Tuesday, June 30, 2009

James Bond Grows Up – On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (novel)

Continuing in the same vein that I covered in my blog on the novel version of “Thunderball”, I was a bit surprised in revisiting this novel how much different the James Bond here is, from the one presented in the movies. The novels are much more realistic (as realistic as Bond can get), and the character of James Bond actually drives the stories. In the movies, Bond is more of a cipher, a stock heroic character with very little character arc. This has changed a bit with the Daniel Craig films, but for the first 20 movies, Bond was pretty much Bond. Nothing new to report.

In the novels things took a different turn, especially in the final series of books. Starting with “Thunderball”, James Bond is a man who’s starting to feel the wear and tear of his job. When “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” (called OHMSS from now on) starts this weariness has doubled. He’s searching for the criminal mastermind Bloefeld and has had no luck at all dragging the villain up. The main espionage arc of the story follows Bond as he discovers a clue, goes under cover, discovers Bloefeld’s hideout and some clues, is exposed, barely escapes, and then with the help of M and other government officials pieces together the plot. The final act is to stage an all out attack on Bloefeld’s lair and stop the plot from coming to fruition. Sounds like typical James Bond.

But linked with this is another story line. James Bond meets a woman named Tracy. She’s on a self destructive terror across France when she passes him speeding along the narrow and winding streets of a provincial town. After a series of encounters with Tracy, Bond begins to find himself protective of her, dangerously so. He begins to actually think about a life beyond the secret service and one that would be spent with Tracy. Of course his quest for Blofeld intervenes and Bond puts things on hold with Tracy until he can sort the whole mess out.

Yes, we actually have James Bond in love. This love actually ends up coloring some of his experiences during his mission. He does his best to focus on his task, but he can’t help but think about Tracy and their lives together when this is done. Does this cause Bond to make a critical mistake? Well you’ll have to read the book to find out (or see the movie, which is actually pretty close to the book in story structure).

The character of James Bond really drives OHMSS, even more so than it did with “Thunderball”. We get to see more about this man, and how his job affects his life. This sets things up for the conclusion that is one of the most memorable in the entire franchise. The next book, “You Only Live Twice” takes James Bond into the very blackest of pits. Death looms large in that next book and it’s a direct reflection of the events of OHMSS. For me, this is probably my favorite James Bond novel, and most of that is due to the intriguing character of Tracy, and the actual change that takes place for Bond. The adventure parts aren’t bad either, and together it makes OHMSS a solid read.

Do you think a character like James Bond can be more than a cipher in the movies? Or is this something that only works in the novels? What did you think of the story of OHMSS (the movie or the novel)? Do you have a favorite Bond novel?

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