The Guillotine: The broken Bond

Twentieth-Century Classics That Won't Last No 5: Ian Fleming
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The Independent Culture
Some months ago, I was chatting with a teenage cousin, who had just been to see, and was waxing pretty vitriolic about, Tomorrow Never Dies, the most recent of the James Bond movies. Given his disappointment, I suggested he might like to try one of the novels instead. He gawped at me. "Novels?" hesaid. "There are novels?"

Yes, there are novels, but my cousin's bafflement was comprehensible. For Ian Fleming, the author of those novels, represents an absolutely unique case: an artist (which, in his minor fashion, he was) likely to be denied posterity by virtue not of his work's failure but its success. There are, of course, numerous writers, from Shakespeare to Dickens, and from EM Forster to Stephen King, whose prose has regularly been transformed into cinematic imagery. Fleming, however, is surely alone in having the fame of his own achievement completely usurped by the rival medium. Nowadays, for most people, James Bond is a character not of literature but of cinema. So much so, indeed, that, having long since exhausted the kitty of Fleming's original inspiration, the film industry has begun to generate its own would-be Fleming-like plotlines. (Imagine Merchant Ivory inventing new Forsterish stories and giving them Forsterish titles.)

But are these new plotlines really so authentic? Here, again, Fleming is alone in his own private purgatory. Unlike filmic adaptations of Dickens and Forster (Shakespeare, as always, remains a special case), the Bond movies are not period pieces. With each passing year, espionage technology is made ever more sophisticated, social attitudes (notably, in relation to women and various racial minorities) change out of all recognition and Britain's influence on the world's geopolitical stage grows less and less significant. If sometimes maladroitly, the Bond movies have taken these paradigmatic shifts on board, as they say, whereas the novels are still anchored in a dim and increasingly unknowable past. To someone coming to Fleming's Bond after exposure to Connery's or Dalton's or Brosnan's, he must seem as dated and absurd a figure as Sapper's obnoxious Bulldog Drummond.

Perhaps, though, film will prove to be not only Fleming's damnation but also his salvation. Perhaps, in 2050, the industry will realise that he too can be recycled as a period piece, a la Agatha Christie. By then, perhaps, the 1950s will have become the new millennium's belle epoque and 007 a pillar of heritage cinema.

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