28 Apr 2019 — The first James Bond book is good. Real good.
I’ve re-read Ian Fleming’s first James Bond novel in light of the official announcement of the 25th James Bond movie. The unnamed movie will be Daniel Craig’s fifth and final turn as 007, but his first movie will probably still be his best one. The 2006 franchise-reboot is excellent because, in my view, the story is grounded in reality, like the 1953 book. The movie adaptation is more prominent in my mind because I’ve seen it several times.
Still, the book is enjoyable. I bought it on the cheap a couple of years ago along with The Old Man and The Sea by Earnest Hemingway and Animal Farm by George Orwell. The bookstore had a buy-three-classics-for-one-price deal, so I chose three books that were all published in the mid-20th century and written by famous British or American authors. Casino Royale, like Animal Farm for Orwell, was the first notable book by Fleming.
He didn’t exert influence on writers like Hemingway or produce fodder for students like Orwell, but I enjoyed reading Casino Royale more than The Old Man and the Sea and Animal Farm. Because time had passed between readings and because I had seen the movie so many times, I forgot about some important differences; re-reading the book was almost like a new experience. I appreciate how Fleming has crafted the story even more after re-reading it.
The bomb attack before the casino showdown and the gunpoint threat at the height of it, neither of which are depicted in the movie, are surprising. Bond’s philosophizing about the nature and necessity of evil is also unexpected and somewhat deep. The revelation of Vesper setting up her kidnapping is a detail that I hadn’t noticed during my first reading, possibly because the movie depicts her as a victim of Le Chiffre’s desperation.
The book and the movie are different enough to be interesting even if one has already experienced the other. The former is set some years after the Second World War, in the early stage of the Cold War, whereas the latter is set a handful of years after the 9/11 attacks. The book has cultural references that place it in a specific period, but I appreciate the timeless sophistication and low-tech ingenuity that it exudes.
For example, the card game of choice is chemin de fer, which is a version of baccarat. It’s much easier to understand than Texas Hold ‘Em, which is featured in the movie because of the popularity of competitive poker at the time. The French origin of chemin de fer makes it exotic, but its simplicity and resemblance to blackjack make it familiar as well. From a storytelling perspective, the author doesn’t need to explain the importance of every hand.
Ironically, the only noteworthy gadgets are used by the bad guys. A pair of assassins carry bombs that are disguised in camera cases, a bodyguard wields a cane that discretely shoots a bullet a point-blank range, and Le Chiffre drives a car that releases a carpet of spiked chain-mail. Bond, on the other hand, only uses a screwdriver and some cleverness to hide his winnings that doom the villain.
Fleming foreshadows the noteworthy events like the bomb attack, the casino holdup, and Vesper’s suicide. The surprise lies in when and how they happen, but in hindsight, they can generally be anticipated. Fleming’s dialogue for Bond and Vesper in their first interactions is stiff. It’s supposed to be charming and romantic, I think, but it’s awkward and dated. Thankfully, Bond’s inner monologue is readable and memorable (“The silly bitch”).
The book reveals some things that the movie either avoids or changes. As previously mentioned, Fleming’s Vesper ultimately reveals that she had staged her kidnapping, whereas the movie’s Vesper doesn’t conspire with Le Chiffre. Bond’s two kills that earn him Double O status are twice described in the book, and they’re different compared to the movie. The second of these kills is apparently re-visited in the prologue of the official prequel to Casino Royale.
The book that’s started everything has piqued my interest; I’m curious to know if its sequels use the plot formula that the movies always use. I don’t consider myself to be a Bond fan, but I’m a fan of this book and its movie adaptation. I have faint hope that Bond 25, which is backed by a different studio and helmed by a new director, can meet the quality of Casino Royale and maybe have another legendary tie-in video game to go with it.