I grew up in the midst of the James Bond movies as a phenomenon. Given my particular age, the first Bond I saw was Roger Moore and, for a good chunk of my life, he was The James Bond.
This, of course, put me at odds with the Bond aficionados, who (nearly) universally found Moore an offense to Connery’s true (Scotsman?) portrayal. I’ll add an interesting side note here. Moore was already being considered to play Bond before George Lazenby’s go in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, but various factors conspired to delay Moore’s first effort, The Man with the Golden Gun, until 1974.
In my young mind’s Moore-centric view of the world, Timothy Dalton represented the end of the Bond franchise. I’m pretty sure I still watched them at the theater when they came out, and if I were honest with myself, the reduction in campiness probably made for better movies. The problem was, Dalton just didn’t look or sound like Bond. The arrival of Pierce Brosnan renewed faith in the future of the series and, at the same time, allowed me to accept that Bond could be portrayed by different actors over the years.
Some time in this century, I decided to revisit all of the Bond films – in their original order. At the time, I wasn’t sure what I had seen and, of those that I had seen, which had been on network television and therefore “formatted to fit your screen, to run in the time allotted, and edited for content.” In this exercise, I believe I was able to view every single film to date which, by then, included the reboot version of Casino Royale, with one exception. The odd man out (in more ways than one) is the original film version of Casino Royale, which I have to this date never seen.
Despite fifty-to-sixty years of Bond movies, my conception of James Bond remains rooted in the decade from 1974. Moore’s tongue in cheek portrayal steeped in the culture of the late 60s and early 70s was where I see James Bond at home. As the series moved into the 1980s and beyond, it began to feel displaced for me. I am obviously not alone; Austin Powers is for many the perfect parody of James Bond. Note that Powers ended his pre-stasis career in 1967.
Up until a week or so ago, I had never read any of the books. This is, actually, a little surprising. I recall a teenaged me griping to my mother about not being able to find good books. When she asked me what I wanted, I said I wanted some kind of spy novel. She produced for me a le Carré title, which was not what I had in mind. I was thinking along the lines of Moore’s Bond. For all of that, I never took the obvious step of reading any of Fleming’s works. Perhaps the Bond movies being what they were, I discounted the source material as equally non-serious.
The remake Casino Royale did much to alter that preconception. Surrounding its release, we were treated to explanations about the deviation of the original film adaptation and the adherence of the new version to the style of the book.
The most obvious departure is the setting of the book. In Casino Royale we get indications that the story is taking place shortly after the end of the Second World War. Later novels peg the time in 1951. We also don’t encounter the super-villains and extra-national organizations that approached parody even before the Austin Powers treatment. Our villain is a rogue Russian agent whom Bond is tasked with simply nudging over the edge rather than allowing him to return to the fold. In the form of SMERSH, he faces an organization based on War-time reality. Fleming merely imagines it extending its reach into the Cold War.
Indeed, one of the keys to understanding the early Bond stories is that Fleming’s personal experience was with espionage during the Second World War. His writing, and some of the other “spy thrillers” of the early 1950s, were ostensibly about the Cold War but likely have had more grounding in the experiences of WWII.
As to the book itself, coming at it knowing only the films, it is far more subdued that one would expect. All the films are action/thrillers, filled athletic chases and wild combat scenes. A single car chase aside, the action in the novel is restricted to the card table.
Having forgotten the ending from the film, I got a little nervous about the extremely lengthy romantic interlude towards preceding the books final climax. If you know what I’m talking about, you’ll know that it eventually falls into place and its context within the book makes perfect sense.
Coming as it did for me, Casino Royale defies the concept that I have for James Bond and his world. It is Flemings first novel, being written before he was a “novelist” by trade. He, himself, criticized his own lack of seriousness with the work. Whatever the merits of the novel on its own, however, it was successful enough to encourage a follow on. It created the character of James Bond, who remains an icon of popular culture almost seventy years after his introduction.