Ian Fleming’s 1955 novel ‘Moonraker’ shares precisely three things in common with its 1979 film adaptation: 1) the lead character James Bond 007, 2) the name of the villain, and 3) the title. Those are the only similarities between the two works.
Although ‘Moonraker’ was Fleming’s third Bond story, it wasn’t made into a movie until the 11th film in the series. In fact, it wasn’t even meant to happen then. The end credits of 1977’s ‘The Spy Who Loved Me’ proclaim that, “James Bond will return in FOR YOUR EYES ONLY.” But then a little movie called ‘Star Wars’ happened, and suddenly everybody in the movie business needed to make a science fiction epic. For better or worse (most would argue for worse), that even meant catapulting popular franchises like James Bond into outer space. ‘For Your Eyes Only’ was put on the backburner, and ‘Moonraker’ was rushed into production. The fact that the ‘Moonraker’ novel had absolutely nothing to do with outer space or science fiction didn’t overly concern producer Albert “Cubby” Broccoli, who had long since given up any pretense of faithfully adapting Fleming’s works by that point. The book had the word “moon” in the title, and that was all the excuse he needed to justify his movie. Everything else was thrown to the wayside.
The ‘Moonraker’ book, on the other hand, is about a big ICBM with a nuclear warhead attached. In this Cold War tale, the British government has contracted famed industrialist Sir Hugo Drax to build a huge rocket capable of delivering a nuclear payload to long-range targets deep in the Soviet Union, allegedly as a deterrent against the dirty Commies striking the UK first. Drax’s “Moonraker” rocket is all the talk of the press, and its impending first test flight is expected to be watched with baited breath the world over. Everything seems quite on the up-and-up, except for one little detail: Bond’s Secret Service superior M shares the same social circle with Drax, and has noticed that the millionaire businessman cheats at cards.
At first, M enlists Bond’s help to quietly verify Drax’s cheating, and then to use his own tricks against the man and beat him at high-stakes bridge. The goal is to let Drax know that they’re onto his cheating and to shame him into stopping before someone else catches him and creates a public scandal that could endanger the Moonraker project. No sooner is Bond successful in this task than a British government liaison assigned to monitor the Moonraker is murdered at Drax’s compound, allegedly the victim of jealous rage from one of the workers there over a love triangle. M arranges for Bond to replace the agent and investigate the matter. In doing so, 007 slowly unravels clues that Drax suffers a megalomania complex and may have ulterior motives for building the Moonraker.
After my disappointment with the ‘Live and Let Die’ novel, ‘Moonraker’ is a big step up in quality, and certainly a better story than the movie wound up telling. The book’s early chapters are filled with fascinating details about what a Double-0 agent does between missions (mainly, a lot of paperwork) and introduces us to a character never seen in any of the movies, Loelia Ponsonby, the personal secretary that Bond shares with Agents 008 and 0011. Even the main “Bond Girl” in this story, an undercover Special Branch operative named Gala Brand, has yet to be featured in a Bond film. The card-playing scenes are reminiscent of those in the ‘Casino Royale’ book, though Fleming doesn’t do nearly as good a job explaining the rules of bridge as he did for baccarat, and a reader unfamiliar with bridge may get lost in all the “rubbers” and “contracts” and “tricks.” However, he still conveys the suspense and stakes of the game. Though the writing suffers an expected amount of sexism, with no black characters, it’s far less blatantly racist than ‘Live and Let Die’ – until Bond lets fly some anti-Germanic slurs near the end, which are more comical than offensive.
While virtually no part of the novel’s story was used in the ‘Moonraker’ film, aspects of Drax’s mysterious backstory were reworked for the villain in ‘Die Another Day’. Try not to hold this against the book.
With all that said, ‘Moonraker’ takes almost a reverse trajectory from ‘Live and Let Die’, which started out really poorly and got better towards the end. ‘Moonraker’, on the other hand, loses steam in its second half, in which Bond takes far, far too long to catch onto the obviousness of the villain’s intentions, or even to realize that Drax is a villain at all. Perhaps subsequent decades of the Bond formula have conditioned a modern reader to recognize what Drax is up to right off the bat, but in this early story, Fleming withholds that revelation until no less than 170 pages into this 245-page book. It seems to take Bond forever to see what’s right in front of his face.
Amusingly, this is also the second book in a row where James Bond doesn’t get the girl. In the last book, he couldn’t make love to Solitaire because he’d broken his finger (really!). In this one, Gala brushes him off for another man. The cinematic Bond has never had problems in this area.
Regardless, ‘Moonraker’ is an entertaining read and far better than the unrelated movie that happens to share its title.