007 On And Off The Page

Reading & Writing

goldfinger-04

While I was away I reread a book I hadn’t touched since I was 12, Ian Fleming’s Goldfinger. One of the reasons I hated writing my only YA book The Curse of Snakes, was because I had to write within a dictated restrictive-material space, and that is not how kids read. At school we all read Fleming’s James Bond, because they were lying around in our homes. There was nothing we failed to understand or appreciate.

So, with Sky Atlantic’s new series ‘Fleming’ about to air, I thought now would be a good time to reassess.

It was a strange doppelgänger experience, but there are lessons to be learned from the text.  Bond is obsessed with alcohol and cigarettes; they get a detailed mention in every chapter, often to a hilarious degree. And Goldfinger is at first a very small fish indeed, cheating at cards in Miami, although he doesn’t kill Jill Masterton for failing him. Much later we are told that he painted her gold, but the scene isn’t actually there. Instead we first get the card game in immensely boring detail.

Bond reports to M with suspicions about his opponent and they decide to go after Goldfinger. This involves Bond driving a DB III through Kent and then Ramsgate and Herne Bay, places I can’t ever imagine finding the superspy. I’m only surprised he doesn’t stop for an ice-cream on his way, but England’s South coast is portrayed as being on a par with that of France or America, as perhaps it once was.

Much is made of the act of travelling (probably a fifth of the book involves it) and you start to realise how complicated it was to move about back then, with a tryptique (car passport) needed, and endless routes to and from small local airports like Lydd and Biggin Hill.

Bond’s second bout with Goldfinger is the golf game, which goes on forever, over several chapters, and we sense we are just tagging along beside Fleming as he pursues his favourite leisure activities.

But interestingly, by this time we are hooked because it’s a game between two men for an unknown outcome, and the stakes slowly escalate, as if Fleming only just thought of them during the act of writing. He provides wish-fulfilment for the males of the time with descriptions of car interiors, meals and women, but he’s also a good enough writer to paint scenes well, siting his characters firmly in known locales, and providing enough edgy intrigue to keep you page-turning. Bond’s attitude to women is of course hilarious. He bemoans the loss of femininity and lack of subservience in the female, and blames it on the rise of New Man. At one point in France he tells a girl to ‘Get me six inches of Lyon sausage, a baguette, butter, a bottle of Chateau d’Yquem – and something for yourself.’

The plot gears gradually change upwards, with Bond remaining Goldfinger’s supposed ally for most of the book. Goldfinger unveils his ludicrous Fort Knox plan and introduces Pussy Galore, explaining that she’s a Lesbian (with a capital L). Galore is painted flatteringly but is so aggressively predatory that she picks up Bond’s girl (who seems willing to comply, as if hypnotised) and also offers to shag 007 because she’s never had a man and finds him handsome. So that’s alright, then.

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The plan to get the gold from Fort Knox is explained in great detail but the event itself is virtually dismissed. Goldfinger intends to kill everyone in the state by poisoning them. Fleming recognises how boring it is to read and write action scenes, so he skips to the cavalry arriving in the form of US and UK intelligence troops. From here it’s onto the plane for the final confrontation, and home.

The film works so well because it upgrades all the key moments that Fleming, who was more interested in the card and golf games, barely bothered to think through, and it does so without compromising the original. So in the movie, golden-girl Masterton is found by 007, and the ‘ape-like’ Korean Oddjob has his steel hat but it’s he who is sucked out of the plane, not Goldfinger, who is merely strangled. Bond no longer drives around the miserable seaside resorts of Southern England but gets glamorous locations. The one gangster to refuse a part in Goldfinger’s scheme is crushed in his car, whereas in the book he’s merely pushed down some stairs. And the original scheme to rob Fort Knox is trumped twice by the film, first by the ingenious idea of a dirty bomb wrecking the gold market (instead of absurdly using an atom bomb to blow up the safe, as it is in the book). Second, by handcuffing Bond to the bomb.

What stopped the book of Goldfinger being regarded as just another pulp novel? The plot begins in normality but escalates quickly. The detailed fantasy world of the unfettered male must have been very appealing. The women are not as easily won as in the films, and are mostly interesting in their own right. And there’s snobbery, so very much of it, the chance to feel that in this world you’re above the common man (of which there are very few).

But I think it’s important not to write Fleming off – he’s a terrific scene-setter and creates genuine tension by majoring on opposites, Bond as a general force for decency against villains driven by greed. I may even revisit a few more volumes.

15 comments on “007 On And Off The Page”

  1. snowy says:

    I do feel the urge to write a very long comment, [because there is so much good crunchy stuff to work with.]

    But perhaps it’s best that I mull it a bit, and edit it down [a lot], “I like to mull. Do you like to mull… do you?”.

    [And don't think that your sudden command of the umlaut went unnoticed either. Can't do acutes, can't do graves. You turn your back for 5 minutes and he suddenly he whips out an umlaut, from nowhere! Bless my cottons!]

  2. admin says:

    A secret; WordPress pops the umlauts in for you.
    One point I meant to mention; the laser in the Goldfinger film is a boring old buzz-saw in the book…

  3. P.G. Bell says:

    There’s also the hilarious assertion that lesbianism is caused by allowing women the vote. The poor creatures can’t handle the responsibility, according to Fleming, and their hormones get scrambled.

  4. Keith Page says:

    Do you remember the ‘modernised version of Bond by John Gardner , driving a Saab Turbo?[ So was I at the time, but probably for different reasons.]And there was also a ‘biography’ which feaured Bond as if he were a real person.Quite interesting.

  5. Vivienne says:

    I got caught reading James Bond novels under the desk in my Divinity lessons at school. I think they were of their time and culture: as I girl I didn’t really quite get how sexist they were: they were just much more exciting than the Ann the Air Hostess type of books on offer in the school library.

  6. Chandon says:

    I think that it is important to remember that the majority of the books were written in the 1950′s, whereas the films didn’t get made until 1962 onwards. Fleming wrote the books against the background of Britain’s retreat from Empire. Rationing had only just ended in Britain, and the country had been largely bankrupted by the Second World War. In one sense, the books were adventure stories, which still portrayed Britain as powerful and influential, when events like Suez were proving that this was no longer the case. The detailed descriptions of the travel, food and the wines would have been astounding to the majority of readers in the 1950′s, whose experiences of such things would have been negligible.

    By the time most of the films came out in the 1960′s life, morals and Britain, had changed. The film adaptations reflect these many of these changes. The plots of some of the books are also tidied up and improved upon. The films also benefited from being made in colour. There is no way that they would have worked as well in black and white.

    Fleming’s writing is very much a product of his reading of spy/adventure stories of the 1930′s and 1940′s. I very much doubt that he thought that people would be reading his books 60 years later. The books were commercial fiction, so they were relatively short. He also titled his chapters in an interesting way that made the reader want to keep reading, and each one tried to keep the story moving forward.

  7. Helen Martin says:

    Writers don’t seem to get the fact that girls like excitement, too, and tension, and cute imaginary partners. Ann the Air Hostess would have bored me to tears but it was the only way girls were offered a potentially exciting career. I was reading Roland & Oliver, King Arthur, Robin Hood. Fantasy is all good.

  8. Helen Martin says:

    Oh and “Lobengula, Last of the Matabele” which was part of “Three Against Africa”, I think. Cecil Rhodes was one of the other two but I don’t remember who the third was unless it was David Livingstone. Come on, it was more than 50 years ago!

  9. Bob Low says:

    I’ve been re-reading some of Fleming’s novels over the last few years, including ‘Goldfinger’, and would echo many of Admin’s observations. Even with its many flaws-including the card and golf games that seem to go on for weeks-the book is still fascinating, in the glimpse it gives the reader of a completely bygone world. The plot is problematic to say the least-the point at which the villain finds out Bond is a British agent, resulting in our hero’s close shave with a buzz-saw, is really the point at which the story should end-Goldfinger has no believable reason to keep Bond alive after that. ‘Moonraker’ is a better novel. Once again, there’s an interminable card game in the opening chapters, but Bond’s love interest is a well drawn, strong character-she’s a rocket scientist, if I remember, and Bond actually treats her with some respect. There’s also a very good passage early in the book-when ‘M’ is introducing Bond to members of his club-which shows how close the Daniel Craig Bond is to the literary original. Far from impressing ‘M”s old clubland pals with his suavity and poise, Bond scares them. They see him as scar faced thug-someone who looks as though ”he’s had a hard time in the colonies”, as one puts it.

    Incidentally, didn’t Anthony Burgess choose ‘Goldfinger’ as one of his ’100 Greatest Novels Ever Written’? I seem to remember him making quite a good case for it, too!

  10. snowy says:

    I did start to write the treatened long comment, but it just got to epic length. Two pages in and I still hadn’t started to explore the main theme, so I binned it.

    Is Fleming ‘sexist’?
    The concept did not exist in the current meaning until four years after his death. [It had a prior meaning relating to the primacy of the libido]. This label has been placed on Fleming retrospectively by others with their own ends in mind.

    Flemings view of Women.
    Born into privilege he would have grown up with others of his background in the mileu satirised by Wodehouse. A world of ‘bright young things’ and suitable ‘gels’. This cosy world view would be up-ended by the women working as agents for SOE. Just as an example lets take Nancy Wake {aka White Mouse}:

    On the night of 29–30 April 1944, Wake was parachuted into the Auvergne, becoming a liaison between London and the local maquis group headed by Captain Henri Tardivat in the Forest of Tronçais. Upon discovering her tangled in a tree, Captain Tardivat greeted her remarking, “I hope that all the trees in France bear such beautiful fruit this year,” to which she replied, “Don’t give me that French shit.”

    Her duties included allocating arms and equipment that were parachuted in and minding the group’s finances. Wake became instrumental in recruiting more members and making the maquis groups into a formidable force, roughly 7,500 strong. She also led attacks on German installations and the local Gestapo HQ in Montluçon.

    At one point Wake discovered that her men were protecting a girl who was a German spy. They did not have the heart to kill her in cold blood, but Wake did. She said after that it was war, and she had no regrets about the incident.

    Fleming’s female characters
    Those two influences create the outline of a ‘Bond woman’, glamorous, independant, intelligent, capable and frequently deadly. But that alone it is not going to sell books, it needs to fit within a commercially viable narrative.

    Bond
    The day of the Gentleman Spy, Hannay et al, is gone, irrevocably destroyed, it has to be replaced with something more visceral. The Bond character stems from this premise, [but Fleming can't resist showing off how cultured and well travelled he thinks he is]. But he lacks confidence in his creation and conforms to the narrative tradition that there must be a ‘love interest’.

    Perhaps he was just a romantic? Bond falls in love several times in the novels and is frequently disappointed, when he reunites with Gala Brand at the end of ‘Moonraker’ he is blown out, [not off] by her revealing she is already engaged to another agent.

    The films of Bond
    This is where it starts, film producers will not or dare not make straight adaptations of the books, partly because the pacing can get a bit pedestrian and partly because showing the events described on screen would be too brutal, [look at the early films, there is very little if any blood anywhere].

    They like the glamour, they like the action but they don’t want the real brutality and because this is ‘Hollywood’ they need to increase the romance or half their potential audience will simply not attend.

    Filming Bond
    The first film is made, ‘Dr No’ it is a huge hit, makes an international star of Ursula Andress and creates ‘The Bond Girl’. Honey Ryder is a strong female character in the film, but not as strong as in the original book.

    But the producers don’t care they have found their ‘formula’, they are as ‘pleased as ninepence’, they just have to repeat it with more, more of everything. More glamour, more excitement, more thrills, more romance, oh! and we had better have more girls.

    And so female roles in the films get watered down, this increases with each film until there is an excess of glamorous women to be fitted into the plot and they are just used as set dressing. In OHMSS they are placed around like scatter cushions, and by the time Octopussy is filmed you can’t move for fear of stepping on someone.

    It is then that the backlash begins in earnest by people that never read the original books, they attack the films, the posters, even the actresses. This was reflected back onto Fleming and stuck, probably because he was dead and couldn’t respond.

    [I'm not a fan of Fleming the man, he was a snob and a waster who used his writing skills to fluff up his reputation.]

  11. Helen Martin says:

    Enjoyed and appreciated both Admin and Snowy’s analysis of Fleming/Bond. I haven’t read the books for a long time but I think we’ve all moved on. He was definitely writing commercial fiction and that doesn’t make comfortable reading in another age.

  12. jan says:

    Have u read the short stories featuring BOND? One in particular set at a dinner party in the West Indies where Jams BOND is at dinner with relatively “normal” couples not spies but real life people. is really strange he sort of realises that there is a woman there who he could have fallen for and lived an ordinary life with and its quite strange to have him look over the fence into normal life …….. i only half remember the story but it did make a big impression on me in that Fleming must have felt limited in his own capacity to care for others. was good

  13. Bob Low says:

    Jan-from what I remember of them, the short stories featuring Bond were mostly pretty good, and demonstrate another reason why Fleming’s skills as a writer should never be underestimated. ‘The Living Daylights’ was a particularly gripping story, with a clever ending.

  14. And Feleming, through Bond, also begat James Blond. http://amzn.to/nyEt1U

  15. Dan Terrell says:

    He did try to branch out and look back on his Bond. “The Spy Who Loved Me” was the tale and what a jarring read and soon the series began, for me at least, to burn low. But what a great ride in my teens.
    And the British covers. I have a mostly complete set and when doing a dusting often pull a book out just to look at the cover.
    HFlemming also wrote a very good non-fiction book on Blood Diamonds.

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