Wednesday, May 28, 2008
A Bond-A-Week: Centenary (Updated)
Author, journalist, intelligence officer, friend to Presidents, brother-in-law of Celia Johnson and creator of the world's greatest fictional super-spy: raise a very dry, shaken-not-stirred vodka martini to Ian Fleming, who would have been 100 today.
Fleming was born in London in 1908, the son of Tory MP, Valentine Fleming, who was killed in action in World War I. Ian spent two unhappy years at Eton (he'd later make James Bond an Eton dropout) before transferring to Sandhurst Military College. He was a good cadet, but, according to Raymond Benson's essential James Bond Bedside Companion, "as the time approached for him to take his commission, it was reported that the army was going to be 'mechanized.' Fleming, along with a few other cadets, decided he didn't want to spend his time pushing buttons and levels in the army, and refused his commission" (one wonders what such a man would've thought of the 70s Bond movies, which could be described in exactly this "pushing buttons" manner). Benson continues, "[Fleming] even had the audacity to write his refusal on a postcard, drop it in the mail, and then simply leave the college. Needless to say, his mother was not pleased."
Fleming completed his education on the continent, at a private school in Austria, where he entered a rigorous program in French and German languages, and began to write. Instead of a miltary career, he applied for and was rejected by the Foreign Service, and became a reporter for the Reuters News Syndicate, a position that took him to the Soviet Union for a number of years. He was a good correspondent, but quit that job in 1933 to become a junior partner in the banking firm of Cull and Company. Benson again: "It seems odd that Fleming would be happy as a stockbroker, but London held a particular fascination for the young man...It was life after hours that held his interest, and the thirties was Fleming's period of bachelor paradise...He soon had a reputation for extraordinary ruthlessness with women, yet these same women found him irresitible."
In 1939, Fleming joined Naval Intelligence as the personal assistant to its director, Rear Admiral John Godfrey. After a peripetetic life, the war seemed to focus and bring out the best in Fleming: working in "Room 39," a space in the Ministry of planning, subterfuge and propaganda, Fleming was finally able to combine his dreamy imagination and personal charm with his talent for language, his organizational skills, and his Boys' Own taste for adventure and intrigue. He would be involved in numerous joint English-American planning operations during the war, would shuttle back-and-forth between London and New York, would play a role in Operation Overlord and the establishment of the OSS, and would get to know such figure as "Wild Bill" Donovan and Sir William "The Man Called Intrepid" Stephenson. Benson quotes Fleming's boss, Admiral Godfrey: "Ian was a war-winner."
After the war, Fleming would work for the London Times, get married (Noel Coward was his witness), build a house called "Goldeneye" in Jamaica (where he would write all of his Bond books), and really begin his career as a novelist. The aporcryphal story is that he was looking for the "dullest name imaginable" for his fictional hero, when he spotted a book Birds of the West Indies on his coffee table. Fleming was a keen naturalist, but it was the bland name of the author-- James Bond-- that caught his eye.
Fleming's experiences as a spy and a globe-trotting reporter would both inform his fictional writing, and he was always keen on research about food, weaponry, the details of travel locations, the proper governmental terminology.To folks who know only the fantasy world of the Bond films, this might sound strange, but Fleming's books are tonally different from the movies they inspired: grittier, more realistic and almost existential in their combination of terse language, noirish derring-do and fatalistic ennui. It was Fleming's insistence on the almost fetishistic power of the well-described detail that grounded the novels' more fantastic elements in a recognizable world (and which, paradoxically, made that world all the more surreal). This research-- and his writing for the Times-- took him all over the world, which was just as well: his marriage to wife Anne was often difficult, and stories suggest they both cheated on one another. Whether or not, as some have claimed, Bond was Fleming's alter ego, it seems apparent that he at least became an imaginative escape valve for a writer who, like his hero, often dreaded the stifling boredom that domestic life entailed.
As early as the mid-fifties, and despite the novels' mixed response in the American markets, Fleming was already fielding offers to adapt Bond for film and television. He was keen to do so, but aside from a 1954 telefilm of Casino Royale, these various negotiations and screenplay drafts constantly hit road blocks. The most promising project was one with producer Kevin McClory called James Bond of the Secret Service, not an adaptation but an original screenplay starring the character, and introducing a new villain, the international terrorist organization SPECTRE. The two men started work on the film in 1958, hoping, as Benson notes, to use McClory's connections in the Bahamas to give them a quick leg up on production. Fleming was also working on some teleplays for CBS (some of this would become the basis, several years later, for The Man from U.N.C.L.E., and Fleming would graciously let CBS use the name he'd devised: Napoleon Solo). According to Raymond Benson, McClory and Fleming would go through at least ten outlines, treatments and scripts before production stalled, due to financial problems, mixed response to McClory's most recent film, The Boy and The Bridge, and Fleming's declining interest in working on the script. Eventually, Fleming would transform the work into a novel, Thunderball, but give no credit to McClory or co-scenarist Jack Whittingham, which would lead to lawsuits that severely harmed Fleming's reputation and health in his later years.
Before that occured, however, the most famous bit of Bond historical lore was about to happen: Fleming's pal, Sen. Jack Kennedy, became president, and did Fleming a huge favor by naming From Russia With Love as one of his ten favorite books in a Life magazine article. Sales of the books skyrocketed in America, just as Cubby Broccoli and Harry Saltzman were optioning Fleming's book for a movie sale. The Kennedy plug was a financial boon for the recently-published Thunderball, all the more reason for Whittingham and McClory to pursue their suit, which would finally be resolved in the mid-sixties.
By now, work was beginning in earnest on the first film, Thunderball, but anxieties over the still-pending lawsuit caused the producers to switch to Dr. No. Fleming hated their choice for leading man, Sean Connery, and said so in public-- this former lorry driver couldn't be an Eton dropout! But, as Raymond Benson notes, when he met Connery, he quickly changed his mind. While he'd hoped for something less tongue-in-cheek, and more like, according to Benson, Wages of Fear, Fleming publically expressed his happiness with No, and the subsequent From Russia With Love. The latter would be the last Bond film he'd see: his declining health, exacerbated by all the public attention and stress of the lawsuit, suffered another heart attack in August 1964, and he would die on August 12.
Bond, of course, lived on and even thrived: one of the very best Bond novels, You Only Live Twice, had just been published in March, and another, The Man With The Golden Gun, would see posthumous publication in 1965, followed by a short story collection, Octopussy, in 1966. Kingsley Amis would take over the reins (writing under a pseudonym) for Colonel Sun in 1968, and John Gardner and Raymond Benson would also pen Bond books in the 80s, 90s and 00s. And of course, there were the movies, which would vary in their faithfulnes to the narratives and tones of the books, but which have kept Fleming's name in the public eye for 44 years since his death. I think he would've especially appreciated the last one, Casino Royale: after three very different tries, they finally got it right, crafting an adaptation that was not only faithful to the book's story (with some sly updates for a post-9/11 world), but finally nailed that uneasy tonal mixture of charm, fatalism, violence and regret that defines the literary Bond. It seems appropriate that it took a return to the very beginning to allow everything to fall into place, but it suggests the continuing hold that the "original" Bond, and his remarkable creator have on the public imagination.
Just thinking, on the way home from work, about further reading for those interested:
--Raymond Benson, The James Bond Bedside Companion: out-of-print, but worth tracking down-- it's the single best book on Bond available, with rich critiques of the films and books, and extensive information on Fleming and the overall Bond phenomenon.
--Andrew Lycett, Ian Fleming: Those in the know tell me this is a wonderful, definitive biography. Shamefully, I haven't read it yet, but it's on my bedside table, and I can vouch for the kindness of its author, who I met at a Bond symposium several years ago.
--James Chapman, License To Thrill: A smart, extensive look at the Bond books and films, and their places within filmic and literary traditions, as well as history more generally. I think it's one of the best academic books on the character.
UPDATE II: Well, this will teach me to check the Intertubes before I post: Jeffrey Hill also has a fine tribute, which covers some of the same ground but with wonderfully richer detail, up over at Edward Copeland on Film. I especially like the details about Fleming's research into Chicago gangsters, the further insights into his rocky marriage, and the fine analyses of how Fleming used and played with "formula" in the Bond books. Get thee to the post posthaste, and stick around to check out the rest of Edward's fine site.