February 08, 2013

F5 #2: Bond. James Bond.

I first discovered James Bond in grade 8, sometime in 1983–84. My first experience with Ian Fleming's quintessential Britisy superspy was an airing of Moonraker on TV. (Throughout the 1980s, ABC seemed to have a monopoly on broadcasting Bond films in prime-time, and showed one every couple of months.) Not very long afterward, I hit up the public library for Ian Fleming's novel. I was surprised—but not at all disappointed—to discover that Fleming's 1955 novel was quite a different animal from its 1979 filmed counterpart, which resembled it in name only.

The result, however, was that I fell in love with both Fleming's series of novels and the movies made from them. So, as my second instalment of this year's F5 series, and in light of the 50th anniversary movie Skyfall's release on home video this week, I present:

My Four Favourite . . . James Bond Novels

The James Bond series didn't end with the death of Ian Fleming, of course: Fleming's estate authorized several authors to continue the series afterwards. I have read, and enjoyed, a number of John Gardners' books, which updated Bond for the 1980s. However, I am limiting myself here to the 14 novels and short-story collections authored by Ian Fleming himself.

  • Moonraker: This is as clear a case as any of my first time still being my favourite. The novel begins with Bond as M.'s guest in his club, determine how Hugo Drax, a rocket scientist in charge of England's first nuclear weapons program, could be cheating at bridge. Later, when a government officer is killed on the project site, Bond is assigned to investigate. It turns out (of course) that Drax and his rocket project are not what they seem. Some critics thought that the plot of this novel was over the top. Today, it reads like what it is: a post-war thriller about the infant sciences of rocketry and atomic physics. I can imagine what these same critics thought of the movie, which tried to cash in on the success of Star Wars.
  • Casino Royale: In James Bond's literary debut, his assignment is to confront Le Chiffre, a gambler who is an agent of the Soviet counterintelligence agency SMERSH, out-gamble and bankrupt him at the card table. My grandparents' cottage had a copy of this and For Your Eyes Only on the bookshelf, and as timing would have it, the first Bond novel was my second. I was drawn into this novel first by the description of Bond's game of baccarat against the villain Le Chiffre, and also by the car chase later in the novel. While James Bond is known better for driving Aston-Martin sports cars, in Fleming's world he preferred Bentleys.
  • You Only Live Twice: Following the murder of his wife by recurring villain Ernst Blofeld, a distraught Bond is sent on a diplomatic mission to Japan. He discovers that Blofeld is living there under an assumed name, and goes after him. This was the last novel completed by Fleming before his death. The most memorable scenes involve the training of nonjas, and Blofeld's "garden of death."
  • The Man With the Golden Gun: This sequel to You Only Live Twice was completed and published after Fleming's death in 1966. Bond returns from Japan and attempts to assassinate M., having been brainwashed by the Soviets. After being deprogrammed, he is sent out on assignment to prove himself: kill the assassin "Pistols" Scaramanga, who has murdered several British agents. Being incomplete at Fleming's death, this novel is a little light on plot, as well as Fleming's literary richness which a second draft would have added. But Scaramanga is probably my favourite of the Bond villains, other than Drax.

My Four Favourite . . . James Bond Movies

Again, though James Bond on film goes somewhat beyond the "official" series made by Eon Productions since Dr. No in 1961, I will be limiting myself to the Eon films (and thus disregarding Never Say Never Again and the two early adaptations of Casino Royale.

  • The Spy Who Loved Me (1977): Early on, this Roger Moore flick was my favourite, if only for the over-the-top plot about a megalomaniac intending to destroy the world and rebuild society in an undersea habitat. It's just so . . . Bondian. This movie is notable for introducing Bond's Lotus Esprit Turbo, which converts to a submarine, and the villain Jaws, a giant assassin whose weapon is his steel teeth. Jaws apparently was popular enough to be reintroduced in Moonraker, which is essentially The Spy Who Loved Me in space.
  • The Living Daylights (1987): After Bond helps a high-ranking KGB agent to defect from Czechoslovakia, he is informed that the new head of the KGB has renewed the practice of assassinating Western spies. Although Timothy Dalton's tenure as James Bond was short (only two movies), his dark and somewhat cruel portrayal of the spy was arguably the truest to Fleming's stories, at least until Daniel Craig came along.
  • Goldfinger (1964): James Bond, played brilliantly by Sean Connery, investigates the gold-smuggling operation of German tycoon Auric Goldfinger, and uncovers his plan to rob Fort Knox. Goldfinger is widely (and rightly) regarded as the best of the series. While otherwise generally faithful to Fleming's novel, this was the movie that began to introduce some of the most endearing characteristics of a Bond movie: gadgets, the weaponized Aston-Martin DB5, and femmes fatales with highly suggestive names.
  • Goldeneye (1996): After a lengthy absence from the big screen, Bond returned in Goldeney, played by Pierce Brosnan, to investigate the theft of a control disk for a satellite weapon. Goldeneye introduced Judi Dench as the first female M., my favourite portrayal of the character in the films. It caused a small controversy at its release, when a product-placement deal with BMW meant that for the first time, James Bond's signature vehicle was a German-built Z3 instead of a British sports car.

The Fleming novels, and their movie adaptations, were my introduction to the thriller genre. I think it's safe to say that if it weren't for James Bond, I wouldn't have gotten into John le Carré, Tom Clancy, Frederick Forsyth, or Lee Child later.