Let’s start with the plot. In the steamy tropics off the Caribbean Sea, James Bond ingratiates himself with a thug so that Bond can kill him. Unaware of Bond’s intention, the thug hires Bond to provide security during a deal to set up a syndicate allowing the thug to smuggle drugs into the United States. Someone close to the thug recognises Bond as an enemy and blows Bond’s cover. The thug and Bond fight it out in waste land, but Bond triumphs and kills him.
I could be describing the plot to Licence to Kill, released in1989 and starring Timothy Dalton as James Bond, but I’m not. It is instead the plot to Ian Fleming’s The Man with the Golden Gun, published in 1965.
There is no evidence that the writers of Licence to Kill, Michael G Wilson and Richard Maibaum, intentionally based their story on Fleming’s novel. In interviews, the writers maintain that it was an original story mixed with unused elements from Fleming’s stories. One character, Milton Krest, derives from the short story, The Hildebrand Rarity. A scene where Felix Leiter is thrown to the sharks is taken from Live and Let Die.
The similarities between the film and The Man with the Golden Gun appear to be, as film credits have it, entirely coincidental, but they have provoked much recent discussion on fan site message boards, although I outlined the similarities earlier in a letter to Empire magazine in October 2008.
The principal action of Licence to Kill is set in the fictional central American country of Isthmus. This is not, of course, Jamaica, which features in The Man with the Golden Gun, but both locations have coastlines on the Caribbean Sea. To ingratiate himself into Sanchez’s service, Bond presents himself as a ‘problem eliminator’. In the book, Bond identifies himself to Scaramanga as an armed freelance insurance investigator about to contact his company to see ‘if they’ve got any other problems in the area’ (Chapter 6).
It seems odd that the villain of the novel and film would hire someone he doesn’t know to provide security, but it may be explained if we consider (as Kingsley Amis had with regard to Scaramanga) the subtext of homosexuality. Sanchez and Scaramanga are simply attracted to Bond and drop their guard. We are told by a Secret Service psychologist that Scaramanga has homosexual tendencies. Scenes between Sanchez and his chief henchman, Dario, provide oblique references to Sanchez’s homosexuality. In one scene, Sanchez tenderly strokes Dario’s cheek. It is possible, too, that Sanchez’s pink shirt is intended as a signifier of his sexual orientation. As for the villains’ demise, Bond kills Scaramanga in Jamaica’s swamps, while Sanchez is killed in the desert of Isthmus. Both landscapes are marginal.
There are differences. Bond is on an official mission to kill Scaramanga, whereas in Licence to Kill, he is on his own, having resigned from the Secret Service. Drug smuggling is only one of Scaramanga’s concerns, but it exclusively occupies Sanchez’s business. However, given the extent to which the producers of the Bond films changes Fleming’s stories, often taking only character names and the broadest framework of the original plot, Licence to Kill could be regarded as a reasonably faithful adaptation of Fleming’s work.
When Michael G Wilson and Richard Maibaum wrote Licence to Kill, they were intimately knowledgeable about the world of Ian Fleming’s James Bond. At the start of scripting a new Bond film, it was usual to re-read Fleming to identify potentially exciting plot points that hadn’t already made it to the screen. The writers were unlikely to have been aware of it, but the practice may have been responsible for introducing traits or memes from The Man with the Golden Gun into the script of Licence to Kill.
Hibbin, S, 1989 The making of Licence to Kill, Hamlyn, London