Sunday, 13 July 2014

James Bond on the bench

There's something not quite right about the park bench that celebrates the work of French novelist Jules Verne. Installed in Covent Garden outside Stanfords, the famous map shop, as part of the Books about Town scheme organised by National Literacy Trust “to celebrate London’s literary heritage and reading for enjoyment”, the 'bookbench' is adorned with artwork that represents one of Verne's best known novels, Around the World in Eighty Days (1873).

The bench appears to show pictures of the main characters on the lower part of the seat and on the back rest, there is a hot air balloon. That's the problem. Balloons certainly feature in Verne's novels, among them Five Weeks in a Balloon (1865) and The Mysterious Island (1875), but Around the World in Eighty Days isn't one of them. Phileas Fogg travels by rail, boat, and elephant, but not balloon.

I suspect that the screen adaptations have intruded here. A number of versions, including the well-known 1956 film produced by Mike Todd and starring David Niven, and the 1989 television mini-series featuring a pre-Bond Pierce Brosnan, have put Phileas Fogg in a balloon, and invariably a balloon is depicted on poster art accompanying the adaptations. Recently I was able to see the James Bond bookbench at its home in Bloomsbury Square Gardens. As I was admiring it, I wondered whether the artwork on this bench had similarly been influenced, at least in part, by screen adaptations.

The artwork depicts Fleming's Bond stories in a general way, although it seems to have been inspired by Casino Royale, On Her Majesty's Secret Service, and Live and Let Die in particular. The artist Freyja Dean explains that artwork offers us a glimpse of Bond's thrilling adventures for Her Majesty's secret service, but also conveys the sense of Bond's high living.

James Bond bookbench, front

Thus, playing-card motifs form the background of the artwork, and allude to Bond's time spent in the casino and at the card tables. The Royal coat of arms of the United Kingdom is shown on the back rest, and obviously points to Bond's service to Queen and country. The use of gold for the outlines and black for the infill is interesting, reminding me of the coat of arms, drawn by Terence Gilbert, on the soundtrack album cover; gold outline and black infill are used there too. The artwork on the seat includes an image of James Bond as if depicted on a court card. He wears a dinner suit and holds a martini glass.

While James Bond is instantly recognisable, and the playing card motifs seem entirely appropriate to the world of James Bond, I do wonder whether the dinner suit, the gambling, and even the vodka martini, are over-played as elements of the Bond novels. All certainly feature in the novels, but relatively infrequently compared with their appearances in the Bond films. Indeed, that the dinner suit, for example, has become so synonymous with James Bond must surely be thanks to the films. Bond wears a dinner suit in most films, and a dinner-suited Bond has featured with few exceptions on poster campaigns throughout the Eon series. The association has been reinforced by the depiction of a dinner-suited Bond on countless Bond-related products and promotional material.

James Bond bookbench, back

The back of the bookbench shows a skull sporting a top hat, and no doubt refers to the voodoo element of Live and Let Die. Again, though, I wonder if the film version was at least as prominent in the artist's mind as the content of the novel. As far as I recall, the voodoo iconography of a skull in a top hat isn't described as such by Fleming, although he does describe the effigy of Baron Samedi as a wooden cross with a morning coat hung from it and a battered bowler hat placed on top. That said, at his first meeting with Mr Big, James Bond notices a top hat on the table at which Mr Big sits. In contrast, the skull-in-top-hat meme features extensively in the film adaptation, although it is also used on the covers of various editions of the novel.

The James Bond bookbench on Bloomsbury Square Gardens is a wonderful celebration of Ian Fleming's creation, and I think the artist, Freyja Dean, has brilliantly evoked the essence - service to country, sophisticated living, and exotic adventures - of James Bond. The motifs used on the bench undoubtedly appear in the Bond novels, but it is perhaps no coincidence that the use of these memes has been exaggerated in the films (turning, for example, an occasional martini drinker in the books into a habitual martini drinker in the films). Like the bookbench celebrating Around the World in Eighty Days, perhaps to some extent the films have shaped the artwork depicted on the James Bond bench.

2 comments:

  1. Great topical piece. Well done again! I myself thought that the "bookbench" had a bit of a crazy hippy Sixties vibe very akin to the artwork for the 1967 spoof version of Casino Royale. And on the hot air balloon not appearing in the novel, I must say I never knew that and I could swear that the small book version I had of the novel did indeed have a picture of Phileas Fogg in a hot air balloon on the cover! Well spotted, Edward!

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    1. Yes, now that you mention it, there is a bit of a zany Sixties feel to the artwork. I was wondering what other Bond iconography the artist might have alluded to. There's nothing about food (a subject close to literary Bond's heart!), cars and guns, for instance.

      As for Around the World in Eighty Days, some of my copies have also depicted balloons on the cover. There's probably a reason why Jules Verne didn't include a balloon in the book. In Five Weeks in a Balloon, Verne's first novel, the protagonist designs a balloon that had, more or less, perpetual flight, but was still subject to the air currents and so it's flight path couldn't be directed - no good to Fogg. In Robur the Conqueror, a novel that post-dates Eighty Days, Verne discusses systems of steering ballons, but it's still experimental stuff, and would have been too unreliable for Fogg's timetable. Verne probably decided that Fogg would have stuck to the tried and tested.

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