One of the consequences of my home theater construction setback is that I’ve fallen hopelessly behind in reviewing the remaining titles in last year’s ‘Bond 50‘ Blu-ray box set. Since I’m completely unable to watch Blu-ray discs at the moment, I thought that I might fill the time by revisiting the original James Bond novels by author Ian Fleming that started the 007 phenomenon. Because there’s no better place to start than at the beginning, I’ve already dug right into the first Bond book, ‘Casino Royale’, which was first published in 1953.
Ever since the ‘Casino Royale’ reboot movie with Daniel Craig was released in 2006, fans of that film have effusively praised it as being the most “faithful” to Fleming’s writing. While I also like the movie a lot, I find those claims pretty amusing. People who say things like that have obviously not actually read the novel, or at least not read it in many years. The movie follows only the thinnest sketch of the book’s plot. Indeed, the book is a pretty quick read that only has a thin sketch of plot.
To whit: A terrorist financier known as Le Chiffre (here identified as an operative of the shadowy Russian counterintelligence organization SMERSH) is left nearly bankrupt after a series of unwise investments. Desperate to refill his agency’s coffers quickly before he’s discovered by his masters, Le Chiffre risks what’s left of his money at high-stakes gambling in the title location, a posh casino in France. Alerted to the situation, British intelligence sends James Bond, Agent 007, to the casino to out-gamble Le Chiffre and hopefully leave him destitute. Successful at the task, Bond and his companion, treasury agent Vesper Lynd, soon find themselves targets of a vengeful Le Chiffre, who kidnaps them both and tortures Bond in an attempt to get the money back.
Most of that (aside from the Cold War angle) is in the movie too, of course. However, that’s all there is to the book. The novel has no parkour action set-pieces, brutal fistfights, elaborate shootouts or frantic chases through imploding buildings. Those are all inventions of the film’s producers, catering to the expectations of an audience that has paid to see a $150 million action movie. The book does have one small explosion (a bungled assassination attempt) and a car chase that’s roughly equivalent to its depiction in the film (though Bond’s eventual crash is a lot less ‘Perils of Pauline’ in cause, and his car only rolls over once, rather than 187 times). Regardless, the majority of the novel takes place inside the casino itself, and often reads like an instruction manual for the rules of baccarat.
Perhaps more importantly, the Bond of the book is already an experienced veteran agent. Although chronologically the first James Bond tale, ‘Casino Royale’ is not an origin story about a rookie spy on his first mission. Bond steps into the plot fully competent and capable of his task. Furthermore, he’s a gentleman spy, not a thuggish bruiser like Daniel Craig portrays him. Fleming said that he pictured David Niven in the role. His Bond is a cultured and sophisticated man of refined tastes, who is more inclined to outwit his opponent than resort to messy violence, and who would never deign to play a game as crass as Texas Hold’em.
The literary Bond is also much colder and more cynical regarding women. While he has a romantic relationship with Vesper, he never lets her crack through his hardened shell. As Bond chases after Le Chiffre to rescue Vesper, he does so out of practicality, not love. The thoughts racing through his head about the damn fool woman who let herself get captured are positively misogynistic. If he can’t catch up with the car, he’s fully prepared to let the girl die and just shrug it off. In fact, Fleming’s writing is quite strongly sexist throughout the book, right down to the caustic final line. Reading it today requires that you remind yourself that it was written in another era, when attitudes toward gender were very different than they are now.
That said, it’s still a very entertaining read. Some of the baccarat passages are surprisingly suspenseful. Right from the start, Bond is a compelling character, and this story serves as a good introduction to his future adventures. I doubt that Ian Fleming realized as he wrote the book that his creation would become a pop culture icon, but he was clearly onto something.