I’m a big James Bond fan. Most men into movies are. He’s an unkillable and endurable icon that’s changed with the times. And that’s thanks to the movies. But he didn’t get his start there. Bond came about in novels, helmed by Ian Fleming. In the move to movies, there were aspects used from the books but some not with the movies making up their own rules. It’s essentially created two different James Bond chronologies. And in the lead up to the newest Bond movie, Spectre, it seemed like an ideal time to get into the books and compare the book to it’s cinematic companion. We will be going in chronological order of the books. So that leads us to Casino Royale, the first book and the 21st movie. Let’s take a look.
53 years. At the time of writing, it has been 53 years since James Bond made his big screen appearance in the form of Sean Connery. 53 years since he became a massive icon that seemingly would never die. But that wasn’t the worlds first taste of Bond. That would have been nine years prior in the printed form, as written by Ian Fleming. Bond was popular at the time and a pilot was even made in the 50s for CBS, but it didn’t click. He wouldn’t make the leap until 1963. But until that time, Fleming was cranking out Bond books that would be the skeleton for the producers to mine to craft one of the most everlasting icons of cinema. And the first book he cranked out was the one that wasn’t made until 2006, as the reboot of the franchise with new Bond Daniel Craig. That book was Casino Royale. And it’s impact can’t be overstated.
The book is very much a pulp novel of the time. It’s a short, terse and crackling thriller that does not go in for extravagance. Fleming here isn’t going for what the movies would go for. The movie would go big and indulgent. Not here. Fleming is economical, telling a complete story in quick time. And as we’ll see with further installments, the movies would make some significant changes to the books they were “based” on. But here, the adaptation was surprisingly faithful to the source material in a way that took me off guard.
I had seen the movie roughly around the time it was released and was immediately in love with it. My Bond resume was not completely full. And by not completely, I mean I had only seen 2of Brosnans movies (Goldeneye and The World Is Not Enough). This movie was essentially the one that kicked off my love for the series. But it took me until Skyfall to finally delve into the whole franchise and wasn’t until recently, with Spectre looming, to get into the novels. And the first one being the basis for my favorite Bond movie was a nice treat.
Casino Royale in book form is simplicity itself. MI6 agent James Bond is tasked with entering a Baccarat game against Russian agent Le Chiffre. Le Chiffre has stolen money from his country and desperately heads up this high stakes game in an attempt to get the money back to save his neck. Bond wants to crush him to make him desperate enough to become an asset. Simple enough. There’s a girl that Bond falls for but she turns out to be a traitor and kills herself to save herself the shame of facing Bond. Bond vows revenge and that’s it. The series is officially begun. And the movie? Really not that different on a fundamental level.
As a movie in the Bond franchise, obviously it’s not gonna go for a more Walter Hill styled low key affair. It’s big and loud and really long. The book as is would not allow them to make such a movie. So they have to add some things and change up other stuff to allow a 50 year difference to make the story work. It was following up the widely regarded lowpoint in Die Another Day and a shifting of the genre with the Bourne franchise and Batman Begins. Cinema was a grittier affair and interested in beginnings. One change for modernity is that the game is changed to Texas Hold Em. It’s a more cinematic game as it involved multiple levels to a hand and some talent to read others. But like the book, it ends in a massively lucky hand for Bond. And it also has a moment where Bond is beaten, down and out but saved by CIA man Felix Leiter. In the book Leiter is known to Bond and is not in the game. In the movie, he is incognito in the game until Bond loses and helps Bond, seeing that Bond is capable of doing it. Another change from the book is a massive set up to get to the game. In the movie we see the two kills that allows Bond to become 007. And we also see him on a mission that allows him to do some detective work in between ass kickings and lady loving that leads him to Le Chiffre. Le Chiffre himself is changed in some ways, but is essentially the same personality wise. Cold, super intelligent, and vicious when backed into a corner. In the movie though, he is a stocks dealer who rigs the game to make sure money. And in the movie, he is desperate enough to gamble for the money because Bond foils his plan to blow up an airport to make money on a stock exchange. It’s there that the movie and the book essentially collide and become so close that it is uncanny.
The movie and the book are so close, but the movie has the book beaten because of some things that it does to elevate the material in the book. Obviously it’s the added story points and the altering of Le Chiffre’s backstory to add more scope and breadth to the story. It becomes a much bigger story than one of a simple thriller. And by doing that you get more action, adding a cinematic scope to it. Cause the book is very novelistic. And much has been made of the difference between Bond on screen and Bond on the page in the decades since the shift was made. On screen, Bond has been portrayed as a perfect man. Able to bed any woman and able to kill anyone that steps to him, he’s more superhero than slightly heightened spy that Fleming created. Bond was suave and quippy on screen. On the page? Bond is damn near sociopathic. Doesn’t really like people, has almost no use for woman aside from bed partner, and has no real issue with violence. But in this reboot with Daniel Craig, he’s closer to the book than most before him (although Timothy Dalton really is almost exactly the book). He’s got a detachment to the violence and is quick to it. Women don’t really matter to him, as evidenced by his abandoning of Solange in the first half before consummating the deed. He makes some quips and is charming, but he is much scarier than most Bonds before him. But the biggest change that helps elevate the material? The work they do with Vesper Lynd.
Vesper is the woman who breaks through Bonds icy veneer and shows the humanity he is capable of. But her betrayal makes him colder and less inclined to stay with a woman. But in the book she is barely a character. She just shows up as an assistant essentially and does nothing of any worth. Yet Bond takes a liking to her for some reason despite having no personality and really being a bit of a wet rag of a character, a whimpering woman cliche. We’re told that Bond loves her and that she loves him, but it doesn’t really click on a written level. In the movie though, they make it work like hell. She is given a personality, perfectly brought to life by Eva Green as a contender for best Bond girl. She is strong but feminine, smart and able to see through Bonds shit yet still sees something worth falling for outside of the pick up lines. She can read Bond. Her intellect and capability is what makes her attractive to Bond, not just her beauty like in the book. And it makes her betrayal all the more potent at the end. And it makes her death a sacrifice, a poetic way for her to save James and for her to atone for her sins. The filmmakers add weight to it and it just fucking works like gangbusters.
In the movies, changes were obviously made. Sean Connery is the definitive Bond on screen for most, but he is nothing like Flemings creation. The books aren’t as sexy or explosive. But the change that has had massive impact in the series is the steering away from the real life Cold War. They did
n’t completely ignore them, but it took a massive back seat. And that change comes in the form of changing the villain organization in the transition to the big screen. In the book, the villain organization is SMERSH. They are a rival spy organization for the Soviet Union. A flipside to MI6. In the books, it added to the Cold War setting. But in the movies they were changed to SPECTRE. SPECTRE is a terrorist organization in the books, but not used until later in the run. The movies never even got to SMERSH. SPECTRE was the villains right out of the gate. But thanks to a lawsuit we will get to later in this series, SPECTRE and related characters (mainly head baddy Blofeld) was no longer allowed to be used by the official EON productions. So SPECTRE has been absent until the newest entry, cannily titled Spectre. So when they got to the movie of Casino Royale, a new organization would have to be made to go after Le Chriffre. And since the Soviet Union fell, SMERSH was not a viable option. And SPECTRE wasn’t an option, they had to make a new terrorist group that was essentially SPECTRE. No name was actually given in the movie, ending with Bond capturing a member of this group. They’d be named Quantum in the sequel, Quantum of Solace. And Quantum isn’t to be forgotten after an absence from Skyfall, as Mr. White (the man Bond captured) is back and Quantum seems to have been destroyed by the newly resurgent SPECTRE. So the weird history Bond has had led to some circular writing, omitting some groups and swapping others while creating others to eventually lead back to the beginning.
It’s similar to The Godfather in a way, as it’s an adaptation that is far and away better and more artfully done than the book despite being pretty faithful. But it’s in those elements that changed to the screen that really helped make things better and weightier and more entertaining and more fleshed out. But don’t get it twisted. The book is an interesting read. It’s well written for the most part (aside from the blatant misogyny from Fleming). And as a historical artifact that shows the beginnings of the legend, it is better than it really should be. I’m sure as I get to the other books that were mined for some of the Moore stuff, it’ll shift to the books favor. But for now, cinema wins out.
Next Up: Live and Let Die