On Her Majesty’s Secret Service

The best news the fans of James Bond books could have heard last year was that Paul Haggis was working on the screenplay for Casino Royale, and that this movie would stick closely to Ian Fleming’s book. Haggis, the writer of Crash and Flags of Our Fathers, teamed up with writers of the last few Bond-taculars to restore some intelligence to what had become a franchise sustained only by a spectacular chase, followed by a fight, followed by an explosion, followed by sex. Repeat as necessary.

Casino Royale, the first of Fleming’s books, is the purest distillation of Bond. There is a mission. There is a card game. Bond is tortured. He gets the girl, sort of. There is only one audible gun shot, and it’s not even fired by Bond. News that the screenplay was going to stick to the basic plot, and would contain at least some of the nuance of the book, was welcome indeed. (Those who go to Bond movies for the action need not worry, though. The mission setup, which was handled in the book by a conversation in M’s office, features in the film the best Bond chase ever, a couple of explosions, and lots of gunfire. Oh yeah, there’s a woman, too. But once the movie’s financiers have been satisfied, you get some actual Fleming-brand Bond.)

The Bond literary phenomenon was characterized early on as a mere combination of “sex, sadism, and snobbery.” Those elements are all there, to be sure, but reducing them to the three-“S” formula grossly underestimates Fleming. In 1953, the year Casino Royale appeared, Elizabeth II was crowned monarch of a country that was little better than a vassal state of the United States and an irrelevant player in the battle between its liege and the Soviet Union. Neither power paid much attention to the country that had put on such a poor show in Europe and Asia during World War II, had lost its empire, and had sunk into economic despair.

But Fleming, a former intelligence officer, knew that intelligence was where Britain actually had made a difference in the war. The Brits were the master German code breakers, after all. Where could a badly needed hero emerge? How could relevance be restored? Only one man for the job, really. Bond. James Bond.

The plot of Casino Royale is simple, plausible and eschews the grandiose evil schemes that pepper the later books. Le Chiffre is the banker for the Russian spy operation in Western Europe. He’s been embezzling from his employers, and has set himself up at a high stakes Baccarat game in order to replenish the payroll account before the ruthless Russians find out. Somehow the Brits have learned about this before the Russians; they send Bond, the best card player in the service, to bust him at the table. Bond’s not quite as good as all that, however (and Baccarat is a much more difficult game than the Texas Hold ’em of the movie,) and he’s the one who is busted instead. The CIA, which also seems to be way ahead of the Russians, steps in and bankrolls Bond and the poor British, and Bond eventually triumphs on the second go round. (The film version makes a point of rubbing in the Brits’ poverty when Bond asks Felix Leiter, his CIA counterpart, where to send the winnings; the reply: “Do we look like we need it?”)

Eventually, Bond is tortured by Le Chiffre for the money and, ironically, it is the Russians, who’ve finally realized what MI-6 and the CIA have known for quite a while, who rescue him. After his recovery from the torture, Bond suffers the further indignity of being double-crossed yet again—which adds a subtlety to the plot (thankfully preserved in the movie) that appears far too rarely in subsequent books, and almost never in the films.

To give away the twist would spoil the movie … and the book. In the book, the twist is the end, and Bond’s discovery of it leads him to the realization that the real game was always being played at one level above his pay grade. It seems that that ending didn’t sit well with test audiences of the film, however, and so we’re made to suffer an unnecessary coda which leaves us with Bond thinking he can actually do something meaningful … and, by the way, sets up the next movie.

The Fleming books are infinitely darker than the movie franchise. The best of the books build on Bond’s despondence first seen at the end of Casino Royale. In the books there is none of the quipping made famous by Sean Connery or Roger Moore (but plenty of the anomie of Timothy Dalton—the best film Bond.) We do get the occasional gourmet meal featuring caviar and champagne, but far more often, Bond satisfies himself with, believe it or not, scrambled eggs. These are often washed down not with a shaken martini or a bottle of Bollinger ’53, but with the better part of a bottle of bourbon and too many cigarettes. Bond is, in reality, a drunk. The infrequent feasts and frequent hangovers are his reward for what he knows is a lousy life—a life in which he gets many more brutal beatings from his enemies than lusty scenes with his leading ladies.

The Bond of Fleming’s books can be as brutish as his enemies. When he meets Vesper Lynd, his beautiful fellow agent in Casino Royale, she gazes at him “with a touch of ironical disinterest which, to his annoyance, he found he would like to shatter, roughly.” When they finally do make love, Bond knew “that the conquest of her body, because of the central privacy in her, would each time have the sweet tang of rape.” When it comes to the women of the Secret Service, we’re treated to the contents of their personnel files, including bust, waist, and hip measurements. They all seem to be built like Marilyn Monroe. It’s not surprising that President Kennedy was a fan of the books. Today, we can’t help but wonder if M’s personnel file would contain Judy Dench’s vital statistics.

But, as Bond goes about making it with a series of women, the reader realizes the only ones that he is able to form any sort of emotional attachment with are somehow terribly damaged, or are out to damage him. There are no happy endings to the books, none of the typical culminating scenes in the movies, where Bond and the girl float away in a tropical island embrace. When there is sex, it’s brutal and impersonal. When there is love, it always turns out badly, more so for the women than Bond. And while one trademark of the movies is their highly suggestive scenes, there are no prurient interludes in the Fleming books. It’s almost as if he were denying his readers the same genuine satisfaction he was denying Bond.

The best intercourse of the Fleming books is that between Bond and his adversaries. The Baccarat match with Le Chiffre in Casino Royale, the bridge game with Hugo Drax in Moonraker, and the golf with Auric Goldfinger are all more visceral than any feminine interplay. His victories in these encounters are far more satisfying to Bond than his eventual destruction of their evil plots or the bedding of the converted vixen.

In the last novel Fleming finished before his death, You Only Live Twice, Bond is called “a blunt instrument of policy,” words repeated by M in the film of Casino Royale. By You Only Live Twice, Bond is nothing more than that blunt instrument, and an unrepentant guzzler of sake besides. He’s sent by M to Japan as an expendable commodity offered to the Japanese secret service in return for Russian intelligence that they’d been previously providing only to the CIA, and which the CIA would not share with the British. In addition to the personal service he’s to provide, he also has to listen to a lecture from the head of the Japanese service about why the British are irrelevant.

The Japanese send him to assassinate a prominent botanist, who has constructed an elaborate poison garden to lure the suicide-prone Japanese to their deaths. Unknown to the Japanese, the British, and Americans, this botanist turns out to be none other than Ernst Stavro Blofeld, the villain of Thunderball and the murderer of Bond’s only true love in On His Majesty’s Secret Service. But by now, like Bond, who no longer gives a damn about Queen and Country, Blofeld also no longer cares about SPECTRE’s avowed purposes: terrorism, revenge, and extortion. Blofeld’s designed his death garden for the pleasure of watching the Japanese annihilate themselves one at a time. It’s a metaphorical mirror held up to Bond’s entire world.

Bond kills Blofeld in You Only Live Twice, but, in the process, loses his identity and his memory—he even forgets how to make love to a woman. Only at that point does this genuinely unlikable “blunt instrument” finally become a sympathetic character.

At the end of an earlier book, Diamonds are Forever, Bond muses about trying to write his own epitaph. He comes up with “It reads better than it lives.” That’s exactly what Fleming was trying to tell us all along.