The James Bond films are, in many ways, fairly weird and offensive to notions of good taste, political correctness, and plausible storytelling, but many of us are used to their excesses and enjoy them as guilty pleasures. If you are roughly my age and have television viewing habits that are similar to mine, then you grew up with terrorists with no national affiliation hiding in a secret base the size of a small city, feeding the heroic spies who oppose them to their pet tiger sharks, and planning to fire a giant heat / freeze / bank-account-hacking ray at London. Most of these tropes were over-familiar even before they were mocked in the Austin Powers movies. The Ian Fleming novels that inspired the Albert R. Broccoli and Harry Saltzman films, however, are a whole other kind of weird. If you haven’t read them and are fans of the films, I recommend them. They don’t take long to breeze through, they are frequently oddball, and are occasionally outrageous. For example, I’m not sure if you know this, but 007 has his own recipe for scrambled eggs.
James Bond’s Scrambled Eggs (From the Ian Fleming short story “007 in New York”):
(serves four ‘individualists’)
12 fresh eggs
salt and pepper
5-6 oz. fresh butter.
Break the eggs into a bowl. Beat thoroughly with a fork and season well. In a small copper (or heavy-bottomed saucepan) melt four oz. of the butter. When melted, pour in the eggs and cook over a very low heat, whisking continuously with a small egg whisk. While the eggs are slightly more moist than you would wish for eating, remove pan from heat, add rest of butter, and continue whisking for half a minute, adding the while finely chopped chives or fine herbs. Serve on hot buttered toast in individual copper dishes (for appearance only) with pink champagne (Taittainger) and low music.
I find the fastidiousness, excessiveness, and British-gentlemanliness of this scrambled eggs business very funny. When he speaks and acts like a British fussbudget, the Fleming Bond reminds me more John Steed’s comic effete spy from The Avengers than he does the Sean Connery and Daniel Craig Bonds, both of whom often seem like bulldogs who have been dressed up in tuxedos by mistake. On the other hand, reading the books tells me that Steed is clearly a more dead-on Bond parody than I realized. Like the book Bond, he drives a Bentley and has some of Fleming’s upper-crust taste in food and exotic locales.
Even fans of the movie incarnations of Bond know that the super spy likes his mixed drinks done just right – in most of the films he orders a “vodka martini – shaken, not stirred.” That staple drink is a simplified version of the concoction he likes best in the books:
James Bond’s Dry Martini: The Vesper (from Casino Royale)
Three measures of Gordon’s
one of vodka
half a measure of Kina Lillet
Shake it very well until it’s ice cold, then add a large slice of lemon peel.
This more elaborate version of the cocktail finally made its way on screen in Craig’s 2006 debut Bond film, Casino Royale. He gives the waiter very precise directions on how to make it, holding up the high-stakes game of Texas Hold ‘Em and inspiring three of his fellow players to ask for the same drink, including his future best friend, CIA agent Felix Leiter, who asks them to hold the lemon. In addition to wanting the drink the way he wants it, Bond’s other motive in taking his time with the order is to rattle his opponent, Le Chiffre, by stalling the game. When Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelson) snaps, “That’s it? Anyone want to play poker now?” it is a genuinely funny moment. I wonder what Le Chiffre would have thought if Bond had also asked for his scrambled eggs to be brought to the table.
While Craig’s Bond comes off a little fussy here, he’s still not Fleming’s Bond. Instead, the scene plays with a running theme in the film – that Bond is viewed as an uncouth gate-crasher by the wealthy elite when he enters their casinos and swims on their exclusive beaches. His partner, Vesper, has to teach him to look and act the part of the wealthy playboy. After all, there are dinner jackets and there are dinner jackets, and his instinct is to wear the former when he should be wearing the latter. The Craig Bond has a body-builder physique and the face of a boxer, and seems too working-class to be playing high-stakes poker in Montenegro. Since I’m a bit of a populist at heart, my favorite moment in the film is when Bond is mistaken for a valet and is rudely ordered to park a rich man’s expensive car. When Bond deliberately rams the car into a barricade, damaging several other obscenely expensive cars in the process, I can’t help but cheer. (Of course, in a follow-up film, I learned that the Craig Bond grew up in a magnificent ancestral seat in Scotland, the titular Skyfall, so I now find it difficult to regard him as the action-movie equivalent of John Lennon’s “Working Class Hero.” Craig’s Bond now seems more like Bruce Wayne to me. Still, the valet scene remains a cool.)
But what is Bond “supposed” to look like? Were the “bulldog Bonds” miscast? Should he look more like a Mr. Darcy type? Not really. The Bond of the books has black hair, a Superman-like spit curl in front of his forehead, a scar on his cheek, and beautiful blue eyes that undercut the overall look of his face, which is revealed to be little more than a “mask of cruelty” when he sleeps. In Fleming’s Casino Royale, Vesper tells Bond that he reminds her of the musician, composer, and actor Hoagy Carmichael. Bond disagrees. I popped in my DVD of The Best Years of Our Lives and took another look at Hoagy. Assuming Vesper is right, he’s a good look for Bond. I also remember hearing that Fleming’s top choices for a movie Bond included James Stewart, Cary Grant, and Frank Sinatra, but that he loved Connery in the part. (The drawing represents how Fleming imagined Bond.)
I haven’t read all the books. They are similar enough in tone and content that I tend to read a handful of books or stories, take several years off, and then read another handful. A little Bond goes a long way for me. So far, I’ve read the first two Fleming books, Casino Royale and Live and Let Die, the final three Fleming books, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, You Only Live Twice, and The Man with the Golden Gun, and all the short stories. I thought You Only Live Twice and The Man With the Golden Gun were mediocre, but I quite enjoyed the others. I’ve also read the much-maligned Sebastian Faulks Devil May Care, which picks up right where the last Fleming book leaves off, and I must say I rather liked it and don’t quite understand why it was so hated. It made a better end to the series than The Man with the Golden Gun. I read John Gardner’s Nobody Lives Forever when I was a kid and missed most of the jokes and continuity references.
The books are sexier and more sexist than the films, which are already sexy and sexist. So, if you know only the movies, imagine their sexiness and the sexism multiplied by a factor of four and you get the books. The nationalism and racism are on steroids in Fleming’s work as well. The reactionary sentiments that underpin the Bond novels are central to their dramatic power, making them simultaneously escapist, entertaining exercises in male fantasy and completely reprehensible in all they stand for. Thanks in part to it being at once a delightful and an evil book, Casino Royale is superb, really and truly superb. (Appallingly sexist, but superb.) I enjoyed the short stories “Risico,” “For Your Eyes Only” (which, combined, were the sources for the Roger Moore film For Your Eyes Only) and “The Living Daylights.” The films were able to adapt the full content of those stories in around ten minutes, lightened their tone, and added many more action scenes and plot twists to flesh them out to movie length – with mixed results. The Living Daylights (with Timothy Dalton) is, hands down, the best Bond film to be inspired by a short story. It is one of the better non-Connery and non-Craig films, and one of the most faithful to the Fleming source material and its tone. In contrast, Roger Moore films like Octopussy (based on “Property of a Lady” and “Octopussy”) and For Your Eyes Only were made by cobbling together several short stories that weren’t meant to go together, which is why For Your Eyes Only in particular is such a tonally uneven film.
Gripping action and suspense segments aside, the best parts of the books are the odd character bits and gratuitous editorializing that blurs the line between Fleming and his character, making me wonder where Bond stops and Fleming begins. These little passages are, in effect, the only escape from the briskly plotted story, which (given the fact that the books are all moderately short) usually pushes the action forward to the point that the narrative is soon revealed to be fairly thin. These editorial passages are both the best and the worst parts of the books, especially when Fleming’s prejudices rear their ugly heads in a way that is fascinating only as a study in the character flaws of the author – who might be called “a sexist, misogynist dinosaur. A relic of the Cold War.”
Some of Fleming’s editorializing seems particularly gratuitous, especially if he returns to the same topic over and over, like a dog with a bone. I found the mockery of Americans excessive and unnecessary until I realized that one of the whole points of the series was that Americans were stupid. In every book, Bond needs to show Felix and his comrades how to run the empire they inherited from Britain properly, because the Yanks simply weren’t educated or strong enough to rule the world well. In the books, Bond criticizes Americans for having lousy food, overly luxurious cars, and a minimal vocabulary. He observes in For Your Eyes Only that, while he can’t do a proper American accent to blend in while undercover in the States, it isn’t a real problem, because Americans and Canadians never talk anyway. As he says, “You can get far in North America with laconic grunts. ‘Huh?’ ‘Hmmm…’ and ‘Hi!’ in their various modulations, together with ‘sure,’ ‘guess so,’ ‘that so?’ and ‘crap!’ will meet almost any contingency.” Funny. True to a degree. But this kind of constant criticism grows tiresome after several books.
And then there’s the racism. The racism is in the books for a reason. It serves a political and dramatic purpose. After all, the reader is supposed to root for Bond to kill a lot of enemy spies. One of the ways Fleming gets us on Bond’s side is to demonstrate time and again that the British are superior culturally, physically, intellectually, and morally to all other peoples on earth, from the Americans to the Russians to the Japanese. Therefore, anyone Bond kills who isn’t British isn’t fully human anyway. Fleming’s Live and Let Die is replete with racist moments, but the sentiment that bothered me the most came from Solitaire. A descendant of a French slave owner, Solitaire would use her psychic abilities to figure out who was challenging gangster Mr. Big’s authority or embezzling from him, point them out, and Mr. Big would kill them. The men who were dead because of Solitaire’s psychic powers didn’t plague her conscience overmuch since, as she noted, “very few of the men were white.” That line has bothered me for years. My enthusiasm for the character was at a low point as I finished that book, and I took an extended break from the Bond universe. As I stepped back from it all, I thought about the other forms of racism I had encountered in the series, including ugly sentiments that were expressed about my own people, those of Italian extraction.
I do have some sense of humor, so not all of the anti-Italian stuff ruffled my feathers. Fleming has fun describing the exaggerated speech and mannerisms of Italians and Italian-Americans. It is often appealing and affectionate, despite being stereotypical. In For Your Eyes Only, Bond befriends and Italian gangster named Columbo (who is played in the movie version by Topol). Here’s a descriptive bit from the book in which Columbo demonstrates some of the same personality traits that I often display, including boisterousness, public displays of affection, and chest-pounding:
“[Bond] turned to find Columbo approaching him. The fat man was grinning delightedly. He came up to Bond and, to Bond’s horror, threw open his arms, clutched Bond to him, and kissed him on both cheeks.
Bond said: “For God’s sake, Columbo.”
Columbo roared with laughter. “Ah, the quiet Englishman! He fears nothing save the emotions. But me,” he hit himself in the chest, “me, Enrico Columbo, loves this man and he is not ashamed to say so.’”
Those who know me would agree that I’ve acted like this on many occasions. As my friend Bill would say on such occasions, “Marc, I’m Irish. Don’t hug me. Shake my hand.” I found this passage endearing. If only it had been the only thing Fleming wrote about Italians, or Italian-Americans. I find some of the dialogue in Diamonds are Forever less amusing:
“There’s nothing extraordinary about American gangsters,” protested [James] Bond. “They’re not Americans. Mostly a lot of Italian bums with monogrammed shirts who spend the day eating spaghetti and meat-balls and squirting scent over themselves…. greaseballs who filled themselves up with pizza pie and beer all week and on Saturdays knocked off a garage or drug store so as to pay their way at the races.”
Whether or not the gangsters we see in Donnie Brasco – the nonfiction book and the film adaptation – fit this description is beside the point. I have no great love of gangsters, but these cruelly expressed words are not aimed solely at the mafiosi of Donnie Brasco or Diamonds are Forever. These words do collateral damage, harming the reader’s view of Italians as a group. Both gangster and non-gangster Italians. And it seems a little hard on the gangsters, too, actually. Reading this passage again, I start to feel like an idiot greaseball who eats spaghetti and likes James Bond even though Bond thinks I’m a gambling, beer-drinking, cologne-wearing, pizza-eating bum. Thanks, Bond. Or, since I belong to an evil race, should I refer to him as Meeester Bond from now on? As a longtime Batman reader, you’d think I’d be used to grotesquely portrayed Italians, but it turns out that the Batman comics had been letting the Italians off easily. And if this is how I feel as an Italian who reads Bond books, how do women feel when they read these things, I ask you? I can’t imagine it is an enjoyable experience for many of them.
On the whole, the Fleming Bond books and short stories are great and awful at the same time. They are astonishingly racist, sexist, and anti-American, even by my standards – the standards of someone who expected to be desensitized to all of the above after growing up immersed in the over-the-top Bond film canon. You expect such things from James Bond, as any one who has seen the movies would expect. But as bad as the films are on these points, the books are worse. Are these flaws in the narrative – I considered putting the word flaws in quotation marks, but I’m going to leave them off – bad enough for me to say that the books shouldn’t be read? No. The books reveal an interesting perspective on the Cold War era and have some very suspenseful and entertaining bits. They can be great fun, like the best comic books and westerns; great trash literature.
But am I being overly forgiving of both the book and film Bond out of some nostalgia for a character I grew up with? Am I too fond of a character that I should, by all rights, have outgrown by now? Are my memories of seeing For your Eyes Only and Octopussy in the movie theater with my mom making me embrace, for way too much of my life, a deeply problematic political and moral universe because mom and I had a couple of great mother/son afternoons out at the pictures that I’ll always remember?
There are a couple ways out of this conundrum that I’ve found for myself.
My friend Steve suggested the first. He argued that, since the films and non-Fleming novels and licensed comic books and merchandise have turned Bond into a franchise, he has outgrown his creator, and the Felming Bond is no now longer the only Bond. So if I have any problems with the original books or the early films, I can still see how the character grows and changes from new book to new book and new film to new film. I can also see him stay troublingly the same. As cool as Daniel Craig is, I’m not sure I can forgive him for making a cold quip about wasted scotch when Raoul Silva shoots and kills Sévérine, spilling expensive booze in the process. The cold-blooded murder of a woman is more deserving of comment than the spilling of scotch. So, perhaps there will always be cringe-inducing moments in Bond films, no matter how much the character evolves. And maybe that is a good thing. I’m not sure how comfortable I want to get rooting for a government assassin, after all.
The other way out of this moral and artistic dilemma for me is this: I no longer read only superhero fiction in particular and heroic fiction in general. There is more to life than Spider-Man, Sherlock Holmes, and James Bond. I read literature, I watch dramas, go to plays, and immerse myself in narratives by women and by some of the very ethnic and racial minorities Fleming spent so much time maligning. And I can see, quite clearly, in both the narratives I consume and the real world people I interact with, how manifestly wrong Fleming is about people. So I have inoculated myself against the worst of what Fleming has to offer by varying my diet. “Man” cannot live on Bond alone. Nor can one nourish oneself only on fast food. This broader reading and education makes it a less dangerous prospect for me the next time I return to the world of James Bond, in book or film format. Yes, I can still enjoy beautiful international scenery, suspenseful games of high-stakes cards, amazing displays of skiing, and cool fight scenes, but I will not be completely taken in by their seductive and morally questionable powers.
I will avoid, with all my might, internalizing the horrifying lessons Bond frequently tries to teach me about how to be racist and how to be a male chauvinist pig.
But there’s one thing Bond has taught me to do that I will always be grateful for.
He’s taught me a fantastic way to make scrambled eggs.