Welcome back to the newest installment in Bond vs Bond. In the first 4 installments, we got into one classic movie but the rest were less than perfect. And only one was a classic Connery picture, but the weakest of his bunch. Even if the books were good, it’s been a rough go in the movie aspect since Casino Royale. But it’s been all worth it to get to this entry. The first really great entry in the cinematic Bond franchise, and easily the best of the bunch until Casino Royale. From Russia With Love was the moment when the filmmakers and producers figured out what Bond is and how to do it. And, arguably, they hadn’t reach those heights again until 2006. And this was the book that really sealed the deal with Bond. This book was so perfectly calibrated that it caught the publics attention and made the character solidified. And being the book adapted in the second movie of the series, it was actually very close to the book for the most part. Changes were made to some details to fit the series they had started in Dr. No, but it was shockingly similar. So much so that it was an immense debate in my mind as to which one was the superior entry? The 5th book or the 2nd movie? Let’s take a dive into these and find out.
To see the write up on Casino Royale, click here.
To see the write up on Live and Let Die, click here.
To see the write up on Moonraker, click here.
To see the write up on Diamonds Are Forever, click here.
From Russia With Love
In 1961, John Kennedy was asked about some of his favorite books ok all time. One of those books was a big surprise and got a big boost from the endorsement. It was already a big book at the time in the literary world and considered by many readers to be the highpoint in the series. That book was a James Bond book. It was 1957’s From Russia With Love. A surprising entry in the list of books Kennedy favored, being a pulp novel when the others he mentioned were more literary affairs like a book by Winston Churchill and Samuel Flagg Bemis. But Kennedy was a man who would definitely be into the James Bond character, a suave badass who can bed any woman he wants with ease. And his endorsement of the book played very strongly in the production of the second Bond movie. After the enormous success of Dr. No in 1962, studio United Artists greenlit a sequel immediately for release in 1963. They doubled the budget and expected bigger/better work from the crew. And with that endorsement from Kennedy, they knew which book to adapt. In a fitting little epilogue to the Kennedy endorsement, the finished movie was the last movie Kennedy saw before the fateful day in Dallas. And it was this movie that may be the most important movie in the franchise, as it was the one that showed off the flexibility it could have from movie to movie, while also introducing some of the elements that would last throughout the series from then on out. It did so by doing a really faithful translation of the book, but with some changes to not fell completely literal.
Whereas Dr. No was a mystery that ended in a plot to blow up a space launch, From Russia With Love complicated the narrative while at the same time constricting the scope of the story. This was, in both cases, a story that was not about global catastrophe or mass destruction. No, this was a story about a group striking out at rival groups in the shadows to embarrass them. They felt much more like spy stories, especially in the cinematic version. That one was very much a come down from the prior movie having such dire consequences in them. In the book though, it was a much more personal affair for the attacking group. And that group was very different than the one in the movies. Something that I’ve talked about already before in this series. And that, is SMERSH and SPECTRE.
After taking a break from the proceedings in Diamonds Are Forever, SMERSH comes back in full force in the novel. They’re back in such a massive way that the first 80 pages or so of the book are set in the inner workings of their organization. In this section of the book, we see what their motivations are. The Soviet Union is feeling like it’s intelligence section is not working up to snuff. There’s been too many foul ups within, and they need to change their reputation in the intelligence community. So they need to plan a terrorist attack on a rival intelligence community without it being known to the general public. So what organization should it be? Of course it’s gonna be Englands intelligence service. They need to strike out at someone in that group, destroy their image and ruin them before killing them. Someone who has had great success and is well respected. Well, there is a man called Bond. A man who has stuck his nose into the plans of 3 of their men, killing them and embarrassing the Soviets at the same time. A man who has a weakness for women and who has an ego. A desire to defeat a trap. They enlist a young Soviet officer to pretend to fall for Bond and convince him that she wants to supply him with a new Soviet code machine, the Specktor. But they don’t tell this woman, Tatiana Romanova what the real plan is. The real plan is to frame Bond by making it seem like Romanova was blackmailing him into marriage with explicit photos, and to make it seem like Bond killed her. A scandal. It’s a perfect plan. A plan to be enacted by top SMERSH assassin, Red Grant. A lot of this is similar in the movie. But the changes, while seemingly small, are pretty massive.
In the movie, the plan is pretty much the same. Have Soviet agent Romanova pretend to fall in love with Bond, extract her from Istanbul and kill him on a train. But they changed the group at the head of all this and it works it’s way through everything. Instead of SMERSH, the group is SPECTRE. SPECTRE is planning a heist to steal the new Soviet code machine. So it’s not a very personal attack in the movie. The knowledge that Bond will probably be the agent at the center of this is a bonus, after his killing of Dr. No a year before. But the plan isn’t about sticking Englands nose in the shit. Just plain greed and misdirection. They’re putting England and the USSR at each other, making it seem like one is starting with the other. At the center of both stories though is the agent of death, Red Grant.
Red Grant is similar in the book and movie, a big hulking mass with a penchant for killing and a desire to do so. But there’s some changes necessitated by the translation from one medium to the next, and one that was taken out just out of sheer weirdness. The weirdness factor is that he gets an insatiable urge to kill on a full moon. Like a werewolf in a way. It’s a weird little character note, one of Flemings ways to make a villain odd to distinguish them. But it was unnecessary in the book, since he’s threatening and imposing without that. There’s also a weird little moment in the gypsy camp where a gypsy warns Bond about a man with a full moon, an odd dip into the supernatural. That shit is gone in the movie and for the better. In the book we get a good deal of backstory for Grant, that he had a rough childhood as an orphan. He was drafted by the British Army, being posted in Germany until defecting to the Soviets. There he was trained for two years by SMERSH, due to his proficiency and desire to kill. So much so that SMERSH allowed him into prisons during a full moon to kill prisoners. He became their best killer and is the ideal choice to kill Bond. In the movie he’s just a deranged killer with physical superiority who was enlisted by SMERSH after he escaped from a Tangier prison. Nothing too crazy. Since they can’t spend as much time on an elaborate backstory, he’s just a bad man who is dangerous and can take Bond ease. Hell, he gets the drop on Bond in both the movie and the book. But being a Bond story, he’s taken out due to his cockiness. In the book, he thinks he’s killed Bond but doesn’t check. This allows Bond to stab him in the femoral artery, weakening him a good deal and then blasting him in the face with ten bullets. The movie Grant is taken out in a fist fight. He opens Bonds booby trapped suitcase, setting off tear gas, allowing Bond to fight. Bond garrotes Grant after a long, grueling back and forth fight. What’s interesting in the movie is that they make Grant a guardian angel of sorts to Bond. To make sure the plan goes through, to make sure Bond steals the device for them, he has to make sure he doesn’t die. So during the big shootout in the gypsy camp, Grant saves Bond from getting a knife in the back. That’s a great way too make Grant more part of the story, this ever present force that can strike at any time. In the grand scheme, Grant is pretty much the same. And he’s a great character, the best henchman that Bond has gone against.
In the change from SMERSH to SPECTRE, the head of the mission is still Rosa Klebb. But of course, they made some changes for her. In the book, she is the head of operations and execution for SMERSH. She has a reputation for being a sadist, taking part in the torture of prisoners to get information. Her name brings fear to a person. In the movie though, she is an agent of SPECTRE, a former high ranking SMERSH agent who had defected. And her defection is kept a secret since the Soviet’s wouldn’t want that embarrassing little tidbit out. Also in the book, in terms of her background, she is described as a cold bisexual. In one of Flemings little bugaboos about those not white men, he describes bisexuals as the perfect Soviet agent because bisexuals are by definition cold. The movie only slightly hints at this, with Klebb rubbing Romanova’s leg at one point. I think the biggest change is that in the book she is much more commanding and serious, where the movie makes her a little more ratty and nervous. Her end is also much different in the two. In the movie, she tracks Bond and Romanova down to the hotel their staying at in Venice, trying to steal to code machine on the sly so as not to get killed by SPECTRE. She gets caught and is trying to kill Bond with a poison knife in her boot when she is killed by Romanova. The book though is much more interesting and leads me to think that Fleming considered ending the series at that point. Bond tracks Klebb to her hotel in Paris, where she expects to meet Grant. But Bond has her arrested, but not before she kicks him in the leg with a poison knife. The book ends with Bond on the verge of death. The ultimate cliff hanger. If he wanted to, the series could have ended. But alas, he didn’t and we are all the luckier for it.
The Bond girl in both of them are essentially the same. Romanova is just an innocent Russian girl caught up in this big spy game, tasked with fooling Bond but ends up actually falling for him. Also in both stories is Bonds contact in Istanbul, Kerim Bey. Kerim is the man in charge of the MI5 station in Istanbul and he is a larger than life character, a man with a love of life and a shit ton of children who work for him. In the book though he is described as a big, massive man. Almost bigger than Grant it seems. Also in the book he is a much more misogynistic character, talking about rape and whatnot like not such a big deal. There’s the taste of racism towards the Turkish, making them seem like animals. Kerim though serves not just as a helping hand for Bond as the man from the area with the connections, he is a narrative device in a way. In both, the tensions between the Turkish and the Bulgarians simmer over because of the arrival of Bond. The Soviets make the Bulgarians attack Bey in both, but the reasons are different. In the book it’s because they want to take away help for Bond and to distract them. Keep them off guard, asking why would they be attacking. In the movie, it’s because they believe Bond is their to escalate tensions because Grant is making them believe so by killing Bulgarians and Soviets. It even brings the moment at the end scene between Grant and Bond where Bond says SMERSH, a nice little reference to who he assumes the bad guys should be.
What ties these two stories together is the sense of history. Continuity is being built in both of them, although the book has more to it. With Bond being involved with Le Chiffre, Mr Big and Hugo Drax, it builds up the world and makes the plan from SMERSH seem a lot more understandable. Bond has been a real pain in their ass and his mission statement from the end of Casino Royale to hurt SMERSH as much as he could for hurting him with Vesper, he has gotten their attention. This book is where what has come before comes together. All the books prior could essentially be read on their own. This one though references all of them and builds them into the fabric of the story. Even Diamonds Are Forever is mentioned, when the Soviets say that Bond was too busy with that to bother them the year before. Even Tiffany Case is mentioned much more explicitly. The last 3 books had started with Bond recouping from the last book and some talk about his time with the ladies. But this one? Bond is mourning the death of his relationship with her. This one doesn’t pick up three weeks later. This is 6 months or so later, and Bond had only broken up with Case a month before. He’s sullen and bored at work, making a pain of himself with those he works with. And when he finally gets called in by M for a new mission, he even asks Bond about Case. He didn’t know if Bond would be interested in the mission involving some Russian girl in love with him if he was still with Case. None of this is in the movie. They reference the killing of Dr. No, but there’s no real animosity towards Bond. Like I said before, it’s just a bonus. But this one is more the start of continuity in the movies. While people assume there isn’t continuity in the Bond franchise, that’s kinda wrong. The first 7 movies built up SPECTRE and Blofeld, having them a constant thorn in Bonds side until they finally hurt him by taking away his one love. Blofelds buildup is so slow and almost accidentally deliberate that we don’t even see his face until You Only Live Twice, with Bond finally meeting the head of SPECTRE he had no knowledge about. So in ways, it’s the turning point for the respective franchises. The moment in the movies when history would be built upon and the moment in the books when the past would come back to the fore and haunt Bond.
In my initial viewing of the movies, this one was easily my favorite until Casino Royale. The movie was perfectly paced and acted and shot, with one of the best action scenes in the entire series with the train fight between Bond and Grant. Connery slid into the role perfectly and perfected it here. This is the movie that made the Bond girl apart of the story, introduced the Q Branch, and the henchmen being the bigger threat to Bond than the main villain. It was a smaller scale story, not going overboard with the fantastical elements that is inherent in the male fantasy the series is. Rewatching it again, my opinion is only stronger, although it doesn’t beat Casino Royale. It’s a great movie. But reading the book, I was so captured by the story yet again that I was confronted with the question. Which was better? They’re similar in many ways but it’s those differences that make it hard. The more personal aspect of the book, or the starting point that the movie is? For me, I gotta go with the book. It’s only by inches, but it has to win out. The book was another improvement from the last and it’s also the first legitimately great one in the series, from top to bottom. But this is the first entry since Casino Royale that the book and movie are both amazing pieces, able to be enjoyed by everyone. Having done this now, the 2nd of 4 Connery movies in the lineup, we go forward as we go backward. On deck for the book series is Dr. No. I have many issues with the movie, but I’m very interested to see how the book is, as it’s the one that he made the decision to keep Bond alive. This one will be interesting to dig into.
Up Next: Dr. No