Tuesday, 4 September 2012

Casino Royale by Ian Fleming

Casino Royale
Ian Fleming

 “Yes, well I much prefer the book actually” is a tough phrase to utter without sounding rather condescending, no matter how true it may be. Books and Films are simply very different art forms but are for some reason linked to a sliding intellectual scale. I didn’t go see The Dark Knight and say “I much prefer the graphic novel, don’t you know.” It’s just different.

Still, the book / film relation is what has brought me to this, the first James Bond novel, originally released in 1953. I’m probably a bigger Bond aficionado than your average man on the street, but that largely stems from a childhood love of the films, mixed with an appreciation of a long running franchise. Of the 22 films to date, perhaps only a handful could be regarded as ‘great films’ whilst the other bounce from dumb action pleasures to tongue in cheek amusers. Like the lyrics to Green Day’s back catalogue, the words are forever etched in my brain, but I wouldn’t say I was any kind of fan.

As I understand it, Casino Royale is one of the only novels that were accurately forged on screen. Many others take only plot elements or characters. And it’s true that having seen the Daniel Craig version of this tale, there are very few plot surprises. Ok, so the novel doesn’t open with a Parkour chase through a building site or end with the sinking of Venice but the core; a nerve shredding gambling session in a casino is fully intact. Bond’s mental battle against Le Chiffre is, at least to our modernist eyes, is a daringly unexciting central event around which to base a novel. How this was regarded in the ‘50s, I don’t know, but the way it sits against what I think I know about Bond makes these chapters an unexpectedly immersive read.

Relating once again to the films, which appeared ten years after the first novel, it is interesting to note this lack of action, or exotic locations. It takes place almost exclusively in a casino. I don’t think Bond so much as punches any one. Yet the story hammers along quickly and relatively excitingly. Fleming’s style doesn’t linger too long on any particular character, the only details being Bond’s obsessive observations of other characters appearance and clothing (not quite Brett Easton Ellis…) and his appreciation of fine wine and food. The directness and pace of the plotting match what is perhaps most interesting and shocking about this book; the characterisation of Bond himself.

My copy of the book, from the late ‘80s has a foreword by Anthony Burgess which compares the character of Bond to Sherlock Homles, in a literary sense. Partly true, like the way they are seen as ‘quintisensionally english’ whilst also being drug taking, womanising, murdering sociopaths.

But the Bond in Casino Royale can be seen from the 21st century as nothing but a dinosaur, a hopelessly extinct type of man built from pure machismo. Even the Bond that hit the silver screen a decade later had been softened around the edges; yes he killed and womanised, but also had the quips, the self depreciation and a feeling of remorse when people around him suffered or died.

Here, Bond is as cold as can be. His only concern is getting the job done, for Queen and country. He is humourless, serious and in his attitudes to women, deeply unpleasant. I opt not to quote from the book here, as taken out of context they will seem even worse. Those familiar with the film will be aware that a softening of Bond takes place and that too is true here. At first I was suspecting the overly sexist nature was a setup for this. But the book's conclusion (one of the most shockingly succinct and aggressive final lines I’ve come across) sees him revert to an uncaring, immovable object, which leaves an odd taste in the mouth.

I am pleased to have had an insight into the origins of the Bond character and I would say that Daniel Craig has come closest to harnessing that cold, loveless streak - and not just because it was the same story he was telling. It’s also a great historical insight, in that this book and this character were a worldwide, smash hit. I can only assume that a man so focussed on getting the job done and serving his empire was seen as a great example back then. Of course, the book was released at a time when Britain’s role in the world had been seriously culled and this kind of chest beating likely raised people’s spirits. I enjoyed the book; a story in which little actually happens but is still engaging is a good thing for me, and though I haven’t been touched emotionally in any way, the eyebrow raising has certainly got me thinking about how things have changed, and how a worldwide film franchise could rise from a man playing cards and trying to cop off with a woman.

Dean Freeman

James Bond will return in Live And Let Die.

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