Sunday, 23 February 2014

Why was Dr No the first Bond film?

My bedtime reading at the moment is David V Picker's memoir about his time in the film industry, Musts, Maybes, and Nevers: A Book About the Movies. In this very entertaining book, David Picker recalls his time as a film producer and, primarily, a studio executive, first at United Artists, then Paramount and Columbia. As head of production at United Artists, David Picker's job was to identify worthwhile and potentially profitable projects, help develop them, secure the money, and ensure that the films were delivered on time and to budget. Among the films he 'green-lit' were Midnight Cowboy, A Hard Day's Night, and, to the gratitude of millions of Bond fans, Dr No.

David Picker's account of how he said yes to Dr No offers an interesting perspective to the well known, and complex, story of how Fleming's novels made it to the screen (big and small), involving false starts, split ownership of rights, expiring options, and Fleming's idiosyncratic way of doing business. There are two aspects of Picker's tale, however, that differ from the standard narrative: the question of why Dr No and not Thunderball was chosen as the first Bond film, and Fleming's attitude towards films.

In his autobiography, When the Snow Melts (1998), Cubby Broccoli tells us that he and co-producer Harry Saltzman decided to film Thunderball as the first Bond film, but switched to Dr No to avoid legal complications when Kevin McClory, who had co-written the screen treatments on which Fleming's novel was based, filed an injunction to stop the film's development. This has long been the accepted version and is repeated in a number of books chronicling the history of the Bond films, among them Andrew Lycett's biography of Ian Fleming (1995), The Incredible World of 007 by Lee Pfeiffer and Philip Lisa (1995), and Bond Films by Jim Smith and Stephen Lavington (2002).

According to David Picker, however, the issue was simply about money. United Artists had set a budget of $1.1 million and David Picker felt that Thunderball would be too expensive to film. Dr No, on the other hand, seemed more achievable based on the parameters UA set. Picker implies that the suggestion of Dr No was his and that he persuaded Broccoli and Saltzman to consider the change. How far this is true is uncertain; everyone has their own view of an event, and it may be the case that the prohibitive cost of filming Thunderball was raised by Picker in addition to any discussion about pending litigation.

As for Ian Fleming's attitude to films, David Picker writes that his early attempts (independent of Saltzman and Broccoli) to secure the rights to film the Bond rights came to nothing, because, as he puts it, “Mr Fleming didn't like movies” and refused to sell the rights. I was surprised by this, as according to Andrew Lycett, Ian Fleming very actively pursued film and TV deals. Indeed, Fleming deliberately made Moonraker cinematic to attract film makers, and his novel Dr No was based on one of his screen treatments, Commander James Gunn. While Fleming's interest flagged after so many expressions of interest and preliminary developments stalled, it doesn't appear likely that Fleming ever refused to sell the rights to his novels.

I have to admit being sceptical of both David Picker's claims. That they have gained little foothold in 'Bond history' may be a reflection on the degree of their veracity. From a memetic perspective, they have had little chance of competing with the established narrative, not least because David Picker's version has been little known. In contrast, the memes that legal action prevented Thunderball from being the first Bond film and that Fleming was willing to make a deal for film rights have become well established in the cultural environment, and reinforced through repetition with the publication of each new history of the Bond films.


  1. Very interesting that, Edward. Thanks for sharing your bedtime reading with us. Hard to know what to make of it as it rails against all we know of the "established" early history of the bond films. Interesting, nonetheless. I think David Picker though is still a very important player as he gave the green light to James Bond as a film series by giving the OK to Dr. No. It will be indeed interesting to see if this take on the story behind the first Bond film will gain any credence in any new books published in the future on the James Bond films. I guess that only time will tell...

    1. Thanks! Glad you liked it. It might need a delve into the archives of Eon and UA to get to the bottom of it all, and even then we'd probably find that we can't quite settle the matter. Still, it's interesting to see that there alternative viewpoints existed, however valid each may have been.

  2. Yes, I suspect that you're right in that there is no concrete answer to this one.


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