A spoiler lies ahead for Spectre
Over the course of 11 years, Ian Fleming wrote 12 James Bond novels and nine short stories before his death in 1964, forming the basis for the film series which survives to the present day. 24 films and 55 years since the birth of the cinematic Bond, it might come as a surprise that the franchise hasn’t completely exhausted its source material. More often than not, however, the James Bond films have been adaptations in name only.
Starting with Roald Dahl’s outlandish screenplay for the fifth Bond film, You Only Live Twice, the film scripts began to drift away from their literary inspirations. For most of Roger Moore’s seven-film tenure, for example, entire plots and characters were omitted in the transition from page to screen. Fortunately, this has left an abundance of material ripe for translation into new adventures for the filmic Bond.
In recent years, the Bond films have made a concerted effort to return to their literary roots.
Martin Campbell’s 2006 reboot, Casino Royale, was a refreshingly faithful update of Fleming’s first Bond novel, and subsequent films have incorporated additional elements from the books. Skyfall introduced screen audiences to parts of Bond’s childhood and his upbringing in Scotland, previously found in the pages of You Only Live Twice. The character of Hannes Oberhauser, Bond’s skiing instructor mentioned in Spectre, was taken from the short story Octopussy (the peculiar decision to turn this minor character into the father of criminal mastermind Ernst Stavro Blofeld was, typically, an invention for the screen). With this trend in mind, there are a number of other stories from which future screenwriters could take inspiration.
What’s in a name?
The first and most obvious element to consider is the title. Until 1989’s Licence To Kill, the official Bond films all borrowed their titles from an existing novel or short story. Since then, inspiration has often been drawn from elsewhere in Fleming’s work and life. Goldeneye was named for the author’s Jamaica home where he wrote much of his material, while The World Is Not Enough was the literary Bond’s family motto, previously referenced in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Spectre took the name of the villainous organization first revealed in the novel Thunderball, originally an acronym for ‘Special Executive for Counter-intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge, and Extortion’. Only Casino Royale and Quantum Of Solace bucked the trend by taking their names from a Fleming novel and short story respectively.
A few Fleming titles remain unused, all of which are short stories: Risico, The Property Of A Lady, The Hildebrand Rarity, and 007 In New York. Of the bunch, Risico is probably the most feasible – make it the name of the villain or his organisation/plan/superweapon and we’re in business. The Property Of A Lady could work, but it’s a name that doesn’t quite meet the expectations of a modern action-thriller. Likewise, The Hildebrand Rarity is a little obscure, and Hildebrand was already used as the name of an MI6 safe house in Spectre. I would say it’s safe to count out 007 In New York entirely, but then again, I didn’t expect them to release a film called Quantum Of Solace, so who knows what could happen.
You Only Live Twice: Welcome to Japan, Mr Bond
Of the material left over from the books, the plot from Fleming’s You Only Live Twice is probably the most appropriate for a modern reworking. In this story, set months after the murder of his wife at the hands of Blofeld, Bond’s grief has driven him to even greater excesses of gambling and alcoholism (if that were possible). Concerned about his performance and wellbeing, M dispatches Bond to Japan on a diplomatic function. There, he is tasked by the Japanese Secret Service with assassinating the mysterious Dr. Guntram Shatterhand, whom Bond identifies as Blofeld in disguise. 007 infiltrates the villain’s reclusive castle residence, which is surrounded by a deadly ‘Garden of Death’, and defeats his nemesis by strangling the life from him.
What makes this story so opportune for a screen adaptation is that it would make an excellent conclusion to the story arch of Daniel Craig’s James Bond. 2015’s Spectre ended with Christoph Waltz’s Blofeld alive and in British custody, while Bond appeared to turn his back on a life of violence. Perhaps the film could open with an audacious escape by Blofeld, enticing Craig’s reluctant 007 to return to the fray once more. Bond would trace the fugitive to a Japanese hideout, with the final confrontation playing out as in the novel. If they need an original title, then Blofeld’s alias, Shatterhand, is as good as any of recent years.
As an interesting aside, the ending of Fleming’s You Only Live Twice features Bond stricken with amnesia following his escape from Blofeld’s headquarters. Unaware of his identity, Bond lives as a Japanese fisherman and impregnates his lover, Kissy Suzuki, before heading to Russia in a desperate attempt to uncover his past. This conclusion would probably be too bold a step for the Bond film franchise, while the amnesia plot device may be a little cliché in a post-Bourne world. Nevertheless, it’s something to consider if they wanted to end the story on a dark and unexpected note.
Moonraker: Nuclear warheads on the English countryside
Moonraker is another novel deserving of a faithful adaptation (the 1979 film version jettisoned the original plot in favor of sending Bond into space, with only the villain’s name staying the same). Admittedly, this story is a less natural fit for our expectations of the screen Bond; exotic locations are missing in favour of the southern English coast, while the plot hinges on an ex-Nazi scientist redirecting an experimental nuclear missile towards London.
The narrative kicks off with an oddly personal request from M. The MI6 chief suspects that another member of the Blades Gentlemen’s Club, Sir Hugo Drax, is cheating at cards, and asks Bond to find out the truth. This apparently innocuous inquiry leads Bond to investigate Drax’s Moonraker missile project near Dover, where it is discovered that Drax is a former Nazi commando working in league with the Soviets. The book’s heroine, Special Branch agent Gala Brand, has also never been portrayed in the film series. Her character has the unique distinction of rejecting Bond’s advances at the end of the novel, revealing herself to be already engaged to a colleague.
With a little embellishment, Moonraker could easily be revised into a modern story playing on contemporary fears of Britain’s nuclear capability and the Trident program. Then again, if they ever decide to go ahead with a one-off Bond adventure set in the fifties, then a fully-fledged version of Moonraker would surely be a no-brainer.
The Man With The Golden Gun: Bond meets the war on drugs
Fleming’s The Man With The Golden Gun features plot elements which could be similarly adapted for modern-day concerns. Christopher Lee’s portrayal of Francisco Scaramanga in the 1974 film adaptation is rightly remembered as a classic Bond villain, but his performance was actually a tremendous departure from the character in the novel. Fleming’s Scaramanga is an uncouth thug and a stooge for more powerful criminals, unlike the refined, independent personality of Lee’s interpretation.
The book version of The Man With The Golden Gun is also set primarily in Jamaica, rather than the South-East Asian setting of the film (a concession to the kung-fu movies that were popular at the time). In the original story, Bond faces a syndicate of American Gangsters and Soviet KGB agents, bent on destabilising western economic interests in the Caribbean and central America. Among the villains’ schemes are efforts to inflate the price of Cuban sugar and smuggle narcotics and prostitutes into the United States. After going undercover with CIA agent Felix Leiter, 007 eventually thwarts their operation, while Scaramanga himself is shot dead in a climactic duel.
Although The Man With The Golden Gun would have to be necessarily reworked for a post-Cold War world, a new Bond adventure set in this part of the globe could place Bond within the ongoing ‘war on drugs’. This murky realm of drug cartels on the US-Mexican border was recently explored in Denis Villeneuve’s excellent crime-thriller, Sicario, and would provide an unorthodox environment for James Bond.
Bits and pieces
Beyond broad story outlines, there are also a number of specific sequences from the Fleming novels which are yet to be put to film. The following are just a few scenes which I’ve always believed to hold untapped cinematic potential, if they could only be worked into an original story.
From A View To A Kill, the short story which gave its title, but nothing else, to the 1985 film A View To A Kill, features an exciting sequence in which a British army motorcyclist is assassinated at high-speed by an enemy agent. Bond later avoids a similar fate by outmanoeuvring the killer.
Casino Royale contains a similarly tense moment in which Bond has a hidden gun pointed at his spine during a high-stakes game of baccarat (this was actually filmed for the 1954 American TV version of Casino Royale, which starred Barry Nelson as ‘Jimmy’ Bond).
The increased violence of recent films also brings to mind some of Fleming’s more brutal moments. A visceral torture scene from Diamonds Are Forever has Bond trampled by thugs in studded football boots. He subsequently commandeers a push-car and escapes along a disused railway line.
Lastly, in Dr. No, Bond is captured by the titular villain and put through a series of physical trials, including a cage of poisonous spiders and an admittedly preposterous fight with a giant squid. It’s an intense and often squeamish passage which was dropped from the original film thanks to budgetary constraints.
Bond beyond Fleming
Evidently, the 007 source material still holds a lot of potential for the world’s longest-running film franchise. And it’s not just Fleming’s stories which can be plundered for the screen. There also exists a vast array of ‘continuations novels’, written by other authors after Fleming’s death, from which the Bond writers may take inspiration. Indeed, the drill-based torture sequence from Spectre was adapted almost verbatim from a scene in Kingsley Amis’ 1968 Bond novel, Colonel Sun. Having hardly read these works, I couldn’t comment any further on their suitability for the cinematic Bond. But at the very least, Sebastian Faulks’ Devil May Care would be a cracking title for a future instalment.
Nevertheless, it remains my maxim that if Casino Royale taught us anything, it’s this; when in doubt, go to Fleming. The very best James Bond films are those that root their tone and characters most closely to the original source material. As blockbuster film franchises, Bond included, continue to rely on characters and ideas which we’ve seen before, perhaps it’s time to capture some of the stories we missed on the first time around.