The James Bond films are a 53-year, 24-film franchise that until very recently has been drowning in mediocrity. In an attempt to understand how such a study in averageness can breed a cultural phenomenon I’ve watched them all, watched them all again, watched the “edgy one” with George Lazenby, watched the new ones with Daniel Craig, even watched License to Kill twice — and License to Kill has all the intrigue and drama of Pauly Shore’s Bio-Dome. I love the Bond franchise; I have ever since I first witnessed 007’s adventures on the big screen (it was Goldeneye — not the most auspicious start) and dove into the world of Aston Martin DB5s and shaken martinis. Then, this June I decided to finally read the books and explore the genesis of my favorite secret agent. Having just recently finished the 14-book series, all I can say is that it’s been a revelation and the James Bond we’ve been seeing on screen lately — moody, introspective, genuinely human — is getting closer and closer to Fleming’s original.
Astute readers will have realized that through a catchy title and compelling introduction you’ve been roped into another “The books are so much better than the movies” opinion piece — but this is a point worth making for those of you whose only experience with the British secret agent is through Connery, Moore, Craig or, god forbid, Brosnan. During his writing career, Ian Fleming produced 12 full-fledged Bond books beginning with Casino Royale in 1953 and ending with The Man With The Golden Gun, which was published in 1965, a year after Fleming succumbed to a heart attack. Along the way there were also two Bond short story collections (For Your Eyes Only and Octopussy and the Living Daylights), and he even took the time to pen Chitty Chitty Bang Bang for his only son.
The books are incredible. Of course, From Russia With Love isn’t going to compete intellectually with The Brothers Karamazov, and it’s worth noting that, being a product of ’50s Britain, the books tend to have a not-subtle tinge of racism, misogyny and general insensitivity. But for what they are, for quick thrills and engrossing adventure, they’re unmatched. If there’s to be a Bond Dynasty (and at this point it’s safe to say there is), it would be a gross disservice to only remember Agent 007 from the films.
By way of illustration, in the opening of the one of the most critically acclaimed Bond films, 1964’s Goldfinger, Sean Connery infiltrates a Mexican drug laboratory using a grappling hook and a scuba mask inexplicably topped with a stuffed seagull. He then proceeds to set a bomb of plastic explosive, check his Rolex Submariner and change into a strapping white tux before the scene is set into chaos as the bomb explodes and Bond utters the phrase “At least they won’t be using heroin-flavored bananas to finance the revolution,” before killing another Mexican by throwing a space heater into a bathtub. We’re well outside the realm of subtlety here.
Compare that to the opening of Fleming’s 1959 book of the same name and plot:
James Bond, with two double bourbons inside him, sat in the final departure lounge of Miami Airport and thought about life and death. It was part of his profession to kill people. He had never liked doing it and when he had to kill he did it as well as he knew how and forgot about it. As a secret agent who held the rare double-O prefix – the licence to kill in the Secret Service – it was his duty to be as cool about death as a surgeon. If it happened, it happened. Regret was unprofessional – worse, it was death-watch beetle in the soul.
And yet there had been something curiously impressive about the death of the Mexican. It wasn’t that he hadn’t deserved to die. He was an evil man, a man they call in Mexico a capungo. A capungo is a bandit who will kill for as little as forty pesos, which is about twenty-five shillings – though probably he had been paid more to attempt the killing of Bond – and, from the look of him, he had been an instrument of pain and misery all his life. Yes, it had certainly been time for him to die; but when Bond had killed him, less than twenty-four hours before, life had gone out of the body so quickly, so utterly, that Bond had almost seen it come out of his mouth as it does, in the shape of a bird, in Haitian primitives.
We’re not talking high philosophy, but there’s clearly a world of difference between the Bonds portrayed in film and literature. In Goldfinger, this gap is at about the average. Sean Connery does eventually utter the line “My dear girl, there are some things that just aren’t done, such as drinking Dom Perignon ’53 above the temperature of 38 degrees Fahrenheit,” with so much of the smug self-satisfaction that’s personified the Bond of film — but he doesn’t get anywhere near the camp-ness of Roger Moore, who more or less bumbled his way through 12 years of Bond. Really the only film Bond that’s come close to an accurate representation of Fleming’s vision was Daniel Craig in 2006’s excellent Casino Royale. In Craig’s debut there’s still all the chase scenes and fights and gadgetry, but you get the sense that Bond — while still being a bit of an emotionally detached sociopath — can break down and be human every once in a while. The equally emotional and cunning Vesper Lynd (played by the dreamy Eva Green) certainly helps this along compared to the Pussy Galores and Honey Ryders of previous films. The scene between the two of them on the train to Montenegro is one of the best in Bond history and not once is the proper serving temperature of Champagne mentioned.
The fact of the matter is that we’re currently in a golden age of Bond on film and with a little luck we’re bound to ride out this wonderful wave of a darker, more human 007 for a few more years regardless of who’ll be inside the tux (assuming Spectre‘s found an ending by now). That being said though, if you’re craving more of this introspective, genuinely human 007 that we’ve been seeing in theaters there’s really only one place to go: all the way back to the book of Bond, chapter one, verse one.