When I was a lonely, bored, curious, culture-starved high school student I discovered the James Bond novels. It was a very roundabout discovery… I think it started with a Paul McCartney album (it had the song “Live and Let Die”), and then when I was about sixteen Mom said I was old enough for a double feature of Dr. No and From Russia with Love, and then came the books. Lovely books.
Of course, I saw movies beyond the two first permitted by my mother… every Sean Connery addition (except Never Say Never Again… that one doesn’t count), The Man with the Golden Gun (for Christopher Lee), a couple other Moore flicks, and License to Kill. Connery and Dalton are my favorite Bonds. I didn’t last long enough in Goldeneye for M to call out James on his misogyny (you go, M!), and I didn’t like Casino Royale (though to be fair, I didn’t like the book, either).
But it’s been maybe four or five years since I saw one of the movies… even From Russia with Love, my favorite. I’ve always had problems with the movies… very quickly their cliches became evident, as well as their nasty misogyny. In fairness, the books aren’t much better… but in Fleming’s work, everything is a bit more complicated and has consequences. Therefore, they have more depth. The movies seem watered down next to them.
I’ll explain. In the novels, we get into James’ head. We know he’s suffering from PTSD (although they don’t call it that), and a lot of his self-destructive behavior (the reckless gambling, driving, drinking, and otherwise living beyond his means) are related to that and the fact that he expects to be killed in the line of duty. He suffers terrible guilt over the death of his wife, Tracy (who we know he really loves), and over the jobs where his mission is just to kill somebody.
In the novel The Man with the Golden Gun, he starts trying to get fired, something that continues into The Living Daylights— Fleming’s last Bond adventure (a novella rather than a novel). As a reader, I initially interpreted that as Fleming wanting to get on with his life and on to other projects (which could be true, I don’t know for sure), but if I had to pick a moment in Bond’s character where the sentiment really picks up, it’s when Scaramanga (the titular character in TMWTGG) asks if he can say the rosary before getting shot. Of course, James can’t bring himself to refuse and barely gets out alive.
Isn’t that interesting? And you sure the hell wouldn’t see anything like that in the movies. Though after 50-odd years, there might be something to be said for that. Goodness knows there are other spies and spy novels to be adapted. Plenty of other fish in the sea… or even octopuses because that’s what Octopussy really was… a blue-ringed octopus. What can I say? Not one of Fleming’s more creative names.
But do pick up one of the novels and give it a look-see. My favorite of the books is actually Goldfinger (even though it’s homophobic… what wasn’t in the 50s?). The book doesn’t have the infamous barn scene, and I find it far superior to the movie. But you’ll never have two people with the same list of favorite Bond books and movies… the pool’s just too big. And full of octopuses.