Thursday, October 30, 2008

The Two James Bonds

If the James Bond of the Ian Fleming novels and the James Bond of the EON Productions films ever met, in some glamorous bar in St Moritz or some seedy dive in the back streets of Belgrade, would they recognise each other?

Would the impossibly ripped Bond of the upcoming Quantum of Solace movie, which enjoyed its royal premiere in London last night, recognise as his progenitor the hard-drinking, 60-a-day-smoking cold war hero into whom Ian Fleming breathed life in 1953?

Both men live in utterly different worlds. With the exception of his womanising, Ian Fleming’s Bond is still a clubland hero of the Richard Hannay or Bulldog Drummond stripe, one of our chaps whose upper lips stiffen at the sound of Elgar on the Third Program. But the James Bond of the world’s most successful movie franchise is an iconic cinematic hero, an avatar of want and desire, a man whose life is soundtracked by the sounding brass of John Barry, without whom the cinematic Bond would be just a little bit 006.

Daniel Craig is only the second Englishman to play James Bond onscreen, but the Bond of the books is not English at all. The London Times’ obituary of Commander James Bond, CMG, RNVR, as quoted in You Only Live Twice, the second last James Bond novel that Ian Fleming wrote, states that Bond is the son of a Scottish father, Andrew Bond of Glencoe, a sales rep for the Vickers gun company, and a Swiss mother, Monique Delacroix, of the Canton de Vaud.

Bond’s parents die in a climbing accident when he is eleven, and he is subsequently raised by a maiden aunt in a village outside Canterbury, in Kent. Bond’s aunt, one Miss Charmain Bond, sends her nephew first to Eton and then to Fettes in Edinburgh for his education. That the inchoate 007 left Eton for Fettes due to “some trouble with one of the boys’ maids” is an indicator of what Bond would be like once he was old enough to be served in public houses.

These mixtures of nationality and upbringing explain the contradictory strands of the Bond of the books’ nature. His snobbery (“Bond mistrusted anyone who tied his tie with a Windsor knot. It showed too much vanity. It was often the mark of a cad.” From Russia with Love, 1957) is a product of his public school education, while Bond’s gourmet tastes are continental in origin; they did not arise from the post War diet of spam and tripe in 1950s Britain.

Bond is described as looking cruel in the books. Vivienne Michel in The Spy Who Loved Me describes Bond as “good looking in a dark, rather cruel way” while Domino Vitali in Thunderball sees “dark, rather cruel good looks.” A Russian general in From Russia with Love cuts closer to the chase: “he looks a nasty customer.”

How jarring it was to hear Daniel Craig say the famous last line of Casino Royale the book, “the bitch is dead now,” in the recent movie. The harshness of the books is out of place in the elaborate fantasy of the movies. On the final page of 1955’s Moonraker, Bond recognises that conventional love and relationships are not for him, that he must “take his cold heart elsewhere. There must be no regrets. No false sentiment. He must play the role which she expected of him. The tough man of the world. The Secret Agent. The man who was only a silhouette.”

By contrast, the Daniel Craig Bond proves that the “bitch is dead” line was just tokenism, a sop to the sort of pathetic and hopeless wretch who would enjoy a brief thrill of recognition of something from the novels. The cinematic Bond is the most hopeless of romantics if he spends the entirety of the next film in seeking to avenge Vesper Lynd’s death. This is a phenomenon known as the magic of the movies.

Have the James Bond novels dated? Considerably. The James Bond books were written in one of the Empire’s final outposts after all, and the days when Great Britain was a player on the world stage are now over. The racism in the books is profound, but 1950s Britain was a racist society – when the first Dirk Bogarde Doctor movie, Doctor in the House, was made in 1954, Bogarde and Kenneth More note on the college noticeboard that a lodging house has no interest in Irish gentlemen.

Bogarde takes the rooms anyway and gets entangled with the landlady’s lovely daughter, played by Shirley Eaton – the same Shirley Eaton who would go on to global fame ten years later as Jill Masterson, the girl who is asphyxiated by gold paint in Goldfinger.

Are the Ian Fleming books still worth reading? Yes, they are, once you get over the hurdle of those dated attitudes (or else revel in them as incidental comedy, of course). The argument of whether or not Fleming was a great author is somewhat moot in age that cleaves to Jacques Derrida’s theories on the death of the author, but Fleming had an unquestionable gift for narrative.

How great a gift is evidenced by the fact that Kingsley Amis, who is considered a literary great, wrote a James Bond novel, Colonel Sun, under the pseudonym of Robert Markham in 1968, and failed utterly to capture that deft Fleming touch.

Where Amis failed and where Fleming was a master is in the constant cascade of detail. Fleming noticed everything, and put it all down in his books. The effect can sometimes make Bond seem an anal-retentive (his breakfast egg must boil for three and a third minutes; his coffee must be from De Bry in New Oxford Street) but the richness of the detail brings everything to life, and that is the most important thing in a thriller.

The Bond of the books, for all his expensive tastes, walked the same streets and lived in the same world as his readers, while the Bond of the movies, with his underwater cars and enemies who command such vast armies of personnel that they can build space stations without anyone ever noticing, belongs strictly to the realm of fantasy.

When Bond tries to buy time in a deadly confrontation with the SMERSH assassin at the end of From Russia with Love he curses his luck that the cigarette he’s smoking is just that, a cigarette: “if only it had been a trick one – magnesium flare, or anything he could throw in the man’s face! If only his service went in for those explosive toys!” If the two Bonds ever do meet, in some strange trans-dimensional beachfront bar at Nassau, it’s clear which one will envy the other.

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