No Time to Die Is the Best You Only Live Twice Adaptation

We examine how No Time to Die quietly adapts Ian Fleming’s You Only Live Twice better than the Sean Connery James Bond movie.

Sean Connery in You Only Live Twice, Daniel Craig in Bond
Photo: MGM / Eon Productions

This article contains No Time to Die spoilers.

When Queen Elizabeth II attended the world premiere of You Only Live Twice, the fifth James Bond picture produced by Cubby Broccoli and Harry Saltzman, and the fifth to star the then one and only James Bond, Sean Connery, the monarch allegedly asked the actor if the rumors were true: was this really his last 007 adventure? Connery is reported to have replied back, “Yes, Your Majesty, I’m done.”

It seemed unfathomable at the time that Connery would walk away from such a beloved and internationally renowned role at the height of the character’s popularity. After all, just two years earlier Thunderball had become the biggest movie ever, and Broccoli and Saltzman capitalized on the character’s increasingly global appeal by immediately putting into production the latest published Ian Fleming novel, 1964’s You Only Live Twice. It’s the story that saw Bond travel to exotic Japan to have a worldly—if, to put it mildly, problematic—adventure. Given Bond’s growing popularity with Japanese audiences, it seemed like the perfect time to take Connery to the land of the Rising Sun. And while they were there, the producers could inject grand ideas intended to match spectacles like the jetpack at the beginning of Thunderball and the Aston Martin DB5 featuring an ejector seat in Goldfinger (1964).

The result was a madcap adventure complete with hollowed out volcano lairs, helicopters that could be folded into little more than a suitcase, and a plot involving highjacked American and Russian space shuttles. It proved to be a wild success. Yet given the unmistakable boredom on Connery’s face, you could tell he’d had enough, and perhaps for good reason. The actor who introduced Bond as a glamorous but vaguely believable government man only five years earlier in Dr. No (1962) was now playing a cartoon character who’d fit right in to our modern era’s Marvel Cinematic Universe. Between that and a growing disagreement over compensation with the producers, Connery was finished. For a time, anyway.

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Which is a shame, because the literary You Only Live Twice had relatively little to do with the cinematic kitsch audiences got on the big screen. While the ’67 movie is a camp classic in its own right, and features a memorable Nancy Sinatra ballad composed by John Barry, the fact that Broccoli and Saltzman set out to treat it as an empty piece of escapist fluff robbed them of the chance to really explore one of Fleming’s darker and more melancholic works. Along with the choice of adapting it before the events of the subsequent film, 1969’s cinematic On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (based on the 1963 novel which preceded YOLT on the page), feels like a wasted opportunity for both the series and what was supposed to be the end of Connery’s tenure.

It would seem the current stewards of the Bond franchise, Eon’s Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson, might agree since No Time to Die, the latest James Bond movie, marked the end of star Daniel Craig‘s own five-film run with the character by covertly adapting Fleming’s most elegiac novel: You Only Live Twice.

The End of James Bond

When I first saw No Time to Die in theaters, I was taken by how much of the film attempted to revisit and re-contextualize the events of OHMSS, the sixth Bond flick and the lone entry to star George Lazenby. By design that 1969 picture was meant to be a departure for the Bond franchise, complete with a tonal reboot that returned to Fleming’s more character-driven literary vision of 007. It also adapted one of Fleming’s best books where Bond would fall in love, get married, and then see his wife killed on their wedding day.

Given that film’s poor box office performance, and the hasty return of Connery to the tuxedo, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service’s cliffhanger ending was mostly swept under the rug and ignored for many years to come. But in retrospect, perhaps Eon always set itself up for (commercial) failure. OHMSS was the first novel in which Bond and Enrst Stavro Blofeld met face-to-face; it was the story where their rivalry became brutally personal; and it’s the book in which Blofeld kills James’ wife. The film similarly tries to replicate all these elements… even though a different Bond (Connery) and a different Blofeld (Donald Pleasence) had already locked horns on-screen in YOLT two years prior.

That baffling continuity error is due to the producers adapting the books in a reverse order. And in addition to leaving OHMSS in an awkward narrative place, it also robbed YOLT of its power since the best elements of that book are about Fleming’s 007 grappling with his own despair and trauma in the aftermath of losing Contessa Teresa di Vicenzo (Tracy Bond). In its own way, You Only Live Twice reads like the final James Bond novel—which it perhaps should have been given the only other subsequent Fleming novel, The Man with the Golden Gun, was published posthumously and unfinished following the author’s death in 1964.

When Fleming wrote You Only Live Twice, the writer was in an increasingly melancholic place in his own right. His health had been deteriorating through the early ‘60s, and his marriage to Ann Fleming grew increasingly strained, with both parties pursuing affairs, and Ann expressing a general disdain for Fleming’s tawdry literary creation. And as with much else in his life, Fleming’s personal interests and background influenced the biography of his fictional alter-ego, Commander James Bond.

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If OHMSS was a serious attempt by Fleming to develop the personal psychology of 007, with the secret agent feeling the weight of midlife ennui and the desire to finally settle down, You Only Live Twice reintroduces the character in a darker place where the shadow of death hangs over him.

After an early chapter that introduces Bond in a geisha house in Japan, still trying to drink his way back to normalcy, the book jumps back a few months to reveal Bond was at the end of his rope as M sends him to Japan. Indeed, we meet M before Bond in the London chapters, with the MI6 head coldly surmising he should retire 007.

“He’s going slowly to pieces,” M complains to MI6’s unofficial psychiatrist. “Late at the office. Skips his work. Makes mistakes. He’s drinking too much and losing a lot of money at one of these new gambling clubs. It all adds up to the fact that one of my best men is on the edge of becoming a security risk.” He concludes he’ll fire him until the doc convinces him that Bond is still grieving and that he needs an “impossible mission” to get him out of his own head.

We subsequently read of Bond’s own self-loathing in the year after Tracy’s death. He’s reintroduced as sitting at a park when he should be at work, and then feebly stumbling into his superior’s office. Here is how Fleming writes the beginning of M and Bond’s only actual exchange in the book.

“M., his shoulders hunched inside the square-cut blue suit, was standing by the big window looking out across the park. Without looking round he said, ‘Sit down.’ No name, no number! Bond took his usual place across the desk from M.’s tall-armed chair. He noticed that there was no file on the expanse of  red leather in front of the chair. And the In and Out baskets were both empty. Suddenly he felt really bad about everything—about letting M. down, letting the Service down, letting himself down. The empty desk, the empty chair, were the final accusation. We have nothing left for you, they seemed to say. You’re no use to us any more. Sorry. It’s been nice knowing you, but there it is.”

This is a far cry from the usually self-satisfied and hyper masculine 007 we meet at the beginning of most books and films. Of course M doesn’t fire the emasculated Bond though; he sends him off to Japan on a diplomatic goose chase.

Admittedly, much of the novel at this point becomes a travelogue with Fleming again writing variations about his own adventures, and turning fellow journalist pals like the Australian Richard Hughes and Japanese Tiger Saito into fictional espionage spooks from their respective countries via characters called Dikko Henderson and Tiger Tanaka. They drink Saki, argue over antiquated ideas about why the British Empire should not give up its colonies, and generally have a picturesque tour of Japan.

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Through it all, however, is Bond’s own thawing rise from his languor. And it’s not realizing the unlikely turn of fate which has allowed Blofeld to also be in Japan which shakes him out of his apathy; it’s living the “simple” (and exoticized) life of a Japanese fisherman with the beautiful Kissy Suzkui which brings him out of his doldrums. Part of his cover in-country involves the dubious (and uncomfortable) idea that he can dye his skin to look like a Japanese man. Still, while living in a provincial fishing village on a remote island, he finds peace.

He also finds a path toward reaching Blofeld, who has commandeered an ancient Japanese castle on a nearby island where he’s built a “Garden of Death” designed to attract the suicide-prone portion of Japan’s population to their gruesome ends. Frankly, the plot is somewhat nonsensical and loses the thread of tracking Bond’s sadness and need for revenge in the middle, but at the end of the day, it is about Bond facing his own mortality—and making Blofeld face his.

No Time to Die and the Garden of Death

When Craig announced he would, in fact, do a fifth and final James Bond picture, many correctly speculated it would return to Fleming and OHMSS for inspiration. This was based on how Craig’s Bond finished Spectre (2015) by settling down with Madeleine Swann (Léa Seydoux). As it turns out, No Time to Die did explore those elements in a modern context when it came to developing the couple’s relationship and its ill-fated honeymoon in Italy. However, when it came to bringing closure to Bond himself, the producers and screenwriters clearly pivoted toward You Only Live Twice.

No Time to Die’s extended pre-titles sequences acts as a lengthy reversal of the ending moments of OHMSS. A relationship built in haste between Bond and the daughter of a man of violence is able to blossom a little longer than Bond’s literary marriage to Tracy, but it still quickly disintegrates given 007’s extensive trust issues. While Madeleine does not die, she is still separated from James due to how Blofeld (Christoph Waltz) exploits his insecurities.

For much of the rest of the film, Bond thus becomes a ghost of his former self. When we meet him five years later on-screen, he’s settled down in Fleming’s real-life slice of paradise, Jamaica. There he lives an austere and lonely, life. He’s introduced as spending his days fishing out at sea and not doing much else—which is where Bond finds his only bit of solace in You Only Live Twice, albeit in a happier context as he goes out with deep sea diver Kissy Suzuki.

We soon find how far off the grid Bond has fallen, however, when his superiors at MI6, especially Ralph Fiennes’ more bureaucratic version of the new M, reveal they believed Bond was dead. Indeed, Craig and Fiennes’ first face-to-face scene together vaguely resembles YOLT, save Bond shows outright disdain instead of self-pity toward M’s dismissiveness (in keeping with Craig’s interpretation of the character). As with the book, M initially refuses to call him “007” or “James.” He simply refers to him as “Bond,” while Craig snarks, “Has the desk gotten bigger or have you gotten smaller? … No, it’s definitely the same desk.”

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Where No Time to Die takes its biggest inspirations from You Only Live Twice is in how it ends things—and thereby how it ends James Bond and the ugly world he’s carved out for himself. Like in the new movie, Bond is there when Blofeld dies in the book. Hell, 007 kills him with his barehands. As Fleming wrote:

“The boss of Blofeld’s sword battered into Bond’s side. Bond hardly felt the crashing blows. He pressed with his thumbs, and pressed and pressed and heard the sword clang to the floor and felt Blofeld’s fingers and nails tearing at his face, trying to reach his eyes. Bond whispered through his gritted teeth, ‘Die, Blofeld! Die!’ And suddenly the tongue was out and the eyes rolled upwards and the body slipped to the ground.”

While the technical plot reason of Blofeld’s death in No Time to Die involves nanobots in Bond’s DNA spreading to Blofeld’s via Bond’s hands touching Ernst’s throat, the scene is still a recreation of that visceral hatred and desperate need for revenge which has consumed Bond. It’s also an element that both the cinematic fallout of OHMSS and even Craig’s own post-Casino Royale turn in Quantum of Solace were denied. Here we see what a bloodthirsty Bond who’s lost all ounce of self-control and composure looks like, and Craig makes a small meal out of the hissed line of “Die, Blofeld, DIE!” as Bond begins to squeeze.

Granted, Blofeld isn’t the main villain of No Time to Die. That would be Rami Malek’s Lyutsifer Safin. However, even if he is not the head of SPECTRE, he sure acts like it. After all, what is his home base—an island off the coast of Japan in the new movie—if not You Only Live Twice’s poison garden given the Bond franchise treatment?

In the book, Blofeld’s Garden of Death is comprised of countless deadly plants which have overgrown across the island, as well as poisonous snakes, scorpions, and a shimmering lake with piranha lying in wait beneath the surface. There are (thankfully) no piranha in No Time to Die, but Malek’s Safin is giddy while walking Madeleine and James’ daughter, Mathilde (Lisa-Dorah Sonnett), through a literal garden of poisonous plants and vegetation. And though there are no man-eating fish in the waters of Safin’s garden, you certainly don’t want to go for a bath in some of those waters without a hazmat suit.

Even Safin’s muddled justifications for his plan of worldwide eugenics resembles You Only Live Twice’s Blofeld. In the movie, Malek creepily monotones, “We both eradicate people to make the world a better place. I just want to be a little… tidier.” This echoes Blofeld’s own justifications to Bond. On the page, 007 muses to himself that Blofeld is becoming unhinged and increasingly sounding like Hitler now that he’s been forced to flee to Japan. When Bond dismisses Blofeld’s claims that his actions are helping cull Japan’s unwanted populace, and points out he saw Blofeld’s men feed one farmer to the lake of piranha, Blofeld shrugs, “Tidying up, Mister Bond. Tidying up. That man came here wishing to die. What you saw was only helping a weak man to his seat on the boat across the Styx.”

As with many of the villains in Fleming’s novels, Blofeld is a cartoonish approximation of the terrifyingly real megalomania that drove the Third Reich: the enemies who consumed Fleming’s personal history in espionage in Britain’s Naval Intelligence Division during the Second World War. Or as Craig’s Bond tells Safin, “You’re standing in a long line of angry little men.”

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The End of Daniel Craig’s James Bond

While Fleming ultimately wrote himself an out in You Only Live Twice, the actual ending of YOLT still functions as an epilogue for James Bond’s life.

After Bond kills Blofeld, he sets up the fiend’s castle to explode. Bond then escapes via hot air balloon. But afterward, due to wounds he endured in his final duel with Blofeld and a precipitous fall from the balloon into the Japanese sea below, James has developed a severe case of amnesia. Deciding to keep Bond for herself, Kissy, who rescues Bond from drowning, chooses not to tell the man who would be 007 that he’s a secret agent. Rather she lets him carry on happily as her lover in a small Japanese fishing village. She even becomes pregnant with his child.

In the meanwhile, MI6 assumes Bond is dead, and M publishes a glowing obituary for the late naval commander in The Sunday Times (the actual newspaper Fleming worked at as a columnist). In the final post-script of the obit, Bond’s personal secretary Mary Goodnight—who is more like the cinematic Moneypenny than the literary version of that character—writes this about her favorite co-worker: “If indeed our fears for him are justified, may I suggest these simple words for his epitaph? Many of the junior staff here feel they represent his philosophy: ‘I shall not waste my days in trying to prolong them. I shall use my time.’”

This is a quote from one of Fleming’s favorite American authors, Jack London, who is said to have repeatedly told friends this creed just two months before his death in 1916. When Fleming wrote YOLT, he too was aware of his failing health as well as doctors’ insistence he eliminate his vices of smoke and drink (an order he adamantly ignored). While he couldn’t bring himself to kill off his literary creation, he seemed to be writing his own obituary through him on the page. In fact, much of Bond’s personal background in the obit, from being kicked out of Eton College to studying in Switzerland, comes from Fleming’s own lived experiences.

No Time to Die, by contrast, ends Bond’s life for real on-screen. Realizing if he saved himself he’d likely doom his daughter and ostensible wife, this 007 chooses to die in the explosion which will destroy Safin’s island (which, by the by, sure looks like a volcano from above). After Bond’s death, M is the one to quote Jack London’s credo in full while eulogizing the Commander Bond among MI6 staff.

Bond did live on past YOLT on the page. He even eventually leaves his idyllic happiness with Kissy to discover who he really was—causing her (much like Madeleine in No Time to Die) to not tell Bond she’s pregnant with his child. But in No Time to Die, Craig and company decided to use the opportunity, and Fleming’s books, to give a definitive ending to James Bond’s life. They use their time.

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