That License to Kill Is Unexpired
Bruce Geerdes <bruce@...
2008-06-01 13:58:06 GMT
That License to Kill Is Unexpired
By CHARLES McGRATH
IAN FLEMING, had he lived, would have celebrated his 100th birthday on
Wednesday. James Bond, his greatest invention, is probably a bit
younger, strictly speaking (the evidence in the books is a little
contradictory) — except that Bond, of course, is ageless and immortal.
Never mind those three packs a day; he has wind to spare. His liver,
astoundingly, is still holding up. He has survived not only Fleming
but Kingsley Amis and John Gardner, who, among others, kept on
publishing Bond novels in Fleming's stead. With a new Bond book just
out — "Devil May Care" by Sebastian Faulks — there are now, in
addition to the 12 Bond novels that Fleming actually wrote, almost
twice as many that he didn't.
In the movies, whenever a Bond shows the least sign of faltering, he
is immediately unplugged and a new one wheeled in. Sean Connery was
unforgettable in the role, and Daniel Craig has yet to wear himself
out. His second Bond picture, the 22nd in the saga, called "Quantum of
Solace," whatever that means, is scheduled for release in November.
But who any longer remembers poor George Lazenby, even though his sole
Bond film, "On Her Majesty's Secret Service," was actually one of the
best, or Timothy Dalton, whose two Bond flicks were among the worst?
As for Roger Moore and Pierce Brosnan, they blend in memory into a
sleek, somewhat ironic Bond — a little weary, you feel, from carrying
all that history around.
Mr. Faulks's new book, on the other hand, featuring a slightly weary
Bond, improbably injects new life into the formula.
"Devil May Care" is in many ways a stronger novel than any that
Fleming wrote, both because it's better written and because it has all
the Bond lore to draw upon. It's a satisfying thriller in its own
right, set in the early '60s and beginning in Paris — very
satisfactorily — with a man getting his tongue pulled out with pliers,
then traveling to Iran and Russia.
But it's also a fond and at times funny homage to all the other books
in the series. Felix Leiter, Bond's old American friend, turns up,
only now without an arm and a leg after being tossed into a shark tank
in "Live and Let Die." The villain has one hand that resembles a hairy
monkey's paw, and his sidekick, an Oddjob-like character named
Chagrin, has to wear a kepi because after an operation to render him a
psychopath, his skull plate no longer fits. And the plot is full of
little nods in the direction of famous Bond landmarks: there's a
crooked tennis game, for example, reminiscent of Le Chiffre as a
cardsharp in "Casino Royale" and of Goldfinger as a cheater at golf.
At a certain level all the Bond stories are the same story. There's
the villain, the girl (in "Devil May Care," the appealing and
surprising Scarlett Papava) and the plot that threatens the end of
civilization. Bond thwarts the first, sleeps with the second, gets
beaten or tortured, and then reunites with the girl, often while still
in his wet suit.
The movies are even more similar, and almost invariably include set
pieces like the opening sequence with the gun barrel and the
inevitable, flirty interview with Miss Moneypenny. What varies is
mostly the escalating gimmickry of the gadgets, the special effects
and the sexiness of the actresses. Ursula Andress, emerging from the
waves in a bikini in the first Bond pic, "Dr. No" (1962), set the bar
very high, and in some ways viewers have been jaded ever since.
But to a considerable extent it's the series of Bond movies, one of
the most successful franchises in film history, that have kept the
books going, after a fashion, and not the other way around. In recent
years neither the Fleming originals nor the knockoffs have sold
particularly well, though Doubleday has high hopes for the new one and
is printing an initial 250,000 copies.
Fleming lived long enough to see only the first two Bond movies, "Dr.
No" and "From Russia With Love," which happen to be the most faithful
to his texts. Many of the others have little in common with what he
wrote other than a title, and the Bond most of us think we know —
suave, debonair, unflappable and, in his later incarnations, a little
bland — is more nearly the movie character than the one Fleming
Albert R. Broccoli, a producer of the first 17 Bond films, could be
said to be a co-creator of this other, meta-Bond. It was he or his
writers who made a trademark of the "Bond. James Bond" line, for
example, and who insisted on the "shaken, not stirred" business.
Fleming's Bond is not nearly so fussy about what he drinks, as long as
there is plenty of it. He's as apt to slug down bourbon as a martini.
This Bond is also much more fetishistic about smoking than he is about
drinking and makes a point of ordering his cigarettes (with three gold
bands on the filter) from Morlands of Grosvenor Street. (In a pinch,
though, he'll also smoke Chesterfield kings by the carton, and it's
little short of miraculous that he can climb a flight of stairs, let
alone swim for miles, as he so often does.) He likes fast automobiles
but hates gizmos, except for the odd concealed knife, and wouldn't get
caught dead with the laser watches, ejector seats, tricked-out cars
and exploding key chains the movie Bond has been kitted out with, not
to mention that embarrassing jet pack.
Fleming's Bond also has a dark streak of world-weariness and
melancholy we never get to see on screen. He's casually racist (in
"Live and Let Die" especially), misogynistic (giving women the vote
encourages their lesbian tendencies, he believes) and anti-Semitic in
a way that would never be permitted in the movies. And he's far
kinkier sexually than any of his movie incarnations. Good sex for Bond
is sex that has "the sweet tang of rape"; when he first goes to bed
with Vesper Lynde, in "Casino Royale," we're told, he "wanted to see
tears and desire in her remote blue eyes and to take the ropes of her
black hair in his hands and bend her long body back under his." And in
a surprising number of incidents Bond is beaten or burned around the
genitals — most famously by Le Chiffre in "Casino Royale' but also by
Blofeld in "You Only Live Twice" — to the point where his potency is
In all these respects Bond bears a more than passing resemblance to
his creator, except that Fleming was a far nastier piece of work. He
was born in Mayfair, London, in 1908, the second son of a well-to-do
member of Parliament. Like Bond (whose offense was "trouble with one
of the boys' maids"), he was kicked out of Eton, and he dropped out of
Sandhurst. He subsequently failed as a journalist and a stockbroker,
and the war was his salvation. With few other qualifications than
knowing the right people, he became assistant to the director of naval
intelligence and eventually rose to the rank of commander (same as
Bond), in charge of his own special operations unit.
After the war he returned, half-heartedly, to journalism and more
enthusiastically to his main interest: womanizing. In 1952 he married
Lady Anne Rothmere, with whom he had been carrying on during her two
previous marriages. Their relationship was intense but not
particularly faithful on either side, and it was based on a shared
taste for what the French call le vice anglais. "I am the chosen
instrument of the Holy Man to whip some of the devil out of you," he
wrote to her once, "and I must do my duty however much pain it causes
me. So be prepared to drink your cocktails standing for a few days."
Fleming died in 1964, a premature wreck done in by Bondian habits: 70
cigarettes and a bottle of gin a day. By then he looked, friends said,
like a bloodhound who had been out in the sun too long. But the
novels, which some of his writer friends, like Evelyn Waugh and Cyril
Connolly, delighted in poking fun at, brought him satisfaction and a
sense of purpose, not to mention a very nice stream of income. He
wrote the first, "Casino Royale," in just four weeks in 1952, and once
he hit on the formula he never deviated, publishing a Bond novel a
year until he died. There are better Bond books, and worse ones, but
they don't really evolve, any more than Bond himself does.
At a certain level the Bond books are cold war fantasies, celebrating
material comfort and diplomatic importance at a time when Britain
didn't have a great deal of either. When Fleming began writing,
British families were still using ration cards and the Empire was
mostly a memory. So the books were really wish fulfillments; they took
British readers to places, like Jamaica and Haiti, where most of them
could never imagine going, and on Bond they projected an image of
competence and worldly wisdom.
The plots run as efficiently as Bond's 4.5-liter Bentley, with
scarcely a wasted word, but the books are also extravagant, with their
over-the-top villains — Hugo Drax, Emilio Largo, Goldfinger, Ernst
Blofeld and his creepy consort, Irma Bunt — and their parade of barely
clad heroines so absurdly named they sound like lingerie brands:
Solitaire, Tiffany Case, Honeychile Rider, Kissy Suzuki. You get the
sense that Fleming — bored, cynical and out of sorts — wrote them to
entertain himself as much as the reader. All of them were knocked off
at Goldeneye, his estate in Jamaica (now a boutique hotel), with time
out for cocktails and snorkeling.
The formula seems easy to imitate, but most of the Bond knockoffs are
pretty disappointing. The dozen or so by Mr. Gardner are particularly
bad; they're clumsily written and manifest a regrettable politically
correct tendency, giving Bond low-tar cigarettes to smoke, for
example, and a Saab to drive. But even Mr. Amis's Bond novel, "Colonel
Sun," which was published in 1968 under the name Robert Markham, is a
little stiff and joyless. Mr. Amis, who also wrote "The Book of Bond,
or Every Man His Own 007," loved the Bond novels and wasn't slumming
when he agreed to try one.
If anything, he took the project too seriously. "Colonel Sun" is
fussily written, without Fleming's flair for sweeping generalizations,
and the plot — a Communist Chinese scheme to wreak havoc on the Middle
East — is literal and overly complicated. Even worse, the girl, a
Greek partisan named Ariadne, and the villain, Colonel Sun, are dull
and uninspired. The latter's evilness seems to consist mostly of just
being Chinese, or "a yellow slug," as M., Bond's superior, calls him.
Mr. Amis doesn't even do much with the sex scenes, which are of the
"they had become one creature with a single will" variety, though he
does manage a nice torture sequence, with the colonel, who scorns
genital assault as "too unsophisticated," preferring to drive a skewer
through his victim's eardrum.
Mr. Faulks is not a thriller writer but a highly regarded writer of
literary fiction, probably best known for "Birdsong," set in World War
I, and "Charlotte Gray," set in World War II. Both feature a certain
amount of spying, though not of the Bondian sort. His last book,
"Engleby," is about a journalist who becomes a psychopath.
When Mr. Faulks was first approached by the Fleming estate, he
"thought it was pretty droll, actually," he said in a recent phone
interview from London, where he lives. "I thought I was a very odd
choice indeed, and I was amused by the whole idea." But Mr. Faulks was
between books at the time, so he agreed to reread the Bond novels,
which he hadn't looked at since he was a teenager. "They were quite a
lot better than I thought they would be," he said. "I wouldn't say I
was on the edge of my seat, but I did enjoy them, and I thought they
were pretty well written, in a journalistic way — free of cliché.
There are some very silly things, like the plot of 'Goldfinger,' and
some of the names of people are just ridiculous. But on the whole my
reservations rather evaporated."
One key to a successful knockoff, he decided, was finding the right
story, and eventually he came up with one that involved both the
catastrophic cold war ominousness that Fleming so loved and the kind
of specific crime plot that energizes the best of the Bond novels. In
"Devil May Care" the villain is trying to undermine Western
civilization by addicting everyone to cheap drugs. A subplot involves
a rogue C.I.A. operative who wants to drag Britain into Vietnam.
"Mostly I just had fun," Mr. Faulks said. "I wrote the book the way
Fleming did — 2,000 words a day, except I left out the cocktails and
"Tuning into the style was the difficult thing," he continued. "You
have to hear the tone. That applies to your own book as well as to
anyone else's. And so finding that style, that pitch, was
all-important. With Fleming, once I'd got his voice I developed a
sentence structure that was about 20 percent mine and 80 percent his —
plenty of verbs, not many adverbs or adjectives. The real danger was
getting too close and then winding up in parody territory."
He added: "I didn't anguish, and I didn't feel Fleming looking over my
shoulder. The only difficulty I had was when I wanted to slow the
story down, to allow a page or two for something significant to sink
in. I thought that I could draw a little on Bond's inner life, but I
found that Bond doesn't really have an inner life."
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