Book review: Casino Royale (1953), by Ian Fleming
This has to be the best Fleming novel, but it is a book for boys. James Bond is a sixty cigarette a day, alcohol and risk addict — which really seems to be the portrayal of someone who has very recently lived through a war and will take a long time to bring back to civilisation. Fleming must have met these people through the previous seven years. The bad characters are stereotypical Cold War Bulgarians who plant bombs that destroy boulevards of trees in the south of France (who, I might ask, is going to clear this mess up?). Bond gets tortured, showing he is mortal, and there’s gritty violence. The technology Bond uses is Stone-Age stuff, e.g. being able to tell if his hotel room has been searched by sticking a human hair between the split in the drawers using saliva. If you wanted to write the perfect book in the gritty thriller genre though, this is the novel to study.
The character in Casino Royale (novel) is different to what’s supposed to be the same man in films, possibly because that’s not what Gilgamesh-style heroes in movies are supposed to be like. He’s visceral, dehumanised by war trauma (because switching off emotion is how to get through) and has formed those repetitive dependencies and addictions to cope. It doesn’t say he has nightmares and wets the bed but it’s that kind of aggraded build-up of issues that must eventually over-flow the river bank.
Bond achieves things by having a high mental tolerance for running his body into the ground (not by superhuman talents or knowledge). I see the original Bond from the books as closer to the film Apocalypse Now (Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Milton’s Paradise Lost) than the Bond films, where he’s “gone up river” and diverged from the civilised human race. Possibly not Milton because an angel becoming lost is different to someone who was never angelic. Soldiers only need to survive until the end of the war because they are a liability after that. If he dies, so what? — that’s the subterranean level he has been lost to; and a crocodile only knows a crocodilian life and ways of dying.
These aren’t stimulant dependencies the reader can be at all sympathetic about as you’d have to be very generous to think of Bond as a victim. It’s more like some thug numbing his mind before he goes and thumps someone new tomorrow. The conflicting ideology between Bond and the Bulgarian bombers is just an excuse for violence because he isn’t the type to care about industrial philosophies. The violence is cathartic for him, but not attractive for us unless we be ghouls. If he stops dealing with problems in a military way, he’ll only have the addictions left and will die soon, without a purpose. I don’t think his employers value him, even though they let him act with minimal supervision. It’s as if he’s a tool to them, not valued or supported, so if the tool is lost or broken you just send for another one and use that until it breaks too. Bond, in turn, treats his girlfriends the same way and cares more about how many gold circles are on his hand-made cigarettes. The man in the first book would not have had a long career, which the man in the films was somehow able to sustain. The man in the book would not have something silly like an invisible car — he would have a normal car (even more invisible, when you think about it) and knock things out of his path.
In the books, the character is the same person all the way through, gradually calming down as he gets further away from the war. In the films it has become clear that James Bond is an inherited name, like M or C or Felix Leiter (although not Tiger Tanaka). If the name goes with the job, therefore, several James Bonds have not survived or have been too mentally unstable to continue. This is good for a franchise because, like the regeneration of Doctor Who, it means you can cast anyone, adjusting the skills they display to fit the times.
In the last film I saw, the character concedes that a laptop can do more damage than an agent. Fleming never wrote this but the observation carries the weight of truth that Bond’s department is becoming redundant, but then the actor says “someone still needs to pull a trigger”. The unlikely bit for me is that someone still needs to perform that loud and ugly function. Can’t you just bribe people or make them lose their jobs, maybe influence a politician against them, break them economically with sanctions and debt, or run a campaign to stigmatise what they stand for online?). Bond seems to represent a time in history when problems were solved in basic ways and foreign travel was exciting and reserved for the few people in the Coco Channel set. I saw a 1960s clip of Alan Wicker on Youtube where he thought quiche Lorraine was an exotic foreign delicacy. This is the genesis of Bond, the fallout of a real war and being impressed by a flan (France is 24 miles away from England).
I think the Bond films will continue only as long as people secretly wish this world would return because it would be truly satisfying to be able to solve all of life’s problems (often blamed on individual people) by making holes in various annoying heads. That’s escapism, but realistic annoyances like things going missing in the post or the complexities of tax declaration forms can only be solved by a persistent intelligence that Bond isn’t suited for. At the first bang in the road today, license or no license, everyone would ring the police and film the incognito agent for the news, along with CCTV from shops, which would mean they have to be given a desk job and never go out to play again. It wouldn’t work now, would it? — but field agent stuff would have worked well in the 1950s.
There’s a sadness though. Wouldn’t life be more interesting if there were people in the world who really did live like this? We secretly want the world to change to accommodate the hero and allow them their freedom to behave in a way we can’t experience because of laws and boring things like that — so that’s a comment on our society moving the wrong way, we feel, into smothering fun, making adventure impossible, stifling individual freedom and arresting the human spirit. How did the control systems grow so strong that they stopped our enjoyment of living? It’s a dream that Bond can still outwit the system when the rest of us are so shackled and docile. He doesn’t fit. We wouldn’t choose this grey life though — we would prefer to take risks and be part of his highs and lows, not inhabit the constant karaoke-like predictable middle layer of a life experience which should be a spectrum (and is more constricted as every generation passes). We’re being squeezed, becoming farm animals who share stories of their wild and free ancestors. Bond won’t fit this time in history because he’s part of an impossible aspiration, a place which briefly existed and we cannot go back to.
JB in the books is not vain but JB in the films spends a lot of time checking his appearance in the mirror (especially Roger Moore). One is a robot and the other is a model. George Lazenby was a model before he did Bond; a knitwear model.
I think the best James Bond books are the stories where the character traits come out (not just two dimensional Cold War or criminal gang stereotypes), so Casino Royale, You Only Live Twice and OHMSS are the better ones. The best films are the ones with the massive and memorable images and songs that are really feel-good memes. These will vary in popularity from country to country as, for example, in the UK people remember skiing off the cliff and then the flag on the parachute opens (not prompting the same warm feelings in France), but things like the underwater silent scuba war or the Little Nell helicopter appeal to more people because they have general appeal not specific to a nationality. I like the scene where his wife dies pointlessly in OHMSS, just for the villain’s revenge after the villain has already lost (“From Hell’s teeth I spit at thee”), a beautiful and emotional counterpoint which, in future, makes the character focus fully on his job and never be soft again. In any other franchise, the hero would win and ride off into the sunset, but Bond, one of the ultimate heroes in fiction, cannot even protect his wife AFTER he’s won. From a female perspective, the character then says ‘better not touch’, or ‘don’t think you can be his equal’.
Ian Fleming wrote some very entertaining narratives — although he was a man of his time and ‘his Bond’ would have no success as a spy now, which is why it sounds increasingly silly in 2020, but would have sounded realistic in the fear culture of the 1950s and 1960s. My observation about Bond stereotypes is perhaps unfair, as Fleming wrote characters which became stereotypes later, only because he created them. He can’t be blamed for setting the original standard which other thriller writers copied.
To anyone who (as I did at school) aims to read everything Fleming has published, one of the books is awful (The Spy Who Loved Me), some have completely different plots to the films (e.g. Moonraker), the short story compilations are mostly disappointing (For Your Eyes Only and Octopussy/The Living Daylights), but the best of Ian Fleming’s early novels are atmospheric and obviously deserve to be recognised as the classics and best of the spy genre. The other front runner in the genre is John Le Carré, but he wrote realistic, down to earth spy fiction where Smiley is someone so boring that you wouldn’t give them a second glance or remember what they looked like. This is the reality of what a spy should be, someone unseen, unsuspected, secretly clever. Fleming wrote alternative lifestyle escapism (in a time when society was dull) with fantasy risks and lots of pizzazz. I think I prefer Bond to Smiley because he represents entertainment and surprises. Smiley’s wife was cheating on him (with Bond?).
In the paperback first edition of Casino Royale, James Bond is blond, so set aside your preconceptions.
It’s interesting to think that James Bond wrote ‘Birds of the West Indies’ and Ian Fleming had a copy when he wrote Casino Royale, just as Douglas Adams had read ‘The Plain Man’s Pathway to Heaven’ by Arthur Dent before he wrote Hitchhiker’s. How many authors pick an author name off the bookshelf spines for a character?
The first Casino Royale film (David Niven as Bond) was not based on the book and perhaps should not have been made at all because it confused people into thinking that was Fleming’s story. The second Casino Royale film was much closer to the novel but still wasn’t as good as the book, or coming from the book’s period in history. The book reads to the modern eye as anti-feminine, but the second Casino Royale film was not like that because it was made decades later, when male chauvinism had become a recognised fault to be avoided. Therefore, in terms of popular acceptance, it would no longer be possible to make the film just like the book. Having said that, in this book Bond does get his testicles whipped (is that a thing?).
It’s hard to say whether the books are generally better or worse than the films because there are poor examples in each format. The books lack the diva soundtrack element unless you read the book after seeing the film and the song plays spontaneously in your head. However, Casino Royale is the best Ian Fleming novel in my opinion and if you are only going to read only one, this is it.