Tuesday, May 13, 2008

The Grave Robbers

"The game will continue, and the bandwagon-riders will destroy James Bond, as they have destroyed Mike Hammer, as they have destroyed Eliot Ness, then look for another victim to 'parody'..." 1
Next fall the twenty-second "official" James Bond movie, "Quantum of Solace," will be released, first in Britain, then around the world, starring Daniel Craig as Bond in his second appearance in the role. This number does not include two "unofficial" Bond movies, "Casino Royale" (1967), which was a spoof of the novel, and "Never Say Never Again" (1983), which starred Sean Connery.

And on May 28, the 100th anniversary of Ian Fleming's birth, the twenty-second bogus James Bond novel, Devil May Care, will be published, written by British novelist Sebastian Faulks.

Fleming wrote only twelve full-length Bond novels, aside from a collection of short stories, For Your Eyes Only, from which the title of the new Bond movie was taken. In addition, he wrote what are actually two very short novelettes, Octopussy and his posthumously-published The Living Daylights; the latter two have been published under one cover, Octopussy, and include another short story, "The Property of a Lady."

So the output of bogus Bond novels exceeds what Fleming himself wrote. I call the non-Fleming Bond novels "bogus" because, in fact, in terms of quality, plot, character, and intent, they have as little to do with James Bond as Fleming conceived him, which is as a hero, as a Disney movie has to do with Victor Hugo's Notre Dame de Paris or with any other classic. Beginning with the movie version of From Russia with Love, the destruction by second-handers of Bond as a hero has continued without let-up since Fleming's death in 1964.

Fleming died about a year after Dr. No, the first Bond movie, was released. The shot script is more or less faithful to the novel, although some pointless gratuities were taken with the original story. For example, in the novel, the villain is buried in a mountain of guano; in the movie, he is broiled alive in a vat of radioactive water. One can only speculate whether or not Fleming would have approved or sanctioned the subsequent gutting of his novels for the big screen.

After all the novels had been filmed (each of them used a Fleming title but little or nothing of the story), Hollywood began inventing Bond stories. Sean Connery, the original and most credible Bond, even appeared in one, "Never Say Never Again." Then Hollywood, ever the congenital literary and esthetic shoplifter, shot one short story from the collection, "From a View to a Kill," and now has turned to another, "Quantum of Solace." Neither has anything to do with the Fleming stories, which, if they were actually and competently produced, would make interesting hour-long television specials.

In addition, there is even a series of "young" James Bond novels. The hacks have left no stone unturned in their quest to cash in on the Bond-Fleming name.

It has been a long, tedious, macabre parade of bandwagons. Their riders, as Rand put it in "Bootleg Romanticism," are "a group of previously undistinguished persons" getting "their chance at distinction and at piles of money." Like price, when it comes to exploiting Fleming's creation and reaping unearned distinction and piles of money, esthetics, story integrity and honesty are no object.

Research for this commentary uncovered a bewildering number of websites and "fanzines" devoted to James Bond, which either pant or drool over the prospect of new Bond novels or movies. Like CommanderBond.net, they are all markedly oblivious to any wider issues concerning Fleming's creation. Several non-Fleming "graphic" (or illustrated) Bond novels have also been published and list not only their authors' and illustrators' names, but Fleming's, as well. That is likely at the insistence of Ian Fleming Publications Ltd., which controls and owns the rights to the Bond character for the trustees and heirs of the Fleming estate, in addition to all the novels and movies, Fleming and non-Fleming. There are many forms of prostitution. Apparently, one of them is leasing out literary rights to a fictional character to any chance, indiscriminate hack, and calling it a "franchise."

But, why the fascination? One can almost excuse the fans' almost ghoulish obsession with Bond and their hankering for more of him. What other recent fictional hero in popular literature has represented manly efficacy, glamour, and excitement all rolled into one? But that unfastidious obsession simply encourages the literary parasites to exploit the character, and the novelists who undertake to "recreate" James Bond in the manner of Fleming, in the looting, nihilistic spirit of our age, will not allow him to remain efficacious, glamorous and exciting. Like the architect Gus Webb in Rand's The Fountainhead, who is assigned to "redo" one of Howard Roark's creations, they want to express their "individuality," too. But their "individuality" and "creativity," providing they even exist, are not worth contemplating.

When the second bogus Bond novel, License Renewed, by John Gardner (the first, Colonel Sun, by Kingsley Amis, appeared in 1968), was published, I wrote a Wall Street Journal review of it (June 4 1981), "A New James Bond Novel by Fleming's Successor," and said that Bond

"...is so appealing a hero, so amply endowed with those values and virtues we ought to want to see in any character, real or imaginary, that he has become the special target of those whose 'creativity' is limited to smears, parodies and innumerable pasticcios. James Bond was killed long ago - by movie producers, directors, ham actors, scriptwriters, stuntmen, gadget masters, tongues in many cheeks and, last but not least, by the artistic 'license' to kill."
Ironically, The Wall Street Journal twenty-seven years later ran this story on May 8, "Doubleday, Penguin Try to Revive Bond Series with New Author." It recounts the trials and tribulations of the bogus Bond novels and the overall diminished interest in Bond as a hero. There have been five "new authors" of Fleming's character, not including Samantha Weinberg, who published three "diaries" by M's secretary, Miss Moneypenney, and not including the "graphic" novels. Faulks is the fifth to try his hand.

Why has interest in Bond fallen? One thing the marketers of the bogus Bond novels have not thought of is how Bond, in the hands of his hacks, has undergone changes for the worse, usually to update him to bring him in line with politically correct "virtues" and the panacea of the moment. In both the novels and the movies, he gave up smoking, drove more environmentally acceptable cars, felt anxiety about killing his enemies, and grew glib, facetious, and unserious. (In the movies, he was merely a two-dimensional puppet in the hands of special effects crews in the action scenes.) In short, he became a boorish, fatuous stereotype that became more and more unbelievable. In Daniel Craig's movie version of the character, Bond is just a well-dressed brute.

The May 8 WSJ article reports that the publisher has taken a stab at trying to rectify the problem of Bond's unpopularity.
"Partners, a unit of WPP Group PLC that specializes in corporate branding, took two months to come up with a cover [for Devil May Care] that satisfied Penguin....One challenge: portraying sex and violence without being too graphic for teenagers, a target audience. 'We're trying to appeal to older Bond readers and bring along a new audience,' Mr. Renwick says."
A Daily Telegraph (London) article of May 11, "It's hell being a superhero," comes closer to an explanation. Many recent "superhero" movies are based on comic books. In remarking about the "Golden Age" of comics, the article says,
"This was the period between 1938, when Superman was invented, and the post-War late-Forties, when the public had an understandably voracious appetite for the exploits of strong, decent, super-endowed men and women triumphing over evil.
"But then came a backlash, in which superheroes fell out of favor, accused of everything from fostering juvenile delinquency to promoting deviant sex....The adoption in response by the comics industry of a stringent new Comics Code resulted in story lines so blandly inoffensive that no one wanted to read them.

"What the disillusioned Seventies crowd wanted were more socially conscious types like the Green Arrow...and antiheroes like the savage Wolverine and dark and tormented The Punisher....Today, audiences are far too sophisticated to take at face value the plain, honest, good-versus-evil simplicity of the Golden Age superheroes."
The DT article elaborates on that "sophisticated" taste. Commenting on a 1986 graphic novel, Watchmen, that helped to pioneer the "humanized" superhero, the article goes on to say,
"This portrayed superheroes not as magnificent, selfless, crime-fighting role models, but as warped, sexually confused sociopaths whose powers had brought them little but misery and psychological damage."
One might think: Isn't this the reverse of cultural "trickle down"? Shouldn't comic books simplify and pictorialize standard, full-length literature, which came first and has existed for decades, even centuries? One would be right. The comics merely emulated the literature of the times, chiefly Naturalism, but souped up their stories with superheroes burdened with personal problems.

"Today's audiences," reports the DT article, "like their superheroes to be flawed: the more messed up the better."
"Hence the popularity of the increasingly dark Batman movies, based not on the original caped crusader but on the much edgier, more angst-ridden and morally compromised figure in Frank Miller's 1980s Dark Knight graphic novels."
The assumption in the WSJ and DT articles that contemporary readers have grown as corrupted and malevolent as the culture is properly the subject of separate commentary. But the CommanderBond.net site, in its coverage of "Quantum of Solace," features an interview with Daniel Craig, and what he says is in sync with the effort to "humanize" Bond.
"The way we finished up in 'Casino Royale' [Craig's first Bond film] was with a man who'd lost something that was taken away from him. The woman that he loved killed herself because he thought she was guilty because she was double-crossing him. And he never had the chance to go: 'Why?' said Daniel Craig during a roundtable interview. 'That's where we start the story and he's looking for that quantum of solace. He's looking for that little bit, but he can't be open about it because it's a sign of weakness.'"
The actor who plays the chief villain in "Quantum of Solace" dwelt on the "intricate mix of reality and fantasy that make up the film."
"If it was realistic the evil would win because that's what would happen today. That's why I think it's called Quantum of Solace. It's quite ironic. It's as if Bond was saying, 'Please, can I stop running? Maybe if the evil wins I can have some peace and go home and just sleep.'"
Obviously, this actor has never read the original story; I doubt if a single member of the cast has read any of the original novels or stories. Rand, in "Bootleg Romanticism," discusses the epistemological disintegration of intellectuals who approve of the reverse-bowdlerization of good literature. This actor had no epistemology that could disintegrate.

It is doubtful that Sebastian Faulks will do a better job in Devil May Care than his predecessors in writing an "official" bogus Bond novel and revive the corpse they helped to bury. Known better in Britain than in the U.S., he is the successful author of eight other novels. I have not read any of them and, based on his acceptance of the task of producing a bogus Bond novel, I do not plan to read any of them. Whether or not they are any good, however, is irrelevant. What I wrote for the Wall Street Journal in 1981 applies as well in 1881 as in 2008:
"'License Renewed' points up the futility of faithful imitation. No matter how well a writer - or any artist, for that matter - manages to capture the style or content of an original idea or work of art, something will always be missing: originality."
Writers should not be so hungry for distinction, fame and fortune that they would treat resorting to robbing the graves of their betters as a "realistic," pragmatic option, and to hell with originality and the chance to create something of which they could say: This is mine. (Consequently, the authors of bogus Bond novels are paragons of selflessness, as are the authors of bogus Sherlock Holmes and Philip Marlowe novels.) And readers should not be so hungry for any kind of "hero" that they reward them. Their lack of discrimination in what they seek and accept earns them what they deserve: literary cadavers.

1. Ayn Rand, "Bootleg Romanticism" (1965), in The Romantic Manifesto (1971, revised 1975) (New York: Signet), p. 140


Joe said...

Dear Ed,
This is an interesting view on Bond the literary character as well as Bond in film. It clarifies for me why I react the way I do to the lame Bond movies after Connery quit the role, and even beyond that.

I began reading the Fleming novels after being disappointed with Roger Moore as Bond... I was looking for more of the "real Bond" that I perceived in Connery and ended up finding a Bond (in the books) that surpassed even my favorite Bond movie, (From Russia With Love.)

If Hollywood really wanted to start a revival of Bond they should go back and remake every lame Bond movie using more closely aligned scripts drawn from Fleming's novels. If they can remake Batman, why not Bond???

Problem is, where do you find a director/screen writer with the ability to do Fleming justice, and what actor has the screen presence of Connery?

Thanks for another great article.

Anonymous said...

Joe, you're so right. In an exchange with some British contacts, I mentioned that of course Bond won't be fighting Putin's renovated SMERSH or Islamic jihadists, but rather meglomaniacal "capitalists" and other "enemies" of Western civilization. In fact, Marvel Comics studios, which produced the "Ironman" movie, has signed a deal with the UN to draft Capt. America and Ironman to fight "evil" under its auspices! Talk about a sell-out! But, you're right; there's no one left in Hollywood who could tackle or even grasp reviving Bond as he ought to be.

A note: Fleming didn't expect Bond to be "likeable" in Casino Royale, but I guess he fell for him and made him much more "likeable" in subsequent novels. Also, "Never Say Never Again" was a kind of remake of "Thunderball." I've read several of the bogus Bonds and they're absolutely flat. I'm happy that you've enjoyed the Fleming novels, which vary in quality but which are all immeasurably better than any of the bogus Bonds. By the way, the Red Grant character in the movie of FRWL was Robert Shaw's big movie break. His psychopathic menace was just about the only thing I liked about the movie. And, you're also right that there are no male actors around who could "recapture" Bond.


Galileo Blogs said...

Thank you for your interesting analysis of Bond. I have read all of the Fleming novels and have (unfortunately in the majority of cases) seen all of the Bond movies. I haven't read any of the Bond clone-books.

My favorite movie is the first one, Doctor No. As you point out, it follows the book rather well, although it does inexplicably do away with the guano suffocation death of Dr. No. It is a shame they did that, because the set in the movie was well set up for that ending. It appeared to be a real guano processing center. The justice of someone like Dr. No dying in a pile of guano -- i.e., sh _ _ -- was a satisfying ending in the book.

In that movie, you do see some hints in the final scenes in Doctor No's fiendish lair of what became in later movies a tongue-in-cheek over-the-top portrayal of technology. That includes Doctor No's death in the reactor pool. But in general it is not a problem in the movie and works well.

What I liked in Doctor No, and especially liked in Sean Connery's portrayal of Bond, was the combination of realism and flair that his character portrayed. His confrontations with his enemy were deadly serious, as when he waited for and killed the professor, but Bond was always civilized.

That combination of qualities is what I imagine in the ideal secret agent. Any man who has a "license to kill" as Bond did, would have to be the most civilized man imaginable. It is that sense of civilization that checked him and guided him, a person (and one of only a handful so authorized) who was granted an unusual freedom of conduct, and a necessary one to fight our worst enemies.

In some of the later Bond films I thought the evil characters were even better developed than in Doctor No. I particularly enjoyed Auric Goldfinger in the third Sean Connery Bond film.

I don't think any of the subsequent Bond actors, directors or writers "got it", although many of the films could be enjoyed on some level.

As for your prior comment that Ian Fleming somehow liked Bond's portrayal in Casino Royale, I am shocked. When I first encountered that movie (the first Casino Royale with David Niven as Bond) after having watched most of the Sean Connery and many of the Roger More Bond films, I was shocked, to say the least! I couldn't believe that was intended as *James Bond.*

It was my first and very poignant lesson that screen treatments of an author's work can vary dramatically, depending on the intent of the adaptation.

Thanks again for your article.

Anonymous said...


Tried getting onto your blog, but it blocks me or isn't working. But, you remarked on RoR: :As for your prior comment that Ian Fleming somehow liked Bond's portrayal in Casino Royale, I am shocked. When I first encountered that movie (the first Casino Royale with David Niven as Bond) after having watched most of the Sean Connery and many of the Roger More Bond films, I was shocked, to say the least! I couldn't believe that was intended as *James Bond.*"

I didn't say that Fleming liked the Casino Royale with Niven et al. He'd been dead for three years before it was released.

I happen to like many of the vocal scores of most of the movies. They sort of capture the sense of life and tone of what should have been the films, but which weren't. John Barry, the composer of most of the scores, was a prolific and talented artist, and I remember his scores better than I do the movies.


Galileo Blogs said...

Hi Ed,

Thank you for clarifying regarding Fleming and the original Casino Royale. I am heartened that I misunderstood your comment, for it would have been too off for Fleming to have liked that movie.

Thanks for letting me know about a problem getting into my blog. I just tried it again myself and got into it. Would you be so kind as to try again and let me know if you still can't get into it? You can email me if you do not wish to take up comment space: auric777@yahoo.com [yes, the email address was inspired by Bond and my favorite Bond villain!].

I am hoping the problem was a temporary glitch, but if it is not, I want to take action to fix it. Thanks.

I agree with you regarding the Bond theme music. It is very lush, and I think it is a significant contributor to the success of the Bond films.