MI6 guest writer Neil McNally looks at the influence of Ian Fleming's later novels in the new film "Skyfall"...

Fleming and Skyfall

28th November 2012

“My plots are fantastic, while being often based upon truth. They go wildly beyond the probable but not, I think, beyond the possible.” - Ian Fleming

With the recent arrival of “Skyfall” on movie screens the world has been reminded of what makes a great Bond film excel. The elements that go into it are many and varied; however, by all accounts the creative team really focused on what has always kept Bond, Bond: Ian Fleming. Director Sam Mendes recently stated that while making the movie “Whenever you’re stuck, go back to Fleming. Capture the essence of Ian Fleming.” “Skyfall” does just that, not only in tone and character, but by wisely mirroring plot points and development that have already been on the printed page for close to fifty years.

The film’s central storyline of the figurative death and rebirth of 007 can trace its origins to two Fleming novels 'You Only Live Twice' and 'The Man with the Golden Gun'. The former is the conclusion to what has since been coined “The Blofeld Trilogy,” while the latter has the distinction of being the final James Bond novel that Fleming wrote in his lifetime.

Above: James Bond creator Ian Fleming.

Both books lend the film some of their most crucial and poignant scenes'.You Only Live Twice' picks up sometime after the tragic events of 'On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.' Bond is an emotional wreck after having lost his wife in an assassination attempt by his long standing enemy Ernst Stavro Blofeld. M, fearing the worst, gives Bond a final chance with one last mission. A failed haiku written by Bond later on in the book only serves to heighten the tension:

You only live twice:
Once when you are born
And once when you look death in the face

By its conclusion, Bond has once and for all killed Blofeld and regained his sense of self and purpose in the world. However, all of this proves to be in vain when he suffers amnesia from a head injury after blowing up Blofeld’s lair. Aided by the story’s heroine, Kissy Suzuki, Bond believes himself to be a fisherman. In this fragile state, his memories of his past life as a spy are gone, and the world believes him to be dead. All he can do is flee to Russia for clues about his true identity. Back in London, M solemnly pens Bond’s obituary for “The Times.” It is here that Fleming fleshes out 007’s life, and for the first time gave readers a glimpse of his backstory.

To a lesser extent, 'The Man with the Golden Gun' takes this journey full circle. 007 mysteriously re-emerges from his so-called “death”; demanding to speak with M at Secret Service headquarters. Unfortunately for M, Bond has been brainwashed during his investigation in Soviet Russia with orders to kill him with a cyanide pistol. Fortunately, the attempt is unsuccessful and Bond is able to regain his sanity and identity through government reprogramming. But, with his career in question, 007 is at a crossroads and must prove himself once again to M and the Service.

Above: Illustration from Playboy's serialization of Ian Fleming's 1965 novel
''The Man With The Golden Gun'.

Whether this introspective view of Bond was due to Fleming’s own declining health at the time is up for conjecture. Regardless, his overall themes in 'You Only Live Twice' and 'The Man with the Golden Gun' of self-doubt and an emotional “rebirth” cast one half of the large Fleming shadow over “Skyfall.” The other half being Bond’s personality as a whole within the film series.

Over the years, times and tastes change, and it certainly has shifted from one extreme to the other. However, it never quite aligned perfectly with the novels, and it took the Timothy Dalton films to give us a taste of what was to come with Daniel Craig. In the end, what the audience sees now on screen is a reflection of the dark, brooding, cold assassin envisioned in 1953’s 'Casino Royale.' A reflection that, if you look close enough, resembles Ian Fleming more than Daniel Craig.

With M’s obituary scene left intact, Bond’s Scottish heritage, the names of his parents revealed, and most importantly 007’s character arc, Ian Fleming’s work and vision is alive, well, and thriving in “Skyfall.” The film’s success at the box office and with critics is not only due to a skilled group of filmmakers but, to the old adage “Everything old is new again!” An adage even 007 himself would have trouble escaping from.

Thanks to Neil McNally.

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