Monday, 13 December 2010

No sensayuma: humour in the James Bond books

As Tee-Hee points out, James Bond of Ian Fleming's novels has no sense of humour. But we do not have to take Mr Big's giggling henchman's word for it. The fact is confirmed by many commentators and people connected with the world of James Bond. For instance, Ben Macintyre (2008, 204) regarded the book Bond 'almost entirely devoid of humour...unlike his film counterpart'.
Roger Moore delivered some of the funniest lines in the film series
Indeed, the humour present in the films is considered to be a significant innovation in terms of the Bond character, and has been credited variously to Richard Maibaum, Johanna Harwood and Berkely Mather, the screenwriters of Dr No (1962) or Terence Young, the film's director. What's more, the screen Bond in turn influenced Fleming, who altered his Bond to something that more closely resembled Sean Connery's portrayal.

Admittedly, in Fleming's first novel, Casino Royale, the humour is somewhat lacking, but in subsequent novels, the jokes are very much in evidence. Bond's humour, like his martini, is typically very dry. Facing Tee-Hee, Bond follows his aphorism, 'Those who deserve to die, die the death they deserve', with, 'Write that down. It's an original thought' (Live and Let Die, chapter 8). In Moonraker (chapter 25), when his secretary, Loelia Ponsonby, asks him how much of an emergency before she calls him for duty, Bond says, 'Any invitation to a quiet game of bridge'. And Bond tells Nash, who has him powerless at the point of a pistol, 'I'd like to know what it's all about. I can spare you half an hour' (From Russia, With Love, chapter 26).

Sometimes, the dry humour becomes wry and ironic with restrained mockery. When another of Mr Big's henchman shoves the muzzle of a gun into Bond's stomach, Bond tells him, 'You oughtn't to miss at that range' (Live and Let Die, chapter 6). In The Man with the Golden Gun (chapter 6), Scaramanga tells Bond that some people who hadn't heard of him are dead. Bond replies, 'A lot of people who haven't heard of me are dead'.

Of course, Bond is British, and what could be more British than saucy postcard humour? Tiffany Case flirtatiously tells Bond (Diamonds are Forever, chapter 9), 'If you don't like my peaches, why do you shake my tree', to which Bond replies, 'I haven't started to shake it yet. You won't let me get my arms round the trunk'. Cue a Sidney James cackle. And the exchange between Tatiana Romanova and Bond in his hotel room (From Russia, With Love, chapter 10), was virtually transferred verbatim to the film version: Tatiana – 'You must put something on. It upsets me'. Bond – 'You upset me just as much'. And later: Tatiana – 'I think my mouth is too big'. Bond – 'It's just the right size. For me, anyway'.

While it is true that Bond's witty quip after he dispatches a villain does seem to have been introduced in the films – in the novels, there are no groaners like, 'He was on his way to a funeral', or 'I think he got the point' (after being harpooned) – no one can claim that Bond lacks humour. But many do, and that is one false meme that has become very successful, being transmitted even by those very familiar with the novels.

Bond may have acquired a Scottish background after Connery first appeared as Bond (although this is hardly surprising, given Fleming's own Scottish roots), but there is no evidence that Bond gained a (different) sense of humour after 1962. Bond is his wittiest in You Only Live Twice, but none of his one-liners are delivered after Bond exercises his licence to kill.

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