Rewriting Ian Fleming’s James Bond Books: What Is Even the Point?

Seventieth anniversary reprintings of Ian Fleming's James Bond novels are going to be "updated" (i.e. rewritten) to appeal to 21st century sensitivities. This is both a mistaken and hopeless endeavor.

Sean Connery as James Bond in Dr. No
Photo: Eon / MGM

As Eon Productions prepares to reboot the James Bond movie franchise for the second time in the 21st century, there is a lot of apprehension about what that will look like in the 2020s. While 2021’s No Time to Die was the first 007 flick made after the #MeToo movement began an ongoing (and hopefully lasting) change in the culture, that film also was designed from the ground up to be the swan song of a very distinct and strangely already antiquated version of the character from less than 20 years ago: Daniel Craig’s brooding, tortured superspy.

Going into that movie, Craig’s Bond had retired and attempted to settle down—something Ian Fleming’s original literary creation occasionally fancied yet never got past a doomed walk down the aisle—and by the end of No Time to Die, the same actor’s interpretation of the character was a father who sacrificed his life for mother and child. In other words, the Bond movie producers have yet to truly reckon with what Fleming’s iconic superspy looks like in the modern world.

Yet if you think their work is cut out for them, just imagine trying to “sanitize” (or rewrite) Fleming’s actual mid-20th century’s point-of-view for the sensitivities of today. That is the massive, and frankly insidious, task that Ian Fleming Publications Ltd. has set for themselves, according to The Sunday Telegraph. As per the British newspaper’s reporting, the company which owns the literary rights to the late author’s work has commissioned a review of Fleming’s novels by “sensitivity readers” ahead of the forthcoming 70th anniversary of Fleming’s first Bond novel, Casino Royale, later this year.

It’s reported that new printings of all of Fleming’s books will remove language that can be fairly deemed as racist and derived from dated attitudes and cultural norms. For instance, a passage in which Fleming  described the dialect of Harlem residents in Live and Let Die as “straight Harlem-Deep South with a lot of New York thrown in,” has been deleted. As has Fleming’s attempt to write in an “ethnic” dialect, multiple uses of the n-word, and in other novels entire Black characters who were depicted as subservient to Bond. Similarly, Fleming describing British World War II veterans in the “Red Bull Express” (a real-life unit composed of Black servicemen) as Black in Goldfinger has been expunged. Going forward, they will simply be described as “ex-drivers.” Meanwhile Bond’s often misogynistic musings about why women shouldn’t do “man’s work” are similarly excised.

Ad – content continues below

Further each novel will include a disclaimer at the front stating, “This book was written at a time when terms and attitudes which might be considered offensive by modern readers were commonplace. A number of updates have been made in this edition while keeping as close as possible to the original text and the period in which it is set.”

Really, they could’ve just stopped with the first sentence.

The James Bond novels are shamelessly, hopelessly, and proudly antiquated. And they are indeed from a period where the terms and attitudes we rightly deem to be offensive today were commonplace. In fact, their offenses were in many ways apiece with why Fleming wrote the Bond novels in the first place.

This became strikingly apparent to me a few years ago when I revisited four of the books ahead of No Time to Die’s release. Reading Fleming again for the first time since I was a teenager (which barely coincided with when Craig first wore the tux), I too winced when Bond chided the literary Vesper Lynd in his head as a “blithering” woman after she was kidnapped—he even considered letting her meet a grisly fate for daring to attempt man’s work. I also cringed at the racist assumptions Bond and Fleming both made about Japanese people, even when writing admiringly about them, in You Only Live Twice.

But that was also part of the value of the book: They were a window into what a mid-20th century Englishman who worked at the height of Naval intelligence thought about the world after the Second World War.

Fleming was the privileged son of a member of Parliament, born in London’s elite Mayfair district in 1908. At the time of his birth, the sun had yet to set on the British Empire, and he lived through two world wars and beyond. He lived long enough to play a significant hand in defeating the fascists, and yet still watch his beloved empire slip away in the years afterward. In many ways, he created Bond as the ultimate wish fulfillment fantasy character for himself and his initially largely British (and later Anglophilic) audience. 

Ad – content continues below

He created Bond so readers living through the tough, lean years of rebuilding a nation and a continent after the ravages of war could imagine a life of jet-setting international adventure, casual sex, and also a geopolitical British dominance that never waned. In the aforementioned You Only Live Twice, Bond and Japanese spymaster Tiger Tanaka debate the decline of the British Empire. Apparently these interactions were based on the barroom debates Fleming had with real-life Japanese journalist Tiger Saito when they toured Southeast Asia and Australia together, with Tanaka on the page mocking that the British were throwing away their “empire with both hands.” In Fleming/Bond/Tiger Tanaka’s minds, this is a tragedy.

In an earlier superior novel, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, Bond spends a lonely Christmas Day dinner with his elder boss M (loosely based on Fleming’s own boss during WWII, Rear Admiral John Godfrey), waxing nostalgic about the glory days of when the British Navy still ruled the waves. Bond laments to himself while looking at photographs of turn-of-the-century British seamen that his nation will never see their like again.

To the modern eye, this is likely a good thing given the complex and often heinous legacy of British colonialism around the globe. James Bond, as a creation, is a validation for values that the modern world has moved on from. But while the Bond movie producers need to find a way to reconcile the historical heritage of Bond and the 21st century… publishers should not, nor even by way of the best-meaning sensitivity readers.

There is much to still enjoy in Fleming’s writings, and there is much that can cause offense. It should be left to each reader to determine which is of greater importance to them. What should never be done, however, is to divorce Fleming and his stories from their historical context, and their very reason for existence.

While attempting to rewrite Bond for modern sensibilities feels like a more ambitious task than when news broke earlier this month about publishers doing the same to the works of Roald Dahl, both present attempts by publishers and rightsholders to maintain the steady stream of income from their classics spigot. They’re also erasing one of the fundamental appeals of literary work: the context of their creation and what it says of their times… and today.

By attempting to sanitize it for our sensibilities, we are whitewashing the past and attempting to change the attitudes and values of previous generations into reflections of our own image. Such actions are not only vain, but dangerous since this is the very type of historical revisionism (or vandalism) that publishers once dreaded. It was even used as shorthand for the horror of overreach in the writings of another famous 20th century English author, George Orwell. In Nineteen Eighty-Four, Orwell’s fictional dystopian society lives in a world where “Every record has been destroyed or falsified, every book rewritten… History has stopped. Nothing exists except the endless present in which the Party is always right.”

Ad – content continues below

Such hegemonic groupthink runs the danger of downplaying the thoughts, ideas, and even sins of the past to the point where folks can simply overlook them. As if they never happened. Ironically, this isn’t too far removed from other ideological movements that would rather just not talk about slavery or Jim Crow in American high schools. Out of sight, out of mind.

Ian Fleming Publications Ltd. attempted to justify their approach by noting that Fleming revised his own books after publication and before his death in 1964. They’re simply “following” the author’s lead. Of course the author has been dead for about 60 years and has no input on how his novels have been rewritten.

The James Bond novels feature racist, sexist, and imperialist attitudes. They are a fascinating window into their time from a privileged angle. If those collections of sins are too much for modern readers, then fine. We should interrogate why they are uncomfortable, or why they were once so popular as to launch a character who’s been popular for the better part of a century. But to run away from that conversation—or worse, to pretend it doesn’t need to be had in the first place—is not only craven, but also incredibly shortsighted.