Ian Fleming wasn’t great at writing characters who weren’t James Bond, James Bond’s bosses, and the guys who wanted to kill James Bond. And he especially wasn’t great with people who apparently don’t talk like Bond does. In You Only Live Twice, the novel in which Bond dyes his skin, cuts his hair, and dresses to resemble a Japanese person, the results are mixed. You can tell that Fleming definitely had an appreciation for Japanese culture and liked the beauty of the region that he set the novel in, but everything he describes sounds far goofier than he intended. In Live And Let Die, Bond travels to Harlem, and the journey is excruciating.
From the outset, you definitely get the feeling that Fleming is trying to compensate for something. Every sentence in the first half of Live And Let Die may as well end with “… but I’m not racist.” For example, if Fleming was to write a piece of dialogue like “They won’t even let a white man in there …” it would end with “… but they do enjoy jazz.” Fleming stumbles over himself to make sure that he is as ignorantly nice about things as possible. At one point, a black woman is driving a car, and Bond feels the need to remark about how amazing it is that a black woman is driving a car, and driving it well.
It would be different if this kind of thing didn’t happen repeatedly. When he’s not out narrowly avoiding death, Bond spends most of his time in the company of rich white people in ’50s/’60s England. He’s not worldly so much as he just has access to a lot of train tickets. One would logically expect him to go to Harlem and be taken aback somewhat. But he’s never this grating in any other book, or when dealing with any other situation.
Again, this continues for 50 percent of Live And Let Die, with Fleming using his characters to make awkward commentary and then doubling back on himself to try to prove that he’s not being racist. Would a racist talk negatively about an entire neighborhood of black people, only to say that some of them are not bad? That’s the question that Fleming asks you over and over. It’s obvious that he really wants to approach the issue of race relations, but has absolutely no idea as to how to do it properly. He says nice things, but they’re all obliterated by the fact that the shit that he wrote just before the nice thing was way more awful than the nice thing was nice.
It doesn’t help that he often goes out of his way to try and write black peoples’ dialogue phonetically, so that you’ll get a conversation between two people that looks like:
Bond: “So, you expect me to talk?”
Villain: “No, sir’ eee’. Ah do in’a’deed’ nah be expectin’ dat, Mist’ uh’ Bond. Ah is expectin’ you’se ta mebbe die.”
What kind of exotic dialect did Fleming imagine when he wrote it out? Did he write it normally and figure that no one was going to believe him? Was no one going to take him seriously if he didn’t take the extra measure to ensure “authenticity” and write every word as if the characters had to struggle to remember what they were saying right in the middle of saying it?
It also doesn’t help that Fleming has created the antagonist, Mr. Big, and rather than put him in some sort of fantastical or “classy” location like he did with every other criminal mastermind, sets him in Harlem, where apparently people painstakingly separate each syllable when they attempt their native form of speech. I guess it’s cool that Fleming decided to make a black man (in what would become a hugely popular series) such an important character in 1954, but he managed to sabotage all of it. The Live And Let Die movie would go on to have the same kind of undertones, but never to the degree of the novel, which makes a shift into the uncomfortable within the first few pages, and then wallows in it.
Crafting an obstacle course of death for your enemy to run through is always a gamble. On the one hand, you want to make sure that there is a grand finale to it all. On the other hand, the odds are pretty good that the intrepid spy that you’ve dropped in your maze is just going to get halfway through the thing, fail to notice the pit full of spikes in the middle of it, and die. In Dr. No, the titular evil genius was super sure that Bond was going to be able to make it to the end.
So sure, in fact, that the final part of his death run was an encounter with a giant squid. Now, giant squids are not “companion” animals. Unless you’re a villain in the Hanna-Barbera Godzilla cartoon, you don’t capture a giant squid to just have that unpersonable motherfucker around. You capture it because you are 100 percent positive that some dude is going to get on your nerves to the extent that you feel that the only right way to deal with him is to feed him to a giant squid.
Luckily, Fleming’s Bond is able to deal with a giant squid in under three pages. He stabs it with a spear, forcing the squid to realize that the man that he’s dealing with is actually some kind of undying martini demon. From there, Bond goes on to cover Dr. No in a mound of bird shit. And not just a Biff Tannen amount of shit. A smothering amount of shit.
Eon Productions An
A View To A Kill amount of shit.
Bond kills the main villain of the book by dropping guano all over him. And it would be anti-climactic if it didn’t happen all of a sudden. There is no final, heavy chat between Bond and Dr. No in the novel, nor is there an attempt by Dr. No to escape or fight back when he realizes that his plan to feed Bond to a giant squid has failed. Of course, who can blame him? He put his trust in a giant squid. The only giant squid I know is the one under the skin suit that Cracked columnist Pauli Poisuo wears, and that dude has handled every problem that I’ve released into his enclosure.
Bond sneaks up on Dr. No while No is just hanging out on his dock, takes control of a crane, and spills all of its contents on him. Afterwards, Bond takes the time to smugly wonder what it would be like to pathetically die under tons of crap, which is kind of like Fleming telling his readers “And you know what? Dr. No wasn’t that good of a villain anyway.” And that reaction is the purest example of the difference between Movie Bond and Novel Bond. There is no “Hope he remembers to flush!” with Novel Bond. Novel Bond just understands that the way that Dr. No’s life ended is the worst way, and that he now needs to find that girl that he was talking to earlier.
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