30 October 2015
The Name's Bond, James Bond
James Bond: the suave epitome of effortless cool or a rampaging misogynist dinosaur? With Spectre, the latest film in the Bond franchise, doing excellent business at the cinema debates about whether James Bond is still relevant in the modern world are of little more than academic concern when so many people flock to see the movies. There is, however, something of a split between the character of Bond as portrayed in Ian Fleming's original novels and short stories and the character as portrayed on screen. Even within the films themselves there are marked differences between Bond as played by, for example, Sean Connery (suave, cool, dangerous), Roger Moore (charming, tongue-in-cheek, the master of the raised eyebrow) and Daniel Craig (hard-edged and with hidden depths). Different Bonds for different generations perhaps but what all of the films tend to have in common is a love of excess: the fast cars, the gadgets, the glamorous women and the almost cartoonish villains with their sinister henchmen - the latter often sporting a signature trademark such as a steel-rimmed bowler hat, a mouthful of metal teeth or, most menacingly of all, a fluffy white cat. The books however, even the overtly sensational ones such as Dr No (1958), also have something else.
While the films have arguably become ever more spectacular, with each pre-credits sequence attempting to outdo the one before for drama, the original series of novels and short stories if anything tended to go the other way, becoming more introspective as age and ill health caught up with Bond's creator. The last two Bond novels published during Fleming's lifetime, On Her Majesty's Secret Service (1963) and You Only Live Twice (1964), while still featuring the occasional dazzling set piece, are both haunted by loss, introspection, doubt and death. In the former novel Bond loses his wife, Tracy, in a hail of bullets while the latter, much of which is set in a Japanese Garden of Death (there are no fancy missile silos beneath hollowed-out volcanoes in the book) concludes with the head of the Secret Intelligence Service, M, writing Bond's obituary. The sense of weariness and fatalism is even more prevalent in Fleming's posthumously published collection of short stories Octopussy and The Living Daylights (1966) and, in particular, in the story 'The Living Daylights' itself, the manuscript of which is held in the British Library.
Short stories are often regarded as the poor relations to novels. This is a shame because, while novels may allow for more character development and plot exposition, short stories have the advantage of being able to focus upon a single incident. What they lose in variety they gain in intensity. 'The Living Daylights', which was originally titled 'Trigger Finger', tells of Bond being sent to Cold-War era Berlin. A British agent is due to make his way across the scrubby no-man's land between East and West Berlin, but a KGB sniper is known to be lying in wait and it is Bond's job to shoot the sniper before the sniper can assassinate the agent. The story finds Bond in melancholy mood. The alcohol is only there to steady the nerves and keep doubt at bay; the rifle with which he means to assassinate the KGB sniper is a brutally functional means to an end rather than a gadget-filled marvel designed by Q; the setting is a shadowy wasteland in a divided city and Bond's companion in the story is not an attractive woman but rather the melancholy Captain Sender, someone who, as Bond reflects, probably joined the Secret Service in the mistaken belief that there he would find 'life, drama, romance, the things he had never had'. While there are still flashes of the old Bond, the character's fascination with a beautiful Russian cellist he sees on the East-side of the city's divide, for example, and his subsequent rather sexist observation that someone should develop a way for female cellists to play their instruments 'side-saddle' so they don't have to straddle them with legs akimbo the tone of the story is otherwise relentlessly bleak. Bond even hopes that the somewhat messy end to his mission might lead to his 'Double O' status being revoked - thus freeing him from a job that revolves around carrying out state-sanctioned murder. So much for the supposedly glamorous life of a secret agent.
Some of this downbeat realism from the later Bond novels and short stories definitely makes its way into Daniel Craig's portrayal, making him arguably the closest fit to Ian Fleming's original conception of the character. Bond films always go big on spectacle but, as Fleming knew well, the action carries more weight and intensity when the leading character has, behind the surface glamour, doubts and flaws that are all too recognisably human.
Part of the manuscript of 'The Living Daylights' can currently be seen on display in The Sir John Ritblat Gallery: Treasures of the British Library.