Sunday, 13 October 2013

Newspaper reviews of Solo: some observations

After I finished reading William Boyd's Solo, I caught up with some of the newspaper reviews of the book, which I had been avoiding. The reviews were the usual mixed bag – some were positive towards Solo, others negative, some I enjoyed, and felt offended (as a Bond fan) by others – but as I read them, I noted a few points of interest that made me think about the relationship between the film and book Bonds.

Let's start with basics confusions between Fleming's Bond and the Bond of the cinema. To my knowledge, the worst culprit was Robert Crampton, who wrote a review for The Times. The headline of his piece, “Neither shaken nor stirred”, summed up his opinion of the book, but perhaps he would have been better disposed to the book had he not expected it to be a novelisation of a Bond film. Crampton bemoaned the absence of 'sexual banter' between Bond and Moneypenny, and thought Bond's falling in love with 'one of his conquests' (doesn't Bond want to marry his companion at the end of practically every adventure?) and his feelings of ambiguity towards his mission (you mean, as expressed in Casino Royale, On Her Majesty's Secret Service, and You Only Live Twice?) were a sop to modern values. In fairness, Crampton hasn't been the only one to complain that the villain, Kobus Breed, is more of a henchman than a Bond villain, but hollowed-out volcanoes, death rays and minions in pyjamas, the sort of things which Crampton would have liked to have seen, are hardly a staple of Fleming's novels. And Crampton also spoke of the 'regulation two shags', which also owes more to the films than the books.

But Robert Crampton hasn't been the only reviewer confuse the books and the films. Sarah Warwick's review of Solo in The Northern Echo mentions that Q is “present and predictable” (but not in Fleming, of course), and Jon Stock, writing in The Telegraph, lists Bond's meeting with Q as one of the standard Bondian tropes that would “satisfy Bond aficionados”. (Mind you, it has to be said that Boyd's Quentin Dale of Q Branch – and for that matter, John Gardner's Ann Reilly – would probably not have existed had there not been a Q character in the films.)

Something else I noticed was that if Jeffery Deaver's Carte Blanche, the last continuation novel before Boyd's effort, was mentioned at all in the reviews of Solo, it was usually mentioned in neutral or negative terms. This is surprising, because a trawl through the reviews of Carte Blanche in the main UK newspapers reminded me that Deaver's novel was generally received positively, more so, it seems, than Solo has been. But I wonder whether this reflects uncertainty about what reviewers (and perhaps other readers) expect from a continuation novel. Should it be modern-set and updated like the films, or a period piece to follow on from Fleming's last novel? The consensus appears to change with each new continuation novel. Deaver's novel was widely lauded on publication, then dismissed as an oddity after the publication of Solo. But then reviewers of Solo have criticised Bond as a character out of place and out of date, who should be resurrected no more. Continuation authors can't win. As David Leigh says, the authors have a thankless task.

One other observation concerned the use of images to accompany the reviews. Most reviews of Solo that I read were illustrated by an image of the cover, or were not illustrated at all. Where images of Bond actors were used, however, these were either of Sean Connery or Daniel Craig. I thought newspapers missed a trick by not using images of George Lazenby, whose tenure as Bond dates to the same period in which Solo is set, but evidently there was a trend for selecting images of the first and current Bond actors. The reasons are obvious enough. Connery's Bond – or at least certain traits or memes associated with him – is so firmly embedded in popular culture that he has become a fixed point of reference. Daniel Craig's Bond also has cultural prominence, but the absence of previous Bond actors suggests that this will decline; any review of a continuation novel published during the tenure of Craig's successor is likely to feature images of that actor along with those of Connery.

The reviews of Solo have been entertaining, and occasionally annoying (just like the book itself, perhaps), but they have revealed that the literary Bond cannot be completely isolated from the cinematic Bond, and with the use of film series memes in the continuation novels themselves, the Bond of those novels has to some extent become a hybrid of the two Bondian traditions or species. The reviews have also suggested that Sean Connery's Bond continues to loom very large in the popular perception of the character.

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