I'm uncertain if the news that Casino Royale is the official 21st James Bond film is good or bad. Martin Campbell as director is good news. He restarted the Bond film series with Goldeneye back in 1995. Supposedly it's down to Julian McMahon and Clive Owen as the next Bond. Pierce Brosnan reportedly wanted $40 million to do it.
I first came across James Bond at a most impressionable age: 8 years old. I saw Goldfinger at a Saturday matinee at the Victoria Theater in my hometown of Tamaqua, PA. It was 1963 and I was way too young to realize the 2-sided joy of Pussy Galore's name. But let's talk about the movies later. This post is about Ian Fleming and the literary Bond.
A few years back, Penguin Books started to reissue all of Fleming's Bond books in the U.S., in nifty new trade paperback size edition, with what they call consistent "trade dress." The new books had photo collage covers that never actually showed Bond, a clever affectation on the part of the designers. Everyone has a favorite Bond, whether it be Connery, Moore, Lazenby, Dalton or Brosnan, so why ruin it? Designer Roseanne Serra and illustrator Richie Fahey focused on another important part of the Bond legend: the women. The covers quietly evoke the rich Bond opening sequences from the films, more often than not designed by the legendary Maurice Binder. The typefaces for the book titles are all different, each a font that lends itself to the title. Bond is pictured slightly, as a running figure, or at a roulette table, or skiing down the side of an ice maiden. His pistol-holding right hand remains a constant on the back cover. The books are incredibly attractive, and for once all 14 of Flemings books got the treatment they deserved.
Ian Fleming's background as both a journalist at Reuters and a WWII job as Personal Assistant to the Director of Naval Intelligence (M?) served him well in concocting his dry martini of a hero. Fleming built an estate in Jamaica and named it Goldeneye and while there in 1952, he wrote the first adventure of James Bond, Casino Royale. One of the better of the Bond books, this first adventure introduces us to the card-playing, amoral, womanizing, licensed-to-kill spy who would go on to capture the world's imagination in later books and the longest-running movie franchise ever. Fleming himself would tire of Bond and "kill" him off twice: in both From Russia With Love and You Only Live Twice (although he's really only presumed dead in the latter). Each time he came roaring back to life and after Fleming died in 1964, the canon continued under different authors, including Kingsley Amis and Raymond Bensen.
There is a definite order to the books. You won't die another day if you read them out of order, but it helps to read them in the order they were published, since some, including the above-mentioned FRWL and YOLT are both part and parcel of the books either before and/or after them. The correct order of the 14 Fleming books is (and I've provided links to Amazon on each one so you can get them yourself, or just look at the mega-cool covers for each, if you so desire):
Live and Let Die
Diamonds Are Forever
From Russia With Love
For Your Eyes Only
The Spy Who Loved Me
On Her Majesty's Secret Service
You Only Live Twice
The Man With The Golden Gun
Octopussy and The Living Daylights
The Bond books by Fleming are hit and miss. Two of them, in my opinion, are just awful: Diamonds Are Forever and The Spy Who Loved Me. From Russia With Love gets bogged down in the plan to discredit Bond and he doesn't appear to well into the book. Goldfinger becomes a long paen to golf and while it's one of the most memorable Bonds in plot and villiany, it gets boring through the long stretch of the golf match. The short stories of For Your Eyes Only and Octopussy and The Living Daylights are enjoyable reads. Thunderball, originally created as a movie script is good, as are the two other parts of the Ernst Stavro Blofeld trilogy, On Her Majesty's Secret Service and You Only Live Twice. The latter is often cited as being an overblown travelogue for Japan, but I found it very enjoyable. The best Bond books are, I think, Casino Royale, Live and Let Die, Moonraker, Doctor No and The Man With the Golden Gun.
The recent Penguin reissues are memorable in another sense, besides the remarkable covers: they present Fleming's work in its original form, the way it was published in Great Britain. Fleming is a misogynist and a bit of a racist and these books, like the cover at left, are very much a product of their times. Moonraker is, I think, my favorite. It bears absolutely NO resemblance to the awful Roger Moore movie of the same name. Yet it's a suspenseful, well-crafted novel about ex-Nazis and a super missile aimed at London. Casino Royale will be a difficult book to adapt to a movie. It's definitely suspenseful, but there's not a lot of action in it. I long to see a Bond movie that is a period piece. The Cold War was super-hot when Fleming wrote the lot of these books. The idea of a Russian or Chinese villain is quaint now, an antiquated thought in these free-world times. I'm uncertain how the filmmakers will bring Casino Royale into the 21st century. I doubt it's even possible. It may be a film of the book in name only.
Fleming left behind a legacy of adventure. I've not read any of the other Bonds by various authors. I tried years ago with License Renewed and just couldn't get into it. The Fleming books are a quaint, if somewhat mean-spirited, look back at a spy vs. spy world that no longer exists (if it ever did).
Fleming was smart--or greedy--enough to realize that his character had the legs for other media. Before the first James Bond movie was in production, he let Bond jump into the comics, and next time we write about 007, we'll talk about the memorable newsprint adaptations that presaged the big screen ones.