007 Chatter: (Ian) Fleming’s Bond – The James Bond of the original novels compared to the 007 movies Part 1

October is Bond month as the producers are celebrating the 50 year anniversary of the first Bond film, Dr. No, which opened in the UK on on October 5, 1962. In addition to the Skyfall countdown, here at FlixChatter we are taking an in-depth look into the world’s most popular movie franchise and its origins.

Special thanks to Marcus Clearspring for this two-part posts in comparing how the original novels of Ian Fleming compared to the Bond movies.

Check out Marcus’ movie blog Cinesprit and his writing blog.


Fleming’s Bond

When you think James Bond, you probably think Martinis-and-bikinis, “shaken not stirred” and of course “Bond, James Bond”. The James Bond of the movies is a kind of superhero. However, Ian Fleming’s original novels show far more depth of character and certainly no superman. He may actually have a few things in common with some of the darker superheroes, only he has no superpowers. Although he has gadgets, they rarely spring him from danger in the novels.
The complete collection of Ian Fleming books – photo courtesy of ebookee.org
Fleming’s Bond is a character with doubts, who is vulnerable and expresses his fears. The most extreme example is when Bond falls into a long depression for several months after the death of his wife Tracy. The story begins with Bond visiting her grave, and his boss M back at the office, telling Bond to shape up or ship out. This is the beginning to Thunderball in the novel. Bond is not sent to the health clinic to work undercover. It’s an ultimatum. He goes there because he is too depressed and out of shape to work. He discovers the bad guys by chance. It is surprising how dark the beginning is, but it’s also very memorable.
The movies have so far never portrayed Bond like this. We saw him place flowers on his wife’s grave in For Your Eyes Only, but that was followed by an action-comedy sequence with Blofeld at times so camp it was close to Austin Powers. The Thunderball remake Never Say Never Again had Bond sent to the clinic because he was supposedly out of shape, but that was all. It too was upbeat, almost comedic, with no mention of any other trouble.

The possibly closest portrayal of Fleming’s Bond in the movies for me is Timothy Dalton in Licence To Kill, and to some extent Daniel Craig in Casino Royale. As of the Daniel Craig era you can imagine the producers using a downbeat opening like in Fleming’s Thunderball because attitudes have changed. It’s okay now for Bond to be vulnerable and the story to have some gravitas. When they tried that with Timothy Dalton in Licence To Kill, audiences were not yet ready. It was 10-15 years too early.
Fleming’s Bond is always focused and very rarely distracted. There’s a scene in Goldfinger where Bond sees a pretty girl in an open sports car and is tempted to follow her. Then he smiles and mutters to himself that he needs to keep shadowing Goldfinger. You may recall that scene from the movie. It’s an exception in the novels rather than something you would expect, as you do in the movies. Likewise, you won’t find scores of bikini-clad girls sunbathing around swimming pools. No five-star hotel concierge greets Bond after several years by name and announces that a Martini is waiting. Not in the books.

What makes Fleming’s Bond so interesting?

[ruth’s note: I found this illustration by Gabriel Hardman above from this site, inspired by this description from Fleming’s Casino Royale novel: As he tied his thin, double-ended black satin tie, he paused for a moment and examined himself levelly in the mirror. His grey-blue eyes looked calmly back with a hint of ironical inquiry and the short lock of black hair which would never stay in place slowly subsided to form a thick comma above his right eyebrow. With the thin vertical scar down his right cheek the general effect was faintly piratical.]
There have been many new authors who have written Bond novels since Ian Fleming. Make sure to start at the source, with the real deal. There may be some good 007 novels by other authors but I have not heard of any to surpass Fleming’s originals. When I refer to “the novels” from here on, I mean solely Ian Fleming’s books.
What I find particularly interesting in Fleming’s novels is the way we get to see and feel everything that Bond does from inside Bond’s head. That’s a totally different perspective to the movies. We get a multitude of thoughts and emotions racing through Bond’s head. Doubts, strategies, fears, next moves. All this is mostly told as a running commentary.
Many action scenes in the novels are better than in the movies. I know that sounds odd because movies are normally better at action than books, but this is one of Fleming’s strong points. A good example is the car chase in Casino Royale. It has far more detail and suspense than the movie, which only shows Bond catching up, then the final rollover of his car. The novel manages to put you inside Bond’s head, with him in the driver’s seat, following his every move and thought. He sits there thinking about how Vesper got herself caught. Complaining about her and worrying at the same time as he shifts gears and his thoughts race. These are some of the best moments in the books because you get both the internal and external action.
I would never have thought it could be exciting the way someone shifts gears and moves along serpentine roads, but it is the way Fleming writes. I know someone who used to drive rallies and they thought Fleming’s descriptions were great. Especially if you are bored by the fast cuts of current movie chases which abbreviate so much, you will appreciate the detailed and engaging way Fleming writes his action scenes.

Focus and Purpose

The fight scenes are full of precision and purpose. Often brutal, but never for show. Bond often considers each move in advance. However, not as in many movies where the hero recites a bunch of moves to show off how easy it’s going to be and how cool he or she is. If there’s any comparison in movies, Fleming’s Bond takes the approach of a Clint Eastwood type character. Someone who gets straight down to business when he has to and takes the shortest, most effective route without any showing off.
The skiing scenes in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service are another great example. The movie’s ski scenes are great due to Willy Bogner’s amazing photography, but the novel has the advantage of putting you inside Bond’s skin as he tries to escape from Blofeld’s mountain lair.

The movies are glamorous, mainstream action entertainment. The books get inside Bond’s head and under his skin. It’s a very different perspective. It’s the main reason to read the books. In the next post I’ll take a closer look at what is going on inside Bond. His relationships to the two important women in his life provide a great contrast to his movie image. His introspective side shows how critical, and at times cynical, Bond can be of his own job.

Well, that’s it for Part I. Is there anything you miss in the movies, or which you think might be better in a novel?

36 thoughts on “007 Chatter: (Ian) Fleming’s Bond – The James Bond of the original novels compared to the 007 movies Part 1

  1. Ted S.

    Great article Marcus, I’ve read most of the Bond novels and I totally in agreement. There were things that worked in the books that are hard to convey onto the screen but I wish they tried. I understand back in the days, audiences wanted to see a superhuman and cartoonish type of Bond so of course when Dalton’s films came out, most didn’t care for it. It’s really too bad because Dalton really embodied what Flemings wrote in his books.

    Looking forward to reading part 2 of this.

    1. This post really makes me want to check out Fleming’s novels. You already know how I feel about Dalton Ted, and even without reading the books, I guess I’ve always preferred his Bond style 🙂

  2. Wonderful post and a great look at the source novels. Certainly, the film adaptations took advantage of the visual medium motion pictures offered (more bathing suits and eye-candy). Yet, what Ian Fleming achieved with this character shouldn’t be missed by Bond film fans. Well done and I look forward to the next part, Marcus.

    Ruth: as a suggestion to you (and anyone else), given that getting the time to sit down and read one of these novels may be problematic, to check out the audiobooks. As part of Bond’s 50th year anniversary, two audiobook publishers put out new releases of these this year. Blackstone Audio suited up the stellar Simon Vance to narrate the whole series (also available at Audible). In the UK, AudioGo tasked narration duties across a number of notable Brit actors. Something to think about, if you or anyone else is interested in reading the original work.


    1. Great suggestion Michael! My friend Becky actually has a few of the audio books that Rufus Sewell narrated I think. Thanks for the links, I’d have to check those out. It’d be nice if the Bond actors actually narrate some of the books too, esp. Dalton who actually has a second career in VO work.

      1. The Rufus Sewell versions are highly abridged. Only 2.5 hours in contrast to 7-8+ hours unabridged. Sewell has a good voice and I like him as an actor, but why did they reduce the novels by 70% or more?

        BBC Radio 4 broadcast an abridged version of “You Only Live Twice”. I think it was around 1.5 hours? The problem is you are left with mainly plot. Most of the engaging writing and charm are lost by so much reduction.

        I would also recommend the BBC’s new unabridged versions under the Audiogo label.

        1. Oh I didn’t know the Sewell books were the abridged versions. Wow, 70% cut is crazy, I mean they must have to alter the plot significantly. Good to know then if I decide to go into these audio books.

    2. The BBC’s AudioGo recordings are good. I got Hugh Bonneville’s reading of Goldfinger a few weeks ago and really enjoyed it. I like the fact they got a different actor for each book. The short stories are missing from their collection though. I only know The Living Daylights, so I may turn to the Simon Vance readings for the short stories. Thanks for mentioning those.

    3. PrairieGirl

      Yes, I actually have all 13 Bond audiobooks narrated by Rufus Sewell, but have barely scratched the surface of them… I’m now inspired to truly listen soon! I had no idea they were abridged though. I don’t know how the other versions are narrated, but Ruf adds a delightful twist to his reading in that he uses a different voice for each character, accents and all. Not sure how he comes across when a woman is speaking (lol)… I haven’t gotten that far yet ;-D

      1. The Simon Vance versions (Blackstone Audio) are rated pretty highly. I’m biased, though. SV is one of my favorite audiobook narrators (he performed the Millennium series — The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo — wonderfully).

    1. Hi Fogs, me neither man, but I’m intrigued now since Marcus and Michael have illuminated me. Ted has mentioned them too, so I feel like as a massive Bond fan I should at least give a few of those books a try 🙂

  3. Hi, Ruth and company:

    Great write up!

    What was cool about James Bond, as written and described by Fleming. What the fact that he was a bastard. Somewhat polished, though not to the high luster of Connery, Moore, Daltion and Brosnan. More of WWII veteran, Cold War soldier, like Ross Thomas’ Mike Padillio, Jack Higgins’ Liam Devlin, Paul Chavasse and Donald Hamilton’s Matt Helm.

    Ready and well equipped to do violence. Yet constantly aware of getting information and creating allies by getting close to the bad guy’s girlfriend. These qualities were brought to the fore in ‘Dr. No’, ‘From Russian with Love’ and ‘Thunderball’.

    1. Hello Jack, he’s the world most beloved bastard then, ahah. I guess it’s necessary in his business, when he could get killed at any moment, y’know. Interesting that you compare him to a WWII vet, I never thought of that before but yeah, I could see that.

      1. Hi, Ruth:

        I guess it’s part of the times when I was a kid and Bond hit America. The very early 1960s. The Cold War began unofficially the day after WWII ended in Europe and expanded even more after Japan fell. So there was a solid decade for story and character creation and telling.

        The logical warriors in this unofficial war would be Office of Strategic Services (OSS. Forerunner of CIA) types from the US. And Special Operations Executive (SOE) in the UK.

        Bond, as originally written was Royal Navy. With special experience in small boats, underwater operations and submarines. A natural choice.

        As was Thomas’ Mike Padillo as a former OSS type with French Resistance experience in WWII. And Hamilton’s Matt Helm. Who shared Padillo’s pedigree as an OSS ‘Jedburgh’ and was just as ruthless.

    2. Hmm, Matt Helm, I only remember seeing him played by Dean Martin in an old TV series. He had this bachelor pad full of gadgets. Complete with a big round bed, which could move to the bath and tip him in it, if I remember correctly?

      Fleming’s Bond is not a superficial bastard though. He plays it rough, but he’s got quite a soft spot for humanity inside.

      1. Hi, Marcus:

        Good catch on Matt Helm.

        Originally written by Donald Hamilton, Matt Helm was far more aggressive than Dean Martin’s character and a heck of a lot less reliant upon gizmos in dire situations.

        I think Hollywood was cashing in on the Bond craze with James Coburn as Derek Flint and tapped Mr. Martin for Helm. A role that was written and tailor made for Christopher George (‘El Dorado’, ‘The Rat Patrol’, etc).

        The character of Matt Helm returned later in television. With Anthony Franciosa playing Helm as a private investigator in L.A. for ABC. Lasting a full season of 14 episodes back in 1975-76.

  4. I’m not overly familiar with the Bond novels so this makes for a fascinating read. There has always been a sort of bridge between what is going on in the films – death, destruction etc. – and Bond’s emotions. Indeed, there is a distinct lack of depth to his character in all representations beyond the rudimentary – his charm and sophistication for instance. But i do wonder if the films hadnt created this wise-cracking superhero whether we would be about to see movie 23. I’m thinking probably not.

    1. Hi Dan, I’d say most big-budget mainstream action movies need to simplify characters, make them superheroes who “get the girl”. That’s what will make the most at the box office.

      Novels, and fictional writing in general, are the least expensive art form to produce so there’s less risk. Today you can self-publish a novel for $1,000 in the same quality as a publishing house, if you don’t count the writer’s time. Movies like Bond are now in the 100+ million dollar arena. More risk means they have to play it safe.

  5. Thunderball introduced Ernst Stavros Blofeld and the criminal organization SPECTRE [Special Executive for Counter-Intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion]; by the time the film version had come out, the group had been mentioned in the earlier Bond films such as Dr. No, although they were not part of the novels.

  6. I do miss the access to Bond’s thoughts in the movies. In the books, they are the source of much exposition and much hilarity. In the films, sometimes his thoughts are translated into dialogue, but they then have a different effect. I think Thunderball is my favorite of the books. It has a line something like, “Bond thought tea was nasty weak stuff that had brought on the fall of an empire.” I laughed though, I love tea 😉

    1. Yes, Fleming is always making amusing remarks on cultural things. I think the tea remark is in Goldfinger too. It’s what makes “You Only Live Twice” interesting with it’s near 100 pages on Japanese and British cultural differences.

  7. With the 50th anniversary of the first Bond movie and the release of Skyfall, 2012 is a big year for 007. As a fan of the movies (especially the Connery and Craig iterations), I’d always wondered what the books were like. So, this summer I decided to read all of the original Fleming Bond novels. Like their cinematic counterparts, they vary wildly in quality; the best of them are fantastic and the worst of them range from being a chore to being more than a little offensive.

  8. Thunderball introduced Ernst Stavros Blofeld and the criminal organization SPECTRE [Special Executive for Counter-Intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion]; by the time the film version had come out, the group had been mentioned in the earlier Bond films such as Dr. No, although they were not part of the novels.

  9. I love the character arc in the novels, where Bond goes from a tough guy who outlasts his enemies to a broken man who is brainwashed into trying to kill M. Nice article, and insightful comments about how the books compare favorably to the movies.

  10. Pingback: #3 Goldfinger – Lisa Malone Writes

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