Moving on to the next Bond novel, Dr. No, I encounter the foundation for the popular conception of the Bond universe. Fleming’s sixth novel returns us to Jamaica but moves us away, somewhat, from the Cold War theme has framed all Bond’s major encounters to this point. As this is the first of the Bond novels to be made as a film, it is this story and Sean Connery that introduce the non-reading public to James.
Dr. No took a winding path from Fleming’s mind to page to screen, all the more so because it actually started out with the screen. In June of 1956, Ian Fleming began working with producer Henry Morgenthau III on a TV series. The series was to be called Commander Jamaica and would involve a Caribbean-based character, James Gunn, who would treat viewers to weekly Bondish exploits. The series failed to materialize. However, while From Russia, with Love was being readied for publication, Fleming returned to his Jamaican vacation spot and began work on his next novel. Getting a leg up on the creative process, he used the abandoned ideas from the TV series as the basis for his next work.
The decision to make this into a film was also somewhat accidental. Film producer Harry Saltzman had acquired the film rights for James Bond from Fleming but had not started projects. The, um, saltiness (or perhaps just the Britishness) of the stories tended to scare away studio interest. Albert Broccoli sought to purchase the dormant film rights but was rejected and instead a partnership deal was arranged between Saltzman and Broccoli. They selected Thunderball, Fleming’s eight novel, as their first project. The screenplay for Thunderball got tied up in legal wrangling and so Dr. No was chosen as a backup project and got funding from the studio. Saltzman and Broccoli brought director Terence Young on. Young decided to frame the film humorously as a way to get it past the censors; he reckoned that the film would have ratings trouble if it played the sexually-themed novel* too straight. This would be a key feature of all the Bond film campiness in the decades to come.
Unlike Bond’s previous enemies, the titular villain of this book is (mostly**) independent of the Russians and the international intrigue of the Cold War. Bond, himself, only becomes involved with the situation because his boss (M, as we Bond fans well know) wants to give him a light case while he is in recovery***. The British government misidentified a case of property-rights conflict between an industrialist and environmentalists, who have coexistent claims on the fictional island of Crab Key (between Jamaica and Cuba). The reader knows from the get-go, and Bond soon comes to understand as well, that said industrialist, known as Dr. No, is deadly serious about enforcing his rights. But before calling in the Navy, Bond decides both prove his suspicions and get the down-low on Dr. No.
Crab Key is the site of a guanery (guano mine) which was purchased by Dr. No when guano commodity prices were depressed. The island is subject to hot, dry wind which helps to preserve the nitrate content of the bird deposits on the island, making it an exceptional source for commercial guano relative to other Caribbean locations. On the same island is also a colony of a somewhat-threatened Caribbean species, the Rosate Spoonbill. The book identifies No’s birds as the Guanay Cormorant, the primary producer of Peruvian guano. Per my research, it is unlikely that this bird would be found in colonies near Jamaica or Cuba. More likely it would be another guano-producing bird such as the Booby (pro tip: don’t google “boobies” in polite company unless you filter your image searches). I can live with the inaccuracy, although I think Fleming missed out on a major opportunity by not featuring Boobies prominently in this story.
What Bond comes to find out, and this will risk ruining the story for you if you don’t know much about the Bond universe, is that Crab Key and the guano business was created as merely a cover for Dr. No’s greater designs. Simultaneously with upgrading and industrializing the guano production, No created a vast, underground fortress on the island. The details are remarkably similar to my recently-purchased Bond-villain management-sim Evil Genius. There is the secretive digging out of an underground lair. There is the imposition of wandering eco-tourists. Then, with the secret fortress built up, the mad scientist can embark upon greater, world-altering enterprise.
It probably goes without saying that the Bond version is more compelling as a story. There was no racing around the world advancing nefarious plots while the construction was ongoing. The underground fortress preceded the next phase of the plan, which for Dr. No consisted of interfering with U.S. missile tests in the Caribbean. His long-term intent was to have something he could sell to the Russians.
The novel doesn’t give specific date information but analysis has placed it in February and March of 1956. Naturally this being the first novel put to film, you would think that the differing timelines for book and film would be as close to each other as any, but you’d be wrong. What this neglects is that, as the films began to be made (Dr. No was a 1962 movie release), more novels were still being written. As the films did not take the novels in order, other movie releases were also in close proximity to their book’s publication date. Both Thunderball and You Only Live Twice were written only three years before they were each transferred to film. For Dr. No, the six-year delay in the story turned the Redstone missiles (and their actual testing difficulties that made it into the plot) into a manned Atlas/Mercury launch. By 1962, the Space Race was far more interesting than medium-range ballistic missile development. As before, I think the film sticking closer to the book’s plot is a factor in its success.
The novel, not intended to dodge the censors, takes itself far more seriously. A surprising element (for me) is that, being inside the mind of James Bond, we can see his human frailties. He wonders about his physical fitness and his level of alcohol consumption. He physically extends himself beyond what he thinks is possible. On film, our fourth-wall view of Bond leaves him at all times appearing competent, suave, and ready with a glib quip. Literary Bond isn’t as funny or charming but the combination of seriousness and psychology make for a much better story – and series.