Monday, August 11, 2008

You don’t know Bond - Thunderball (Novel)

I really got into James Bond in the early 90's. I think it had something to do with the hype surrounding "Goldeneye", but I'm not sure I really remember. I had seen some James Bond movies, but they never completely pulled me in. But around the 90's it became my mission to watch all the James Bond films up to "Goldeneye" and in order no less. I did it and it was a lot of fun. A few of my coworkers at the video store also got into the movies and we often discussed our favorite James Bond films and actors. See what happens when throw a bunch of movie geeks together!

I determined at that time that my favorite Sean Connery James Bond film was "Thunderball". Sure lots of people say "Goldfinger" is superior, and you can argue it till the cows come home (where did those bovines get to anyway?). For me, this is the perfect retro-fun Bond film for a summer day, and it gets yearly play at my house, much to my wife's chagrin (she's not a Connery Bond fan).

It took me a while to get my hands on the actual Bond novels by Ian Fleming. For the longest time they were out of print in the US. I actually picked up four of them when I was in England and have the snazzy British covers. I grabbed "Thunderball" because of my fondness for the film - and boy was I surprised. This isn't James Bond as I knew him. Of course it was foolish of me to think that the movies didn't change things here and there, but for the character to be so different - well it was a shock.

As a novel, "Thunderball" is solid entertainment. The movie follows the book pretty well, but actually makes some plot changes that smooth out some of the rough edges of the book For example, in the novel, Bond is sent to the Shrublands spa because M is on a crazy health kick. He encounters the dangerous Count Lippe there, but the only reason Lippe is at the spa is so he can mail the ransom note from SPECTRE. The movie actually makes the spa a staging ground for the whole theft of the bomber. This allows Bond to be closer to the action than he knew, and it makes sense to use the spa as the staging ground with the agent recovering from his plastic surgery there.

The book has a very dry British sense of humor, one that is counter to most of the goofy humor seen in the Bond series (mostly in the 70's with Roger Moore's take on the character). The opening is especially funny with Bond aghast at M's obsession with health. The Bond of the novels is a hard drinker, frequent smoker and a man who doesn't care about his personal health, only because it doesn't make sense to - he's probably going to get killed on his next mission. He might as well live it up. Bond's reactions to the spa treatment and the fact that he actually does feel better after it's completed are well written and amusing.

The novel also spends lots of time describing the SPECTRE agency and it's leader Blofeld. A whole chapter is dedicated to Blofeld and his history. This is interesting stuff, but in the scheme of things, it doesn't fit into the story so much. Blofeld isn't the direct menace in the novel - that goes to Largo. As a whole, all the characters are much better developed in the novel. I especially liked the personality of Domino, the lovely and ultimately trapped woman. Her dialogue with Bond and discussion of the picture on a pack of cigarettes gives us a clear insight to her, and makes the ending a bit of a rough one.

It was the portrait of James Bond that was most remarkable. He was much more realistic in the novel. He's a damaged man, one that really doesn't like his job, but at the same time is too good at it to do anything else. He is a predator that dislikes the kill. It's a strange contradiction and it makes him much more interesting than most of the film incarnations. He is lucky and will use his luck to his advantage whenever he can. He also makes mistakes and pays for them, or worse someone else pays for them. There is an undercurrent of anger to him, and it's something that really came through in Timothy Dalton's portrayal of the character.

Of course the movies are always a different beast. James Bond is synonymous with escapism and fun. A serious, angry and cold character is not going to appeal to the summer crowds. And so James Bond adapted for the times and for the films. Connery plays him with an edge, no doubt about that, and it's especially there in "From Russia with Love", but for my money only Dalton has really matched the portrayal of James Bond as he is in the books.

Outside of the fun of comparing the two stories in different media, the book is a good summer read. Fleming doesn't move the story along too quickly, but he does create some great moments of intrigue and action. Really the last third of the book has the most action, with the rest of the novel working as a casual lead in. The pace picks up at the halfway point, but only a bit, What's interesting is that the movie has the same problem. The novel is not the best of Fleming's Bond books - check out "From Russia with Love" or "On Her Majesty's Secret Service" for those, but "Thunderball" is still a good time.

Have you had a chance to read Fleming's Bond novels? Do you think such a major change of character was needed from the novel to the film version of James Bond? Do you have a favorite Bond film? Why do you like it so much?

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