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James Bond: the movies are not enough

28-May-2008 • Literary

After the huge commercial dominance of the 007 movies, the novel is fighting back, writes Andrew Lycett for The Times.

My contribution to the export drive is simply staggering,” Ian Fleming remarked in the throwaway style that makes his James Bond novels so entertaining. “They ought to give me some sort of medal. I suppose it's the equivalent of the earning power of a small boot factory.” That was shortly before Fleming's untimely death in 1964. Given the subsequent transformation of British industry, an appropriate comparison today would be an IT company, and by no means a small one.

Make no mistake, on the centenary of Fleming's birth James Bond remains a mammoth commercial enterprise. Today the latest 007 novel, Devil May Care, is published and no recent book, bar Harry Potter, has had so much money flung at its promotion. Yet lurking behind these astronomical figures is another story. For 40-odd years, since his demise, Fleming's literary creation has been eclipsed by his cinematic younger brother.

Everyone has an opinion on whether Sean Connery is a better onscreen 007 than Roger Moore. But few people can expatiate on the differences between the old-fashioned adventure story Live and Let Die, the starkly cinematic novel Moonraker, and the experimental The Spy Who Loved Me, told through the eyes of its female heroine, Vivienne Michel.

If they bothered to read Fleming in the original, they would find a more sympathetic Bond than is found in the films, one who does not always get the girl and who grieves at the emotional compromises he is forced to make in the course of duty. They would be carried along by the verve of the author's style, known as the “Fleming sweep”, which marries a journalist's attention to detail with a great storyteller's capacity to generate pace and excitement.

But the bottom line shows that the most recent James Bond film, Casino Royale, grossed $587 million at the box office, while the last James Bond novel, The Man with the Red Tattoo, ghosted by Raymond Benson, sold just 5,000 copies.

So what is happening today - and throughout this centenary year - is an effort by Fleming's literary copyright holders to redress that balance. When you recall that these fortunate individuals hail from the banking family which, until selling out to Chase Manhattan in 2000, owned Robert Fleming, the largest private bank in the City of London, you understand they are serious about money. Only three generations back, their ancestor, the eponymous Robert Fleming, lived in the slums of Dundee. He rose through the jute business, becoming a pioneer of popular capitalism when he invented the investment trust (a neat vehicle for his fellow citizens' savings).

Since netting almost £5 billion from the bank's sale, the clan's new venture, Fleming Family and Partners, has bought back control of Ian Fleming Publications (formerly Glidrose), which it has been using to resuscitate the literary Bond. Its hands are tied because all cinematic rights (and thus the real licence to print money) are owned by Danjaq, the film production company that made all the official Bond movies.

So IFP has to earn a penny where it can. Early projects such as a James Bond lifestyle magazine did not take off. But it has had success with spinoffs such as the Young Bond and Miss Moneypenny novels.

Its coup has been its clever repackaging and promotion of the original Bond stories. As a result, Ian Fleming's concept of 007 as “an anonymous blunt instrument wielded by government department” is again fashionable. Danjaq (or Eon, its operating arm) acknowledged as much when it cast gritty Daniel Craig as James Bond in Casino Royale in preference to his mannequin predecessor, Pierce Brosnan. One up to IFP in a relationship with Danjaq that has not always been easy, since both are basically selling the same product.

In this context the success of Sebastian Faulks's Devil May Care is crucial. If it does well (and the centenary provides an extraordinary marketing opportunity), there will be scope for further Bond novels and the other spinoffs will benefit. Even the film moguls realise this is a good thing as they seek to perpetuate their own remarkable franchise.

But what would Fleming himself have made of this hoopla? A complicated man, he would have hovered between bemusement, derision and pride. Despite his concerted efforts to promote his novels, not least to Hollywood, he was often equivocal about his fictional spy. Around 1960 he was telling his friend and adviser William Plomer that, like Conan Doyle with Sherlock Holmes, he wanted to kill off 007.

In the book of You Only Live Twice Bond did indeed disappear, presumed lost in action, and his obituary was published in The Times. But, unlike Holmes, fans did not have to wait almost a decade for their hero to resurface. Fleming could not get off the Bond treadmill. His agent made a hasty return in his next novel, The Man with the Golden Gun. But by the time this was published in 1965, Fleming himself was dead.

The boot factory then went into overtime. Kingsley Amis was hired to write the first “continuation Bond”, Colonel Sun, under the pseudonym Robert Markham. Fleming's widow, Ann, was not amused. “No one understands why I am distressed,” she commented. “Though I do not admire Bond, he was Ian's creation and should not be commercialised to this extent.” She regarded Amis as a lefty careerist who despised 007's traditional patriotic values.

Over the following decades James Bond lost his way, both on the screen, where, though commercially successful, he drifted away from Fleming's original, and on the page, where, with little commitment from his publishers, his exploits seemed destined to be read only by fans.

Now he is back on course. Ian Fleming, once the black sheep of his family, has become its poster boy. On his centenary, someone should give him a posthumous decoration. Bearing in mind that Bond used to travel under cover as a representative of the firm Universal Exports, an award to his author for “services to exports” would be fitting. The output of that boot factory is not going to slacken in the immediate future.

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