Although it was the fifth James Bond novel, it was made into only the second James Bond film. This meant, first of all, that the events portrayed in the film (assuming “present day” for the 1963 film release) are reasonably close to those in the book (let’s say about eight years). Second, the swapping of Dr. No and From Russia, with Love aside, there is considerably less divergence between the written and film “universes,” making it less tempting to stray from the novel’s material. Third, this is still in the “pre-camp” era of James Bond. I haven’t watched From Russia with Love for a while, but I recall that, along with Dr. No, it ranked among the better James Bond films.
While the divergence between the book and film is small relative to future film projects, it is naturally still there to some extent. All film adaptations must make some changes to fit the media. The Bond series, from the beginning, seemed considerably “lighter” than the books. An obvious difference is that From Russia, with Love (the film) features the criminal organization SPECTRE, Bond’s nemesis from the first film. By contrast, the books pits Bond against SMERSH and the MGB. As I mentioned last time we met them, SMERSH (смерш is a shortened form of Смерть Шпионам, meaning “Death to Spies”), was a real counter-espionage organization during the Second World War which, by that time, had been absorbed into the Ministry of State Security, or MGB*.
For several chapters, this James Bond book doesn’t show James Bond except through photographs in the hands of the Russians. Furthermore, unlike the film Bond, novel-Bond spends his downtime serving on excruciatingly pointless committees rather than traveling the world and engaging in exciting (while less exciting, presumably, than the featured stories) adventures. Combined with the author’s introduction, this focus on Moscow alters the tone of the novel considerably.
One can speculate on why this was done and what it means, and I’m sure better-informed literary analysts than I have done so. Fleming may have added the trappings of reality to the story to lend gravitas to his own work. Or perhaps a connection to popular events. The public, recently exposed to the defections of two of the Cambridge Five, may have been eager for fiction which involved these events in the headlines. He may have been trying to go so far as to comment on the state of the Cold War through his work. Or perhaps this was just Fleming himself transitioning from his World War II -era spy business, with which he was directly familiar, to the Cold War as a new “Great Game.”
Assuming the second of these three, what is Fleming saying about the Cold War? Perhaps he is emphasizing that there was a real and deadly struggle going on between England (alongside America) and the Soviet Union. The true extent of that may not make the headlines, but Fleming is trying to hint at the “reality” of Cold War espionage. He may also be trying to reassert England’s place in a world increasingly defined by the dueling superpowers of the United States and the Soviet Union.
One other side-effect from reading this book for me: On several occasions, the titular female character Tatiana Romanov (of THE Romanovs, it is told), is described as looking very much like a young Greta Garbo. Through most of the period that my lifetime overlapped with Garbo’s, she was merely an old woman who used to be famous for films – now technically so out of date (silent pictures and early “talkies”) as to not be of interest to a youngster like myself. I’m sure around the time she died (1990) there were photographs on TV and in the papers, although I have no such recollection. If I had seen stills from her films, however, even those wouldn’t have spoken to me much – the women of the 20s-and-30s cinema often wore “stage makeup” and just don’t look to me like “young women” as much as old women pictured when they were younger. To understand the references from this book I, for the first time, searched for pictures of Greta Garbo and, honestly, they took me by surprise. Some eyebrow weirdness aside, her non-film-costume headshots could have been taken today.
Readers of late 1950s, of course, would have had to recall the work (and the early work at that) of a decades-retired actress. One assumes, however, that this wouldn’t be such a stretch. It is also a hallmark of even the lighter fiction of this time that books make references that would seem to be over-the-head of the majority of readers. From Russia, With Love is peppered throughout with untranslated foreign-language phrases and obscure (at least to me) architectural and style references. Did these references connect well with the audience? Also, I have to wonder, is the fact that Garbo look rather modern to me a sign that she might have appeared “exotic” in the 1930s or even the 1950s?
Arguments abound as to whether From Russia, With Love is one of Fleming strongest or weakest Bond novels. It does seem to hit a new stride in terms of the the quality and structure of the Bond series. Interestingly, in 1961, Life magazine published an article on President Kennedy’s reading habits. He listed From Russia, With Love as one of his 10 favorite books and mentioned Fleming and the Bond series generally. The film version was the last movie Kennedy watched before his assassination. Kennedy’s approval of the Bond novels likely gave them credibility among more “serious” readers and almost certainly boosted their popularity.
*In fact, it looks like Fleming’s intelligence information was out of date across the board. By 1957, when the novel was published and even by 1954, when the story is proposed to be taking place, Fleming’s organizations had already been reorganized or renamed. The MGB was merged briefly with the MVD (Ministry of Internal Affairs) and then, in early 1954, functionly transfered to the KGB (Committee for State Security) formed under Ivan Serov, who features briefly in the novel.