Welcome to the second installment of the Bond vs Bond series, my column that will compare the Ian Fleming novels to the movie with the same namesake. As we will see throughout the series, that doesn’t always mean the movie is an adaptation of the book. It is a series of liberal borrowing from the book series without almost any sort of care for faithfulness to the series. Which is fine since the movie started out as liberal translations of the books anyway. With last week we took a look at the first book in the series but the 21st movie in the franchise. This week, it’s the second book and the 8th movie in the franchise. That is Live and Let Die. Let’s take a look into the two and see what’s what.
To see the write up on Casino Royale, click here.
Live and Let Die
The year was 1954. One year prior Ian Fleming had published the first book in a line of books that would go on to become a mainstay in pop culture in many mediums. Hell, Ian Fleming would die before he could see how massive the franchise would become. He lived to see Connery take over the mantle and change his opinion on the man, initially not a fan of Connery as a substitute for his badass spy. But he died a few years before George Lazenby would replace Connery for one movie, before Connery would re turn and leave again, and before the franchise really became so malleable that it became a time honored tradition to guess who would take over the mantle and then proceed to tear them to pieces until we actually saw a movie from them (except for Pierce Brosnan, who’d go onto to only be bested as worst Bond by Roger Moore). It was in 1954 that Fleming would write the book that would become the starting off point for the first real replacement for Connery, a man who would last for 12 years and 7 movies. Roger Moore would step in in 1973 and would appear in Live and Let Die. What’s odd though is that the least threatening and quite cuddly man to play Bond would make his start in a movie based on a book that is quite controversial.
There’s gotta be a bit of a disclaimer in regards to this book. It was the 50s in England, a place of casual racism. But Ian Fleming seemingly had a lot more than casual racism, as this book was horribly denigrating towards black people. It’s a story dealing with a black bad guy named Mr. Big that is special not because he’s a genius villain, but because he is seemingly the only black man ever encountered that has been able to rise above jive stepping villainy on a street corner. It’s legit discussed that he’s a special case but a progressive case because the blacks would have to put out a formidable bad guy since there’s so many blacks it’s just bound to happen at some point. If that was the only aspect that was racist, it would be comically silly but minor enough to not let it taint the rest of the book for you. But, this is a book seemingly made for Fleming to just vent about blacks. Because it’s a book chock full of black people, and all of them are sort of mindless thugs that are just pawns. Which isn’t the worst part about them because Fleming writes their dialogue with horrible jive talking jibberish. It’s like the joke in Airplane. And not only is it just horribly misguided and offensive, it’s just some atrocious writing that makes the book a bit of a slog to get through. In addition to that bullshit, every black person is apparently a voodoo believing rube who is easily controlled by the voodoo using bad guy. They all know each other and they are all connected to the bad guy and are all just ignorant fools. So while it may not have pissed off too many people in the 50s, it has not aged all too gracefully.
Looking past the transgressive racism in the book, it is not a particularly good read. It’s a big step down from Casino Royale. For one, it’s a much bigger book in scope. No simple card game as the centerpiece. This is a book that has many locations and some action to goose the pace a bit. But in that transition to a larger scale, he loses something. It reads like he didn’t know exactly how to proceed with a bigger story and it reads. There’s more slow moments in the Harlem section and some of the Jamaica parts, which isn’t helped by the shit ass jive and some looser writing. It’s a step down in that regards. And the plot itself isn’t too great, as it involved Bond looking for the man that’s selling pirate gold on the black market. Not as interesting as the last one, with Bond trying to turn Le Chiffre in a card game. The only real interesting thing about the plot is that it’s kicked off by Bond being assigned the case because Mr. Big is an agent of SMERSH. So aside from that little bit of continuity, the plot lacks some agency or energy.
In the transition to the big screen, a whole hell of a lot was lost in translation. One good thing lose was the horrific racism. It’s still there a bit, but it’s toned down almost completely and almost done in good fun, as the movie is a riff on blaxploitation movies. But the rest, not so much. Aside from character names and locations, the movie is almost completely different from the book. For one, Mr Big is no longer an agent of SMERSH. By this point in the series, it wouldn’t really matter to make him a Soviet Agent, as that’s only done in the books to give Bond some vengeful motivation. And they couldn’t switch it to SPECTRE for two reasons. One is business wise, thanks to the lawsuit by Kevin McClory holding up the SPECTRE name. Two, the whole recasting business and the desire to be different from Connery would make that stuff too much a part of that. So, the SMERSH stuff is gone. But they also change the plot from being about Pirate gold to just simple drug smuggling. It almost seems like the plots were switched, as the drug smuggling seems more fitting with the books and vice versa. That and Mr. Big is not just a simple crime lord, but a Prime Minister for the fictional co untry of San Monique who’s name is Kananga and the Mr. Big persona is just a front to keep attention away from himself. Also gone is the heart issue from the book and the massive frame that makes him seem like The Kingpin from Marvel comics.
Mr. Big isn’t the only change. The events that lead to Bond on this mission in the books is the CIA reaching out the MI6 to work together to find the man behind the gold trade. In the movie, it’s the death of three MI6 agents in three different locations that connect to Mr. Big. The Bond girl in both is named Solitaire and she is a fortune teller in both. And both also have some supernatural elements to it that just don’t fit in at all with this series in both incarnations. Just in the movie they take out her backstory as a girl from wealth who lost her family and ended up on the street. In the movie she’s just some girl that’s there to help Mr. Big but then gets fucked by Bond. In the movies though, that sexual relationship negates her powers, something not even hinted at in the book. Her relationship with Bond is also different, as the movie just makes her some whatever fling where the book Bond falls for her and is willing to ruin the mission to save her in the end. There are some other changes in there that are just some differences to pad out the movie, like the events in Harlem are different in the movie and there’s an excursion to New Orleans in the movie that’s totally made up and simultaneously entertaining as shit and horribly grating. Entertaining thanks to the awesome extended boat chase but horrible because of the next level bad character of Southern Sheriff dipshit JW Pepper. Pepper kinda ruins the scene as we have to cut back to him instead of just focusing on the badass chase. As usual with the movies, it’s more action packed and filled with event than the book, like the boat chase and a car chase and a big fight scene with Mr. Big and a train set fight with a henchmen. The movie also loses a big underwater sequence with Bond scuba diving a long distance and getting attacked by an octopus and some barracudas, obviously lost because of technical deficiencies of the time. It’s also a too long sequence in the book, so good riddance. Both contain voodoo as an aspect of Mr. Big using it to control his ignorant followers in line and as a way to deflect what is truly going on.
Two changes in here are interesting enough to warrant it’s own paragraph because these are examples of elements being mined from the book for use in other movies. The finale of the book is Mr. Big tying up Bond and Solitaire to a device on the back of a yacht, with the goal to be that they would get eaten up by sharks and barracudas after getting cut up on coral reefs on the way to deeper water. This scene is not used in the movie, substituted with a simple villainous monologue scene with Mr Big setting up a slow descent into a shark tank where Bond escapes and gets into a fist fight with Mr Big and besting him. But the scene would be used later in the 5th Roger Moore movie, For Your Eyes Only. And a big piece of the motivation for Bond in this book to take out Mr. Big is gone as well. In the book, CIA man Felix Leiter makes a return after appearing in the first book to work with Bond as his CIA liaison. They find a warehouse where Mr. Big may be holding his pirate gold and Leiter goes on his own, getting captured and tortured by being fed to a shark. This causes Bond much anger and adds to his desire to bring Big down. But it’s gone from the movie and is instead used in Timothy Daltons second movie, License To Kill as the whole motivation for the movie. This didn’t happen with the first book, as that was too concentrated too really be mined. These books though had enough happening to pick and choose without much worry to altering a story.
I may have gone on a bit about how the book is weak and suffers from the sophomore slump. And it’s true. Too ambitious after the modest scale of Casino Royale and filled with weaker writing and such obnoxious racism as to make the read a bit hard. But there’s still enough in Flemings writing to make it readable. It’s a quick read and filled with enough good that you can suffer through some of the weaker elements for the most part. With the movie though, it is the start of the darkest time in the Bond franchise, the Roger Moore era. Roger Moore is most definitely different than Connery. A different energy and tone. Connery brings a rugged masculinity to the movie, making the combination of badass and charmer believable. Moore doesn’t have that mix. Hell, he doesn’t even have the badass aspect. And the charm is attempted but doesn’t really work. It may not be completely his fault, more a fault of the writing and direction that the producers wanted the character to go in. Doesn’t help that he was 45 years old when cast, older than Connery was when he left the series. So he comes across as this dainty, hammy old man that can barely handle the action scenes and his charm comes off in a pathetic way, of an old man not knowing his time has past. He is a complete betrayal of not only Fleming’s character, but of Connery’s too. Just a complete whiff of a casting choice and he somehow lasted 12 years. This alone is the biggest change from the book, as it is a complete change in tone. The books are serious and tense pulp affairs, where this movie turned it into cartoonish adventures in cheese.
This was a tough one, as both book and movie are very flawed affairs. They each have their moments but also have some massive issues, some of which appear in both mediums. Both are massively misguided affairs. But Fleming was seemingly able to bounce back from the mistake, where the movies essentially were in the dark for 12 years (minus The Spy Who Loved Me). Yet in the end, one would have to say that the book is a better use of the James Bond character and is a better piece of the medium it’s in. The movie is just too messy and filled with massive mistakes as to be close to unwatchable. Both are products of the time. And it is the first book in the chronology of books to be changed and mined, although not the first one used in cinemas. It’s an interesting look at how a franchise adapts a book liberally. But compared to the next book, this adaptation is damn near perfectly faithful.
Next Up: Moonraker