Thursday, May 17

Casino Royale (1953)

By Ian Fleming

A few weeks ago our local parish library had its annual fundraising book sale, which my wife and I like to hit. Great deals can be had. Among my finds this year was an all-but-complete set of Ian Fleming's James Bond novels in excellent condition, recent Penguin paperbacks. They were 50 cents apiece. I grabbed them. I was missing two – including this first volume in the series – but the very next day my son had a soccer game in Alexandria so I checked at Hastings there. I paid more for Casino Royale than I did for all the others put together! Compulsive completist that I am, that evening I placed an order through for the other missing volume, and within a few days an all-but-pristine full set perched proudly on my bookshelf. I just recently got around to starting it.

It's not the first time I read one of the original novels that inspired the cultural phenomenon that is the 007 movies – or at least attempted to read one. Many years ago, when the movie Moonraker came out, after picking up the movie adaptation which is basically a transcription of the script into prose, I attempted the original novel upon which it was based. I did not get very far into it. The James Bond movies are notoriously different from the books, often bearing no resemblance to the original beyond the title. This was especially the case with the immediately post-Star Wars Moonraker. And I never really felt drawn to the originals for a very long time after that.

A couple of years ago, however, I did happen across a curious volume in Books-a-Million – a compendium of black-and-white newspaper strips from the 1950s that, as far as I can tell thus far, very faithfully adapt the original novels into graphic format. The James Bond Omnibus, “Volume 001,” looks to contain comic strip versions of about the first half of the book series, through Thunderball, including the various short stories as well as the novels, in the order they were published. I read through about half the volume, as I recall, before my attention drifted to other things. I always kept meaning to get back to it, and gave thought to delving into the original novels, but never got around to it. So many books! – So little time!

Then I came upon the library book-sale find. My immediate excitement was doubtless augmented by the synchronicity that I had just started reading Bronze Shaped as Clay, which of course includes a thinly-veiled James Bond as a major character. As indicated above, I grabbed them – along with an interesting albeit thin hardcover, For Your Eyes Only: Ian Fleming + James Bond by Ben MacIntyre, which I found on a different table. This latter book is heavily illustrated, sort of a semi-coffee-table book overview of the life of Ian Fleming heavily geared toward the writer's most famous creation.* It's a fascinating story. My point is, everything seemed to come together, and as soon as I cleared out some other backlogged reading intentions I started Casino Royale.

I'm not going to engage in a full-blown review here. Suffice it to say that if you have seen the 2006 film with Daniel Craig, you know the basic story – although there are considerable changes in detail as well as additons to the story, the central plot is there more or less intact: Agent 007's battle over a casino card-table with Le Chiffre, an agent of the enemy; his reluctant attraction to yet ultimate betrayal by a beautifuly fellow agent, Vesper Lynd; even the harrowing torture that he suffers at the hands of Le Chiffre (although the most memorable line from that scene, Bond's defiant “Now the whole world's gonna know you died scratching my balls!,” is nowhere to be found). I already suspected from the comic strip adaptation that those beats would be there, pardon the pun. That adaptation is very accurate, with only minor differences necessary to condense the story as well as tone it down a bit.

Art by John McLusky
for Daily Express
This was quite an enjoyable read and I look forward to continuing the series. There is something special about seeing characters such as this in their original settings. In this case, the story is very much informed by the still-fresh memories of World War II in the context of deepening 1950s Cold War tensions. And here we see a much more down-to-earth, human Bond than the virtual super-hero he became in the movies. He's less “cool,” less sure of himself, indeed less likable, with less of the boyish roguishness. It's one major difference between the motion picture medium and prose that the latter allows the reader to have considerable insight into the core of the character – depending on the author's intent as well as skill, of course, and Ian Fleming was a natural storyteller. That can be good – or it can, as in this case, lay bare an uglier side of our hero's nature. One thing that I've heard commented on through the years is that the literary James Bond is colder, with a real misogynistic streak to him. That is very much the case. He has definite negative feelings toward the very idea of women engaging in his line of work. How much of that was Fleming and reflective of the time in which he wrote as opposed to the character he was drawing I could not say, but I know I was a bit taken aback by the punch line, so to speak, of Bond reflecting on his growing feelings for Vesper near the end of the book, before the climax:

He found her companionship easy and unexacting. There was something enigmatic about her which was a constant stimulus. She gave little of her real personality away and he felt that however long they were together there would always be a private room inside her which he could never invade. She was thoughtful and full of consideration without being slavish and without compromising her arrogant spirit. And now he knew that she was profoundly, excitingly sensual, but that the conquest of her body, because of the central privacy in her, would each time have the sweet tang of rape” (pp. 158-159).


Anyway, despite the lack of CGI-worthy pyrotechnics and a diabolical world-threatening super-villain – evil though he be, Le Chiffre is in the context of the larger world very much a small fish – this is an engaging little character drama that leaves me wanting more. And, similar to the movie, the book's conclusion sets up what must have been a central overarching conflict in Fleming's novels as the ambiguous character of Vesper Lynd and her fate give Bond a driving purpose going forward – to hunt down and destroy SMERSH.

Cheers! – and thanks for reading!
* * *
* Fleming's only other creation, for a single children's book, was – I kid you not!Chitty-Chitty-Bang-Bang.

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