Half of the world has reportedly seen a James Bond film, but only a fraction of those viewers know that the movies began with a series of books by author Ian Fleming (who also invented Chitty Chitty Bang Bang). As the franchise gears up for its latest big-screen installment, Spectre, opening November 6, it seems only fitting to delve into Bond’s origins.
Fans of the source novels have long speculated that author Ian Fleming, who dabbled in espionage during World War II, channeled his own ride-or-die experiences into his novels. Others viewed him mostly as a staid London aristocrat who dreamt up a thrilling world amid the comforts of a bourgeois life. A new biography on Ian Fleming, written by his nephew Fergus Fleming, lands him somewhere in the middle.
Featuring private letters typed on his storied golden typewriter and sent to friends and colleagues,The Man with the Golden Typewriter offers a closer look at the origins of popular culture’s most indelible secret agent. Alongside Fergus Fleming’s scrupulous background research, the letters reveal much about the series’ early evolution and even drop some major behind-the-scenes 007 bombshells. For example:
1. Casino Royale was the product of a midlife crisis.
Fleming was a notorious playboy in his youth, and he wrote Casino Royale, his first Bond novel, long after his glory days as a spy for British Naval Intelligence. Dreading the humdrum of old age, Fleming channeled his lingering thirst for adventure into his novels. In this account of how he came to write the first Bond novel, he attributed his creation of the consummate bachelor to his engagement to Anne Charteris:
“After being a bachelor for 44 years, I was on the edge of marrying and the prospect was so horrifying that I was in urgent need of some activity to take my mind off it” (p. 9).
Ian Fleming at his estate in Jamaica, Goldeneye. (Photograph by Getty Images)
2. Fleming feared his novels were fluff and that his society chums would deride them.
Fleming came from London’s upper crust -- not exactly the target demographic for popular spy novels. In a letter to fellow novelist Raymond Chandler, the author vented his literary anxieties:
“Probably the fault about my books is that I don’t take them seriously enough and meekly accept having my head ragged off about them in the family circle. If one has a grain of intelligence it is difficult to go on being serious about a character like James Bond. […] My books are straight pillow fantasies of the bang-bang, kiss-kiss variety” (228).
Ian Fleming and his wife Anne. (Photographs by Getty Images)
3. Fleming gave his urbane hero the most run-of-the-mill name he could think of.
Although the name James Bond has since become synonymous with high intrigue and danger, Fleming intended to give his protagonist an everyman appeal. The real James Bond was actually an ornithologist, and Fleming snagged the name after reading his book Birds of the West Indies. In a letter to the editor of the Manchester Guardian, Fleming held forth on the importance of christening his hero with a no-frills moniker:
“One of the reasons why I chose the pseudonym of James Bond for my hero rather than, say, Peregrine Maltravers was that I wished him to be unobtrusive. Exotic things would happen to and around him but he would be a neutral figure” (185).
The real James Bond. (Photograph by Wikipedia Commons)
4. Fleming never intended for Bond to be an infallible superhero.
The fifth Bond novel, From Russia With Love, seemed to signal the end of Bond. In the finale, 007 duels with the stern-faced Russian villainess Rosa Klebb. Though he nearly defeats her, she manages a fatal blow: kicking Bond with a poisoned blade concealed in her shoe. The novel closes with Bond collapsing on the floor as poison overwhelms him, shocking readers the world over. Although Bond would return in prime form for the follow-up, Dr. No, disgruntled fans were quick to flood Fleming’s mailbox with complaints. How had an ostensibly infallible figure fallen so easily? In response to one strongly worded letter, Fleming explained why a brush with death brought the story a needed touch of verisimilitude:
“Bond made a fool of himself. The trouble is that people do made fools of themselves in real life, and unless Bond were some kind of cardboard hero, which he is not, my serious accounts of his adventures must contain the whole portrait -- warts and all” (136).
Actress Lotte Lenya as Rosa Klebb on the set of From Russia with Love. (Photograph by Getty Images)
5. The spy world ain’t all it’s cracked up to be.
It may shock to Bond fans to learn that the world of espionage Fleming romanticized was not actually all that exciting. Like any job, it was one of routine and drudgery. Writing to a man named W. Speid, Fleming confessed that his days working for British Naval Intelligence weren’t much to write home about:
“The trouble is that it is much more fun to think up fantastic situations and mix Bond up in them. The ordinary spy world is, in fact, a very drab one” (189).
Sean Connery as James Bond in Diamonds Are Forever. (Photograph by Getty Images)
6. Bond’s sexual prowess was backlash against English prudery.
Casino Royale was an absolute revelation upon its release. Its depictions of sexual excess, violence, and high-octane drama were worlds apart from the reality of post-war Britain, which faced austerity measures and entrenched Victorian attitudes. In a letter to the editor of the Manchester Guardian, Fleming sounded off on just how fed up he was with the conservatism of the day:
“Perhaps Bond’s blatant heterosexuality is a subconscious protest against the current fashion for sexual confusion. Perhaps the violence springs from a psychosomatic rejection of Welfare wigs, teeth, and spectacles” (186).
Sean Connery as James Bond and Shirley Eaton as Jill Masterson in Goldfinger. (Photograph by Getty Images)
7. Fleming gave Sean Connery the OK.
Sean Connery is considered the ultimate James Bond, but it’s never easy for an author to cede creative control to a Hollywood upstart. Though Fleming didn’t live to appraise Bond’s other on-screen incarnations, he gave the Scottish actor a big thumbs up. Fleming, writing to his neighbor and mistress Blanche Blackwell about the production, expressed his approval of how the first film was coming along:
“The man they have chosen for Bond, Sean Connery, is a real charmer -- fairly unknown but a good actor with the right looks and physique” (257).
Ian Fleming with Sean Connery and Shirley Eaton on the set of Goldfinger. (Photograph by Getty Images)
8. Fleming was dubious that the Bond formula would last.
Fleming wrote a total of 14 Bond novels, and his source material inspired another six authors to pen an additional 24 novels. A multitude of acclaimed directors have released 23 films adaptations. Fleming never imagined the series would last so long. In fact, in a letter to publisher Wren Howard, he predicted that the formula would soon begin wear thin:
“At present I can see nothing but a vista of fantastic adventures on more or less the same pattern, but losing freshness with each volume” (56).
The Bond collection. (Photograph by Getty Images)
9. At the time of his death Fleming was intent on putting an end to Bond.
In fact, Fleming was so anxious Bond would lose its freshness that he planned to put an end to the whole thing shortly before he died. Though a collection of his unpublished Bond short stories, Octopussy and The Living Daylights, would be published posthumously, Fleming intended for The Man with the Golden Gun to be his final Bond book. Knowing that his health was ailing, he planned the series’ conclusion accordingly. In a somber letter to editor William Plomer, Fleming explicitly outlined his intention to lay the Bond saga to rest before it could ever atrophy:
“You & I will plan whether to publish in 1956 or give it another year’s working over so that we can go out with a bang instead of a whimper” (369-370).
Replica of the golden gun used by villain Francisco Scaramanga in The Man with the Golden Gun. (Photograph by Getty Images.)
10. Fleming was concerned by just how popular Bond flicks were becoming.
Fleming would be proud of the series' longevity, but we can’t help but imagine his dismay at the way his novels were overshadowed by a parade of splashy blockbusters. Thus, his letter to Aubrey Forshaw of Pan Books is prophetic:
“On the back [jacket cover] I see that Sean Connery gets at least twice the size type as the author. Seriously, although Saltzman is a splendid salesman, do please keep a sharp eye on this tendency of his to use my books for advertising his films” (372).
Naomie Harris, Léa Seydoux, Daniel Craig, Monica Bellucci , and Christoph Waltz at a photocall for Spectre. (Photograph by Getty Images.)
The latest Bond installment, Spectre, will have its US release November 6, 2015. The Man with the Golden Typewriter: Ian Fleming's James Bond Letters by Fergus Fleming will be released November 3, 2015 through Bloomsbury Publishing.
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