Monday, 31 March 2014

Why are the introductions to the Bond novels so dismissive of the films?

I don't have a copy of a Coronet 'silhouette' edition of the James Bond novels to hand (I confess I never liked the design, and discarded any copies I acquired over the years), but I seem to recall that Anthony Burgess in his introduction to the series was rather sniffy about the James Bond films. He didn't much care for them, despite apparently having had a role in the early development of the script for The Spy Who Loved Me.

I was reminded of Burgess' views when I read the introductions to the more recent Vintage editions (2012). The film series isn't always referenced (which is perhaps telling in itself), but where there is a reference, the comment is usually negative. Similarly, in the introductions to the Penguin editions (2006), the film series tends to be described in dismissive terms.

Such criticism is arguable, of course, but I wondered whether the act of writing an introduction brings with it a natural tendency for authors to at best downplay the merits of derivative forms of the story or its characters and at worst deride them completely. In other words, in conveying their basic messages along the lines of  'if you thought you knew James Bond from the films, read on and meet the real 007', or 'while products of their time, the Bond books remain as thrilling and well-written as ever', the introductions will always be more likely to reference the films negatively than positively.

Let's begin with the Vintage editions (2012). In his introduction to Casino Royale, Alan Judd describes the later incarnations of Bond, 'particularly the films', as 'lurid' fantasies, though acknowledges that Fleming's literary legacy lives on thanks in part to the films. Curiously, Judd states that the literary Bond is vulnerable and prone to self-doubt in contrast to the more jokey character of the cinematic Bond, which makes me wonder whether he had seen the 2006 film (or indeed 2008's Quantum of Solace). In his introduction of Live and Let Die, Andrew Taylor writes of the film series' growing separation from the novels and its increasing reliance on technological gimmicks, while Susan Hill, who introduces Moonraker, describes the film version as 'perhaps the poorest of the films.'

Sam Bourne, aka Jonathan Freedland, in his introduction to Dr No likens the cinematic Bond to a Beatles tribute band, and suggests that the permanent present in which the films are set has made us forget the historical context – the Cold War – about which Fleming wrote. (Perhaps, but Fleming was writing in his present, and his novels, like the films, also reflect changes in culture; no doubt if he had continued to write for another 30 or 40 years, the literary Bond would seem equally timeless.)

The introductions for Goldfinger and The Spy who Loved Me don't have much to say about the films, but Stella Rimington (former head of MI5) writes in the introduction of On Her Majesty's Secret Service that 'sadly, the films, certainly in their latest manifestation,' reflect nothing of Bond's concerns expressed in the novels about the extent to which his exploits result from his desire for excitement or his sense of service to his country. The remaining novels have no introductions.

The writers introducing the Penguin editions (2006) are no less dismissive. Louise Walsh, introducing Live and Let Die contrasts the literary Bond with the 'effortless lover of the silver screen', while Michael Dibdin tells readers about to get stuck into Moonraker to forget about 'whoever's impersonating 007 this year' in the cinema. In his introduction to Diamonds are Forever, Jonathan Kellerman writes that the 'cinematic Bond has devolved into a near-cartoonish √úbermensch,' and Simon Winder, introducing Dr No, considers that elements of the film were poorly handled. (Mind you, he seems to view the novel equally negatively.)

In her introduction to On Her Majesty's Secret Service, Val McDermid writes about how 'we're so accustomed to the stylized formula of the movies that we've forgotten how well crafted the books are,' the implication being that the films aren't so well crafted. Criticism expressed in the introduction, by Mo Hayder, to You Only Live Twice is more explicit. Hayder writes of the films shuffling 'toothlessly into Mike Myers territory,' of the literary Bond being 'upstaged by his own parodies,' and of the celluloid Bond being 'no match for the ageless, dignified Bond of the written page.'

Not all writers take a negative view. Charlie Higson, introducing The Spy who Loved Me, mentions the 'exhilarating ski chase' of the film version, while Ben Schott, introducing Goldfinger, hopes that Fleming 'might have approved of one of the finest lines of dialogue not to appear in the book: "No, Mr Bond, I expect you to die..."' And Charles Cumming, who introduces The Man with the Golden Gun, remembers with fondness the atmosphere and excitement of the film version. The remaining introductions are neutral towards the films or don't mention them. 

Overall, then, most writers introducing the Bond novels have taken a negative view of the films. Some of them may have a point, and even I'm not especially keen on a few of the films, but the film series is surely too diverse to dismiss in a sentence or two without qualification. Indeed, the consistency of the views expressed suggest that most writers have relied on general popular perceptions of Bond and failed to consider how the series has evolved over the years.

There is one aspect that emerges from the writers' criticisms with which I would agree. A number of them hint that the films have long separated from the original books. Certainly. Starting with the novels, the films have evolved along their own trajectory to the extent that the cinematic and literary Bonds are essentially two different species. That's an inevitable consequence of creative minds other than Fleming plotting Bond's adventures, and of adaptation to changing cultural environments. But that's not necessarily a bad thing. Fifty years on, the Bond films are still going strong. They must have been doing something right.


  1. Sounds like typical authors being biased and preferring literature over film.
    To be honest though, I think I've read the books more times than I've seen the movies. You cannot beat the individual persons imagination, with all those detail descriptions and Bond's fight with the giant squid in Doctor No that'll will most likely never be seen in the films.

    1. I'd love to see the giant squid. It wouldn't have worked in 1962 (a stuntman in a rubber squid suit would have been laughable), but it would look all right with today's CGI.

  2. Even as an adolescent I had occasional doubts about the quality of Fleming's writing as a whole, in particular the dialogue, which was sometimes turgid and usually inauthentic.
    I recognise it may be valid to express uncertainty over whether Fleming would have found it in himself to acknowledge that "No, Mr Bond, I expect you to die" was fit to stand alongside his own creative level of accomplishment, but I personally cannot recall any line Fleming wrote which came near it.
    That said, I think most of the Bond movies have been significantly and often catastrophically worse than the books, bad as some of the latter were.


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