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Her Majesty’s Spy from Page to Screen

Brian Doxtader | Wednesday, November 29, 2006

In a lot of ways, “Casino Royale” is the Bond franchise coming full circle. The film is based on Ian Fleming’s first novel, which he wrote back in 1953. Over the next 11 years, Fleming wrote 12 novels and nine short stories featuring the suave protagonist, most of which were adapted (some rather loosely) into film versions.

Fleming created Bond in 1952, basing the character on his own experiences as a personal assistant to John Godfrey, director of naval intelligence of the British Royal Navy. Many of the books’ plots derive from various inspirations, many of them related to Fleming’s military history. Though the movies, especially the Roger Moore outings, tended toward fantastic elements, most of the original novels were straight-ahead spy novels, with much less emphasis on gadgets and action.

The most notable and well written of Fleming’s books are the final three Bond novels published in the author’s lifetime (not counting the “interlude” novel “The Spy Who Loved Me”), which were part of a trilogy involving arch-villain Ernst Stavro Blofeld and his criminal organization SPECTRE.

The trilogy began with “Thunderball,” which was mired in controversy because the novel was based on the screen treatment, written by Kevin McClory, Jack Whittingham and Fleming himself. The rights over “Thunderball” led to a legal battle that was not resolved before Fleming’s death and eventually led to the 1983 “Thunderball” remake “Never Say Never Again.” Although it starred Connery, it is not considered officially part of the Bond canon.

After “The Spy Who Loved Me,” the Blofeld trilogy once again picked up with “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.” As with the film (the only Bond picture that starred George Lazenby), the novel featured the short-lived marriage of James and Tracy. The trilogy then finished with “You Only Live Twice,” which was the last novel published in Fleming’s lifetime.

After the posthumous publication of “The Man With the Golden Gun,” which was unfinished, the Bond series really picked up again in 1981 with the publication of the John Gardner-penned “License Renewed.” Gardner updated the Bond world to the modern times, writing 14 original novels and two adaptations between 1981 and 1996.

None of the Bond films are based on Gardner’s novels, and many others are based on Fleming’s works in name only. 1995’s “GoldenEye” was the first Bond film that wasn’t based on one of Fleming’s stories, though it has something of a connection – the title derives from Fleming’s Jamaican cottage, where many of the novels were written.

The Bond of the novels is far different from most screen incarnations. In fact, only Timothy Dalton and now Daniel Craig have really come close to capturing the original flavor of the character, who is a brutal, often cruel, alcoholic. His flaws are far more pronounced and noticeable in the novels than they are in the films, which becomes evident by the end of the novel “Casino Royale,” in which he gives Vesper an infamously heartless valediction.

James Bond has changed over the years, but the novels remain a cornerstone of the character’s legendary mythos. From the opening of “Casino Royale” to Fleming’s original farewell in “You Only Live Twice,” the James Bond novels, while not identical to their silver-screen counterparts, remain the well for the prototypical superspy.