'Casino Royale': The Bond Book That Got Away, By Kurt Loder

How does James Bond measure up to Ian Fleming's literary original?

The James Bond character introduced by writer Ian Fleming in his 1953 novel, "Casino Royale," was an emblem of the Cold War — the period following World War II during which the United States and its allies, chief among them Great Britain, faced off globally against Communist Russia and its Soviet Union satellites. It was a non-military conflict carried on by economic and political means, with espionage a key tool in each side's intelligence armory. Spies were thick on the ground.

Like Fleming himself, Bond had attended Eton, the famous English public school, and later the University of Geneva, in Switzerland. Like his creator, he was also fluent in French and German, and served in the British Navy during the war, attaining the rank of commander. (Fleming had a lively time as a spymaster with Naval Intelligence; Bond's undercover activities are suggested in the books, but not detailed.) After the war, Bond joined MI6, the British Secret Intelligence Service, earning his "licensed to kill" number — 007 — by rubbing out two members of the Commie competition: a Japanese cipher expert and a Norwegian double-agent. Fleming, for his part, went on to write 12 James Bond novels.

The Bond we meet in "Casino Royale" is very much a man of his time. He smokes three and a half packs of cigarettes a day (a custom blend of Balkan and Turkish tobaccos) and has a sharp eye for ethnicity (large earlobes are a giveaway that their owner is Jewish). He also has a strictly utilitarian view of women, or "blithering women," as he puts it. They were "for recreation," he muses. "On a job they got in the way and fogged things up with sex and hurt feelings and all the emotional baggage they carried around ... Why the hell couldn't they stay at home and mind their pots and pans and stick to their frocks and gossip and leave men's work to the men?" (Whether or not this attitude was in any way connected with Bond's enthusiasm for cold showers, Fleming doesn't say.) Unlike many Bush-phobic Brits of today, however, 007 is fond of his transatlantic cousins — some of them: "Bond reflected that good Americans were fine people and that most of them came from Texas."

The Bond of the book isn't much of a gourmet. At home in London, his favorite dish is scrambled eggs. While on an assignment, though, he likes to splash out on things like top-of-the-line Taittinger champagne. In "Casino Royale," prior to confronting the villain Le Chiffre in a high-stakes game of baccarat in the (fictitious) French gambling resort of Royale-les-Eaux, he takes fellow agent Vesper Lynd — the first of the "Bond girls" — for an expensive repast in the dining room of the Hotel Splendide. As they tuck into their pricey appetizer, he reflects on the complexity of spy work, where nothing is ever quite what it seems — although many ambiguities can be clarified with a few well-aimed bullets. "It's a confusing business," he tells Vesper, "but if it's one's profession one does what one's told. How do you like the grated egg with your caviar?"

He is also an uncomplicated man in sartorial matters, his wardrobe leaning heavily toward tropical-weight worsted trousers, simple white shirts of "sea island cotton" and, at all times, casual, slip-on shoes ("he abhorred shoe-laces"). And while his everyday walking-around weapon of choice is a .38-caliber Police Positive with a sawed-down barrel, and he keeps a long-barrel Colt .45 hidden under the dashboard of his vintage Bentley, for formal occasions he prefers a flat .25-caliber Beretta automatic with a skeleton grip — perfect for tuxedo work.

If "Casino Royale" stands today as a Cold War artifact, the best of the early Bond movies — meaning the first five, all starring Sean Connery, beginning with "Dr. No," in 1962 — are now groovy souvenirs of the decade in which they were made. Times had definitely changed. In the books, Bond's central antagonist is SMERSH, an actual (although long-dismantled) Soviet intelligence entity whose name was a contraction of the Russian phrase for "Death to Spies." In the movies, SMERSH has been liquidated and replaced (so as not to inflame Soviet sensibilities, apparently) by a non-political international criminal organization called SPECTRE — the name an acronym for the surpassingly silly "Special Executive for Counter-Intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion."

In the film version of "Dr. No" (based on Fleming's sixth Bond book, from 1958), 007 is a no-nonsense operative, relying on his wits and killing without remorse. In the second film, "From Russia with Love" (1963), Bond is issued a famously tricky new briefcase, and after that the gadgets just keep on coming: the gizmo-crammed Aston Martin DB5 in "Goldfinger" (1964), the getaway jetpack in "Thunderball" (1965), the one-man mini-helicopter in "You Only Live Twice" (1967). These jazzy accouterments, together with the movies' beautiful women, day-dreamy locations (Nassau, Istanbul, Tokyo), and the hero's increasingly hedonistic flair and snappy one-liners, helped make the Bond films a '60s cultural phenomenon on a par with the Beatles.

They were phenomenally profitable: "Dr. No," which was made for $1-million, grossed about 60 times that amount internationally; "You Only Live Twice" took in more than $110-million — a lot of money nearly 40 years ago. Naturally, the series inspired imitators. Some were semi-serious ("The Ipcress File" and its two sequels, starring Michael Caine as British spy Harry Palmer); some were jokey (the two Derek Flint movies featuring James Coburn); and some were ridiculous (Dean Martin's wretched Matt Helm pictures). But none of these had Fleming's wildly popular novels to work with.

"Casino Royale" was the Bond book that got away. Fleming had sold the rights to it in 1954, and CBS made it into a one-hour TV film that same year. By the mid-1960s, the rights had found their way into the hands of a flamboyant movie producer named Charles K. Feldman. Feldman had produced some acclaimed pictures in the 1950s, like "A Streetcar Named Desire" and "The Glass Menagerie." But his biggest recent hit had been "What's New, Pussycat?" — a frantic 1965 comedy that embodied the decade's overbearing zaniness. So Feldman wound up turning the film version of "Casino Royale" into an idiotic 1967 spoof starring English actor David Niven (who coincidentally had been Ian Fleming's original choice to play Bond in "Dr. No"). The movie bombed.

The "official" Bond series kept marching along through the years, of course, minting money each step of the way, even as the character grew ever-smirkier, more preposterous and culturally irrelevant. But then by the time the film version of "Dr. No" was released, the Bond of the books, as an avatar of the British intelligence service, was on his way out. An English writer named David Cornwell, who had served in MI6 himself, and had much first-hand knowledge of the spy business, was annoyed by the overblown glamour of the Bond character, and he resolved to create a more accurate, and far cloudier, picture of secret agents and their murky world. Writing under the pseudonym John Le Carré, Cornwell published his first novel in 1961. His breakthrough best-seller, though, was his third book, a genre masterpiece called "The Spy Who Came in from the Cold," featuring the boozy, doomed British agent Alec Leamas and his shadowy handler, George Smiley. The book was published in 1963, and in its wake the spying game, as a literary form, would never again be the same. Ian Fleming died the following year, at the age of 56, unaware that in the future, his once-celebrated novels would be remembered mainly as footnotes to the longest-running film franchise in the history of the movies.

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