Bond. The megalomaniacal villains, meanwhile, can readily be sourced in Drummond’s nemesis Carl Peterson, Dr Fu Manchu, any number of high-minded rascals pitting themselves against Simon Templar, the rogues’ gallery of Sexton Blake villains and, in particular, Jules Verne’s atomic bomb thrillers Robur the Conqueror and Facing the Flag.  


Despite such weak-footed derivation – other writers, after all, were making repeated visits to the same well, such as Desmond Cory, James Leasor, and a young Dennis Wheatley – it is Fleming who remains, thanks in no small part to the franchise which has constantly reminded audiences of the character he created. It is a sort of pseudo-snobbery, of course, in which some people disparage the films in favour of the books. This happens with almost all books, of course, as it currently is with Game of Thrones/A Song of Ice and Fire. The same continues to happen with Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, if not Agatha Christie’s Poirot. There’s an implication by such zealots that while brain-dead cinema-goers can chortle and cheer at the films – which, with their spectacular stunts and set-pieces, can almost be likened to the expertly-synchronised antics of a circus – it takes a mature and sensitive mind to appreciate the deep character that is the literary Bond. He is, supposedly, the object of a nationalistic double-standard, a government-funded killer who is forced to be as bad as the bad in order to overthrow them. But although such paradoxes are possible and even justified, they are never sufficiently addressed by Fleming to make them discernable in the actual novels. Instead, Fleming is too busy navigating his avatar towards the nearest dinner table to over-indulge on – of all things – scrambled eggs, or mutter something condescending about socialists.  


Much has been made of the prevalent branding – perhaps the earliest product placement known to fiction – and the effect it must surely have had on the ration-bound British public. Indeed, Casino Royale was published a mere year before rationing ceased. It is perhaps Fleming’s claim to originality, aside from the ‘sex and sadism’ which has followed the books around like a secret agent stalking his target. While Fleming enjoyed fine food, it is doubtful that Fleming was fettishistic – as it is doubtful that he too slept with a gun under his pillow – and it can surely be seen as part of the same languid, occasionally frenetic, daydream his character drifts through. The sadism angle is curious in itself, as such sensationalism is usually the hallmark of pulp fiction, and despite the garish paperback Pan covers, the Bond books managed to be too ostentatious to be sensational and not literary enough to be treated respectfully all at the same time.


Despite this, it must be remembered, these books were major best-sellers in their time, even if their apparent immortality is perhaps undeserved. Their transformation from pulp to prestige is complete: from being available for the price of a packet of cigarettes at a newspaper stand and read with the cover turned back on the train from Paddington Station, to their present existence as ‘Penguin Classics’, read as audio books or performed for radio by respected thespians trying to convince themselves it is more savoury than that Man With the Golden Gun repeat they caught the previous afternoon. Furthermore, as played by Dominic Cooper, Fleming is perceived how he always wanted to be, as a Bond-like war hero, in the BBC mini-series. Ironically, after such ashamed belittling from his wife and her society friends, and even his own self-effacing flippancy, Ian Fleming and his novels are almost respectable.

Edited by DavidJones, 07 May 2014 - 08:37 PM.

#2 Jim


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Posted 08 May 2014 - 05:24 AM



Not personally convinced that written Bond doesn't have much character; as you later observe, he essentially has Fleming's and - for good or ill - that was abundant.


Insofar as the rationale for the book and film Bond avatars go, you raise a chewy thought. The written Bond was a direct transposition of the desires of one man, although I'd suggest their relationship became fractious in due course. The film Bond, being the product of a corporation, is a blank means onto which the audience transfers its desires, and hence its fluidity over the years as consumer practices, aspirations and societies change. For those arguing that the films must give us the book Bond, it's a dangerous desire as he might not universally appeal in his outlook and attitudes nor sell too many watches nor attract our own wish-fulfilment. It's easier in the pursuit of entertainment to desire to be the film Bond - because that's their intention, selling us our desires - than want to be the one in the books - I have no particular desire to be Ian Fleming, save for the nice house.


On Fleming being an inconsistent writer - absolutely. Depends what was boring / frustraing / (as the books progressed, less common) interesting him at the time. The films are inconsistent too, albeit via second guessing what would bore / frustrate / interest their audience and sell. Until recently, it's hard to extrapolate much vision beyond that. For different reasons, they achieve the inconsistent spirit of Fleming in so doing. It doesn't have to be transcribed from the page to achieve it.


The impression I get from your piece is that you're frustrated that folks demean the films for not being the books. Wouldn't worry about it; that's like demeaning a dog for not being a chair. They achieve different things and can nicely co-exist. Fleming is just a convenient weapon for the lazy to bash the films over the head with, usually from those who haven't grasped that the films are produced with wholly different intentions and it's a hollow argument.

#3 SecretAgentFan



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Posted 08 May 2014 - 12:04 PM

Arguments - on Bond and other things as well - too often are based on ideas that were started by uninformed, lazy critics and were repeated often enough to cross over into the mainstream, accepted as general opinion or even truth.


Hence the idea that Bond is a cipher with no character traits.  Except... insert the numerous character traits he is given.


What do people expect from a better rounded character?  Mainly that he is coming from "respectable" literature.  But if you actually look at most of those "incredibly lively drawn" characters you end up finding... well, not much else than what Fleming has given Bond.  And if you want to say "But Hamlet..." - let me stop you right there.  Did we ever find out which meal he prefers?  Or which brand of cigarettes?  He is pissed because his uncle has schemed with his mother to murder his father.  Of course, he is melancholic now, given to fits of rage and talking to himself.  Is that really well-rounded?  And if so, wouldn´t John Rambo be at least just as well defined?  He actually is, but he is coming from the "tut-tut-we do not take this seriously"-camp.


What I basically am trying to say is... is... um... uh...


Read Jim´s comment again.

Edited by SecretAgentFan, 08 May 2014 - 12:05 PM.

#4 DavidJones



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Posted 08 May 2014 - 01:47 PM

i get what you're saying SecretAgent Fan. In fact, with the matter of critics saying something and everybody else repeating it with the confidence that said critic was presumably intelligelent/well-informed, that not only happens with Bond but with religion, science and politics too. It's why a great many people stand by evolution - just because Richard Dawkins does and "he must know 'cause he's from Oxford". As you point out, it does beg the question, "What is a well-drawn character?" Presumably, literary snobs think it can be found in Tolstoy and nothing else. It's ironic that literature - the most expansive of art - is often recieved by the narrowest of minds. William Boyd has said that seeing a dead body makes Bond throw up, though I've never read Fleming depict this and it would perhaps be irregular for an assassin to do that, anyway. I'm a great supporter of strong character and plot being found in all manners of popular fiction: Martin Riggs from Lethal Weapon, for example, is a particularly compelling character (a trigger-happy widower with a death wish and a ready wit).

#5 Guy Haines

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Posted 01 August 2014 - 12:08 PM

I've always thought of Bond as based largely on his creator and what his creator wanted to be. Granted there are elements taken from other sources - in fiction, such as Bulldog Drummond, in fact such as real SOE men such as Fitzroy Maclean or double agents like Dusko Popov. But mostly Bond is based on Fleming himself, imho, and his tastes.


The nearer the films are to the spirit of the books the better they are, in my view, but I recognise that it would have been difficult to film them exactly like the books if not impossible. There are elements of gratuitous sex and violence which the producers couldn't have got away with, even in the "swinging 60s". There are aspects of sex and violence still which could not be filmed now, together with the changed attitudes in society towards race and so on, which are not always reflected in the tone and language of the novels, something I've discovered over the past few weeks whilst listening to them on audio CD.