Monday 27 May 2013

James Bond memes in children's books

The Young Bond series by Charlie Higson is the latest attempt to introduce young readers to James Bond and the essential traits of any Bondian adventure, among them thrilling car chases, grotesque villains, exotic locations, and dangerous femme fatales. Before Young Bond, there were the James Bond Jr books, which, based on the animated series, were published in two formats: 'Ladybird' style books for ages c 5-7, and longer stories for older readers aged c 8-11. But the first Bond adventure for children was R D Mascott's The Adventures of James Bond Junior: 003½, published in 1967. Beyond these 'official' publications, however, there are many more children's books that trade on aspects of James Bond lore. In this post, I'll ignore books for teenagers (notably the Alex Rider books by Anthony Horowitz) and focus on some of the books available for younger children.

One of the most successful series is the Spy Dog books by Andrew Cope. The first, Spy Dog, was published by Puffin Books in 2005. In it, a dog called Lara (actually a 'Licensed Assault and Rescue Animal') is trained by the British Secret Service to carry out dangerous missions and thwart crime. After her latest mission goes wrong, Lara, or Agent GM451, is forced to hide as a family dog and wait for a rescue. Meanwhile, Mr Big, a drug dealer whose plans were stopped by Lara, will do anything to get his hands on Lara and exact his revenge. Anyone familiar with the Bond films would recognise the Bond-style gadgets, an opening chapter that serves as a literary pre-title sequence, and a cover that recalls the gun barrel that opens (or closes) every Bond film. A further eight adventures have followed, and Andrew Cope has also penned a series of Spy Pups books, whose covers also feature a gun-barrel-style motif, and Spy Cat, which is published in July.

Other animal-related spy adventures include My Hamster is a Spy (published in July 2013), by Dave Lowe and illustrated by Mark Chambers; like Spy Dog, the cover image adapts the gun-barrel design. Then there are the Spy Mice stories by Heather Vogel Frederick. Judging by the cover images, the stories take elements from other films, such as Mission: Impossible, but the titles are definitely Bond-inspired: Goldwhiskers (2013) and For Your Paws Only (2006).

A version of the gun-barrel motif is used again on the cover of Jeremy Brown: Secret Agent, a collection of three books by Simon Cheshire that describe the exploits of the eponymous schoolboy and MI7 agent. In the first adventure, Jeremy Brown of the Secret Service (2001), Jeremy is tasked with retrieving a sophisticated satellite that has fallen to earth before the villains do (villains who belong to the SPECTRE-inspired ROTTEN, the Rancid Organisation for Terror, Threats, Evil and Nastiness).

Spy Dog and Jeremy Brown are written for children 8-12. For younger children, there is 006 and a Bit (the first edition was called 006 and a Half) by Kes Gray and Nick Sherratt, published in 2007. The book is one in a series that features Daisy, a mischievous girl who gets into trouble through no fault of her own, or so she claims. Apart from the title, which clearly references Bond's code number, 006 and a Bit has a cover which brings to mind the white dot on the black screen that starts the gun-barrel sequence, and inside the cover are images of Daisy in silhouette which recall images of Bond in some of Maurice Binder's titles.

Outside the official James Bond-related books, Bondian memes have been incorporated in a range of children's books, and are passed on to children as the books are read and re-read. Even before children have seen a Bond film, some of them will have become familiar with some of its iconography and traits, which in a small way helps to keep interest in the Bond films (and perhaps the novels) going for another generation.

Wednesday 22 May 2013

Bond's concealed weapon: the gun hidden inside the bible

In chapter 4 of Goldfinger, Fleming describes how, in a hotel room in Miami, James Bond opens his suitcase and takes out The Bible Designed to be Read as Literature, opening the book to retrieve his Walther PPK in a Berns Martin holster. The book was published in the US by Simon and Schuster in 1936, and published soon after (possibly 1937 - no date is shown) in Britain by Heinemann. The title of the book tells us that Bond has the British edition, the title of the American edition being The Bible: Designed to be Read as Living Literature.
The UK edition

As the book's blurb states, Ernest Sutherland Bates, the editor of the work, intended to modernise the archaic spelling, punctuation and arrangement of the King James Version, and reduce or remove repetitions and footnotes to produce a flowing narrative. Whether Bond feels that the editor succeeded is not recorded, and in any case he is not in a position to judge, as there's a large gun-shaped hole in his copy.
A Walther PP in the Pitt Rivers Museum

At 230mm tall, 150mm wide, and 37mm thick, the book is certainly large enough to accommodate Bond's Walther PPK 7.65mm, which is 155mm long, 25mm wide in plan and 100mm tall. Ian Fleming was persuaded to change Bond's holster to the Berns-Martin triple-draw model in 1956 by Geoffrey Boothroyd, a gun enthusiast who despaired at Bond's choice of weapons in his first four adventures. The holster is designed for revolvers, and Boothroyd recommended the .38 Smith & Wesson Centennial Airweight. The revolver is about 165mm long, and the triangular-shaped holster is some 100mm along two sides and 150mm along the third. The holster would take up much of the area of the bible's page, but it fits.
A page from a 1959 catalogue

Fleming later acknowledged that he had made a mistake pairing it with the semi-automatic, but he needn't have been too concerned. Although Boothroyd rebuked Fleming for the error (“If [Bond] carries on using this PPK out of that Berns Martin rig I shall have to break down and write a rude letter to Fleming”), the view among gun enthusiasts is that the holster can be adapted for use with a gun like the Walther PPK.

Fleming doesn't mention the hollowed-out bible again, but the use of a book to conceal items – a familiar device in mystery and spy fiction – appears in the film version of Thunderball (1965), in which a dictionary is used to conceal a tape recorder, and in the film, Diamonds Are Forever (1971), in which the school teacher Mrs Whistler smuggles diamonds in a hollowed-out bible. By referring to a specific book, as oppose to a generically thick volume, Fleming demonstrated that he knew the book well enough – presumably a copy sat on his bookshelf – to select it as an appropriate volume for the Walther.

Monday 13 May 2013

How dangerous are Skyfall's komodo dragons?

Visit London Zoo and you have the chance to meet, and even adopt, one of the stars of Skyfall, but I wouldn't ask for his autograph. Raja the komodo dragon makes his screen debut in a scene in Macau's Golden Dragon Casino. The reptile was measured and filmed in his London enclosure and recreated in the casino's komodo dragon pit using the magic of CGI. In the scene, James Bond falls into the pit and fights off a casino thug before escaping by jumping on to the back of a komodo dragon and leaping to safety. Meanwhile, a second komodo dragon rushes out from the shadows, grabs the thug by the leg and drags him away and presumably eats him.

To me, the scene, incorporating a bizarre death by exotic animal, captures the essence of the Bond films. Raja the komodo dragon takes his place alongside, among other animals, the piranhas of You Only Live Twice, the sharks of Thunderball, the alligators and crocodiles of Live and Let Die, and the scorpion of Diamonds Are Forever in the Bond villain's menagerie of dangerous animals. Indeed, director Sam Mendes had Bond step on to the komodo dragons in tribute to the scene in Live and Let Die in which Bond uses the backs of crocodiles as stepping stones.

But seeing the komodo dragon reminded me of the decision to replace the giant centipede that crawls up Bond's body in the novel of Dr No with a tarantula in the film version. Raymond Benson suggests in The James Bond Bedtime Companion that the producers felt that the threat posed by the centipede, not the most well-known of creatures, would have been lost on most audience members, whereas tarantulas are popularly perceived to be deadly (although one can imagine practical problems filming with a centipede). In reality, giant centipedes are about as dangerous as the most venomous species of tarantula; both are harmful to humans, but neither is (usually) deadly. As for the tarantula in Dr No, it appears to be the pink-toed tarantula, which is venomous enough to kill frogs, but not James Bond.

In the same vein as the centipede, I wonder whether the impact of the komodo dragon scene is reduced, and that the peril faced by Bond not fully appreciated, because of uncertainties about how dangerous komodo dragons actually are to humans. In fact, while cases of komodo dragons attacking, let alone killing, humans are rare, they are by no means unknown. In their native habitats on the islands of eastern Indonesia, komodo dragons hunt small and domestic animals, such as snakes, chickens, goats, cats and dogs, and occasionally larger animals, including water buffalo. And in areas of human settlement or activity, attacks on humans have inevitably been recorded. Recently, two workers at Komodo National Park were bitten by a komodo dragon that entered a park office. The men were immediately transferred to hospital; the saliva of Komodo dragons is toxic, and if bites are untreated, septicaemia can set in. Worse cases were recorded in 2007, when a boy of nine was mauled by a komodo dragon in Komodo National Park, and in 2009, when a farmer was mauled after falling from a tree. Tragically, both died later from their injuries.

So to answer the question posed in the post’s title, the komodo dragons in Skyfall do pose a threat to James Bond, and deserve as much respect as a dangerous animal as do sharks, piranhas and crocodiles.

Monday 6 May 2013

Five great unfilmed scenes from the James Bond books

Before drafting the screenplay for Skyfall, screenwriters Robert Wade and Neal Purvis turned to the pages of Ian Fleming for ideas and inspiration, focusing on two adventures in particular, You Only Live Twice and The Man with the Golden Gun. Indeed, the writers routinely returned to Fleming, because, as Robert Wade said of the writing of The World Is Not Enough (1999), “You might find something that everyone else has missed.”

Many of the films, certainly since Licence to Kill (1989), have used original story lines, but as Wade and Purvis have indicated, the Bond books continue to be mined for plot details, characters and general inspiration. In the case of Licence to Kill, episodes and characters were taken from the novel, Live and Let Die (although I've argued in a previous post that the film's structure has similarities, perhaps coincidentally, to The Man with the Golden Gun). Further examples from other films are discussed by David Leigh in his articles on 'Ian Fleming recycled' (click here and here), but to my mind, there are episodes in Fleming's stories that inexplicably have so far remained untouched by the film-makers. So, for any Bond screenwriter who is struggling for a few ideas, here's my list, in no particular order, of the top five great unfilmed scenes.

1. The entire short story of 'Octopussy'. Inexcusably left out from the screenplay of the 1983 film, except for a passing reference, Fleming's short story is a taut, masterfully written tale of robbery, deception and murder in the aftermath of the Second World War, and the long reach of justice. The settings – the Austrian Alps and Jamaica – are wonderfully cinematic, the plot thrilling, and the final event – poisoning by scorpion fish, then drowning by octopus – utterly Bondian. Bond's role is peripheral, though is personally motivated, and surely provides perfect material for Daniel Craig's interpretation. Wasted in the film of Octopussy, this is a story that deserves to be filmed.

2. Bond's fight with a giant squid in Dr No. Ok, I can see why this wasn't filmed for the 1962 film. Perhaps having contemplated the options of a stunt man in a rubber suit or Ray Harryhausen-style animation, the episode, which marks the culmination of Bond's attempt to survive Dr No's deadly assault course, was wisely dropped, but surely today's CGI would make the scene as credible as, say, the kraken is in the Pirates of the Caribbean films. Mind you, perhaps in fifty years time, even a photo-realistic squid will look as convincing as the creature from the black lagoon.

3. Blofeld's Garden of Death from You Only Live Twice. Bond enters the macabre grounds of Blofeld's castle to risk an encounter with deadly plants, venomous snakes, and steaming fumaroles, a landscape designed to attract visitors wishing to commit suicide. And if that wasn't enough, Blofeld's filled the lakes with piranhas and sharks. There is a hint of the garden in the film version of the novel when Blofeld drops Helga Brandt into a pool of piranhas, but its inspiration is so much richer and terrifying. Another missed opportunity by the film-makers, and one that must be due a revisit. And while we're about it, let's sit Bond on top of a geyser.

4. The short story of 'From a View to a Kill'. This was almost entirely jettisoned from Roger Moore's swansong as Bond in 1985. As far as I can tell, the only aspect to survive was the Paris location. But like the story of 'Octopussy', there is much in 'From a View to a Kill' that is likely to entertain cinema-goers: two thrilling motorbike chases, Bond's discovery of an underground hideout, an audacious Soviet operation to intercept and kill dispatch riders carrying secret documents, and a moment of peril for Bond averted by the keen shooting skills of his female accomplice. What an exciting pre-credits sequence that would make.

5. Death by fish in 'The Hildebrand Rarity'. As well as taking material from the novel Live and Let Die, the film Licence to Kill also looked to the short story, 'The Hildebrand Rarity', for inspiration, using one of its main characters, boorish tycoon Milton Krest. His death in the film – by decompression chamber – is suitably Bondian, but for that extra Fleming touch, it is worth remembering how Krest meets his end in the original story: in a case of poetic justice, a specimen of the spiny fish, the Hildebrand Rarity itself, is inserted into his mouth, causing him to choke rather horribly.

This list represents something of a wish list for me, but it highlights the fact that material from the pages of Ian Fleming is not completely exhausted. The suggestions aren't just snippets and odd ideas, but lengthy episodes and even complete stories. There is plenty more of Ian Fleming to see on the big screen yet.


MI6 Confidential, 2013 Bonding with Britain, MI6 Confidential 19, 18-21
Owen, A, 2004 Story and Character: Interviews with British Screenwriters, Bloomsbury