We have a brilliant young scholar friend whose critical mind won’t rest. Last summer he performed a Marxist critique of Thomas the Tank Engine while our kids watched the videos at our feet. (“’They’re the really useful crew?’” he said as the theme song began. “It’s a lesson in class identity. Relations of production!”) He’s also written about James Bond and told me how Bond’s capitalist fetish for commodities went hand-in-hand with an empire’s “license to kill.”
Mrs. Churm and I don’t get out much, so I’ve only just seen the “re-boot” of the Bond franchise, Casino Royale, released last November. Since I’ve been laid up, I also re-read the novel. (Warning: Spoilers ahead.)
For a very brief time in my life, I loved Fleming. If I peer back, I can see it: My plans to attend a university had fallen through due to money problems. I was going to a community college, taking classes in English, philosophy, calculus, and the like, on a campus primarily for future welders. One afternoon I stuck around to discuss Heisenberg with my physics professor and was shocked when he suddenly sighed and told me it was a lie, a fraud—my classes would never transfer to a four-year school and I was wasting my time. A few months later I was in basic training.
Fleming wrote the Bond books for that person, because Bond’s whole thing is disaffection. Well, disaffection and everything I didn’t have, like sex with lewdly-named women. Since I’d seen Connery in the films first, something of him went into my readings of the novels too, by reverse osmosis. I read them all.
As I took up the novel Casino Royale again, I thought I remembered a back story that a boy from a coal town, bound for the army, would have liked, something consistent with my impression of the Connery Bond—a rough Glaswegian boyhood, time in the service (enlisted ranks), a crash course in telemark skiing and proper vintages so he could pass at Gstaad .
None of that is in the first novel in the series, and that’s not really the bio, anyway. Bond’s parents were killed in a mountain-climbing accident, for instance. None of my friends’ parents were killed in mountain-climbing accidents. And Bond was schooled in Edinburgh, Geneva, and maybe Cambridge. (It’s difficult to parse the difference between the world of the novels and of the films.) His dad was Scots, but mum was Swiss. And so on.
What the book really is, is a very strange mix of lurid pulp creepiness and Modernist alienation, which work together to make Bond flat and humorless to the point of psychopathy. He’s Camus’s Stranger, without an existential gripe. In this, I’m happy to report, the new film gets it right. When M (Judi Dench) and Bond (Daniel Craig) are viewing the corpse of a woman Bond recently seduced, M says, “I would ask you if you can remain emotionally detached, but I don’t think that’s your problem, is it, Bond?” He replies as flatly as an automaton, “No.”
Fleming’s prose is often the equivalent of the true-crime mags my state trooper uncle used to leave lying around, front covers showing women being strangled out of their torpedo-shaped bras. Bond thinks, of his female co-worker, that “the conquest of her body, because of the central privacy in her, would each time have the tang of rape.” Yeesh. The misogyny is replete to the last line, “The bitch is dead now.”
Part of what’s disturbing about Fleming’s prose is that it is can be good. He has F. Scott Fitzgerald’s love of the places and secret knowledge of the rich, and sounds a bit like him at times. This is Fitz in Tender is the Night:
On the pleasant shore of the French Riviera, about half way between Marseilles and the Italian border, stands a large, proud, rose-colored hotel. Deferential palms cools its flushed façade, and before it stretches a short dazzling beach. Lately it has become a summer resort of notable and fashionable people; a decade ago it was almost deserted after its English clientele went north in April.
He lit his first cigarette…and watched the small waves lick the long seashore and the fishing fleet from Dieppe string out towards the June heat-haze followed by a paper-chase of herring-gulls. [T]here was something splendid about the Negresco baroque of the Casino Royale, a strong whiff of Victorian elegance and luxury….
But where Fitzgerald uses his setting to get at the tragic psychology of a couple’s long relationship, one person rising-then-falling, the other falling-then-rising, Fleming goes on for pages with instructions for baccarat (“The object of the game is to hold two, or three cards which together count nine points, or as nearly nine as possible. Court cards and tens count nothing; aces one each….”) or willfully insists on not developing character: “[H]is features relapsed into a taciturn mask, ironical, brutal, and cold.” This cannot be held against Fleming; it’s what the genre does.
What can be held against him is writing very badly. With a single dangling modifier, he turns Bond into a lesbian: “As a woman, he wanted to sleep with her….” Then he has a villain get shot, whereupon his “whole face seemed to slip and go down on one knee.”
Fleming’s Bond is oddly naïve, for a man of the world, but Fleming thinks he’s on it. Bond imagines that an evil-doer’s “inhumanity would not come from infantilism but from drugs. Marihuana, decided Bond.” Bond never thinks of “the bitch” as much more than sex partner and hindrance to his work, so when he suddenly declares, after they have sex the first time, that he’s gonna stride right off that beach and ask her to marry him, he sounds like some sentimental man-child. The guy falls in love like a sixth-grade boy at a girl’s volleyball game. And what’s the big deal with becoming a Double O? Bond only shot one guy from the next building over and then botched a second hit. My cousin Billy Joe capped more guys at Friday night poker.
There are too many examples of unintentional humor in the novel to mention here, but they include the time Bond is dragged into a torture chamber and condemns the interior decoration as tacky (“a flimsy-looking mirrored sideboard…contradicted the faded pink sofa….”) and the time “Bond guessed that hair covered most of [a bad guy’s] squat body. Naked, Bond supposed, he would be an obscene object.” Dude, don’t imagine him naked, then.
Interestingly, I had a hard time finding the novel in Inner Station. Only a residence hall with a small library of magazines, mysteries, and CliffsNotes owned it. It doesn’t appear to be venerated as the book that started it all. The back cover reads, oddly enough, “BOND IS BACK!” and a fake sticker on the front cover says, “FREE with purchase of NO DEALS MR. BOND.” It’s as if Fleming has become déclassé in the world he created—and with good reason.
The new film with Daniel Craig is very good. After Connery and before Craig, there were only negative definitions of the role. Roger Moore’s problem, for instance, was that he was a fop. Nothing against fops, but I like my fops dangerous, like this guy . Pierce Brosnan’s problem was that one of my old girlfriends told me that he was at the top of her list of celebrities she’d sleep with if they’d give her the chance. And so on.
The movie manages to imbue Bond’s character with Fleming’s humorless, flat tone, while improving the plot, complexifying relationships among characters, and letting Bond become increasingly more human as the film develops. This is the opposite of what usually happens in film adaptations. When he says that line about his would-be wife, “The bitch is dead,” we hear it much differently than we do in the novel. But Bond is Bond, and it’s a relief, even a thrill, to see him return from personal tragedy with even more evil in his face because he can smile, dressed in the high-style suit that Connery wore in Goldfinger.
This scene isn’t in the novel. The filmmakers skillfully use the addition to place viewers in the same position that the book’s Bond is in after being tortured, when he inquires into morality so confusedly that “he looked up at Mathis to see how bored he was….” “When one’s young,” Bond says, “it seems very easy to distinguish between right and wrong; but as one gets older it becomes more difficult. At school it’s easy to pick out one’s own villains and heroes, and one grows up wanting to be a hero and kill the villains.”
Most of us grow out of wanting to kill the villains and into wanting to be the hero that pays the mortgage. Villain identification is indeed difficult. But when the film Bond machine-guns the legs off the chief evil-doer, supposedly to get the Queen’s money back, but with the added benefit of revenging his fiancée, the adult version of my community-college self cheers and thinks, There’s a psychopath we can appreciate.