This article is based on posts in The Spy Command in August 2010. It has been updated to include 2012’s Skyfall and 2015’s SPECTRE.
By Bill Koenig
A subject that will get James Bond fans talking is how faithful 007 movies are to Ian Fleming’s original novels and short stories. There have been 23 entries in the film series produced by Eon Productions, and only a dozen Fleming novels, so something had to give. Also, truth be told, Eon was never afraid from making major changes from the start.
So what would an Ian Fleming Fidelity Index look like when applied to the Eon series? What follows is our try at it. Since this was originally published in August 2010, we’ve gotten comments suggesting some of these rankings are off target.
For example, we included Casino Royale as being just inside a “rest of the best” ranking when it came to Fleming content. Yet the 2006 film had Bond cracking wise during the famous torture scene, something he didn’t do in Fleming’s novel, written in early 1952 and published in 1953.
Also, it’s probably a coin toss whether the 2006 movie for 1981’s For Your Eyes Only has more Fleming content. We’re reminded of M’s line in You Only Live Twice, “Mind you all of this is pure guess work.” But we decided to play it with everything we’ve got.
In any case, here are the rankings, on a scale of 0-10. For our purposes, we‘ll say that a perfect 10 isn‘t possible because books and short stories are a different medium than film that some changes are inevitable.
Caveats: These aren‘t intended as reviews of the films, though there‘s an element of that. Just because a movie ranks low in Fleming content doesn‘t mean it‘s not entertaining. And, in at least one case, a relatively high level of Fleming content hasn‘t prevented fans from dumping on the movie.
THE ONE ABOVE THE REST
On Her Majesty’s Secret Service: The major components of Fleming’s novel, written in 1962 while filming of Dr. No was underway in Jamaica, are in Peter Hunt’s film version. Richard Maibaum (aided by Simon Raven’s dialogue polish) brings the books’s two storylines closer by having Blofeld capture Tracy, giving her a role in the climatic attack on Piz Gloria.
The filmmakers considered further deviations. For details, check out The Making of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service by Charles Helfenstein. The finished film is the closest to having Fleming’s world put up on the screen. SCORE: 9.5
BEST OF THE REST:
These are relatively faithful to Fleming while including significant changes (such as having villains work for SPECTRE instead of the Soviet Union) from the source material.
Dr. No: Some sequences, and even dialogue, are taken directly from Fleming’s 1958 novel. But Dr. No now works for SPECTRE, rather than the Russians; the screenwriters add Felix Leiter, who didn’t appear in the novel; and a new character, Miss Taro, a secretary in Government House in the employ of Dr. No. What’s more, Bond’s trip through Dr. No’s obstacle course is removed. The agent just crawls through tunnels instead. Dr. No’s demise is totally changed. Instead of being buried in bird guano, the villain perishes in an atomic reactor. SCORE: 6.5
From Russia With Love: No. 2 in the series again transposes sequences and dialogue from the Fleming novel. Still, there’s some notable tinkering: SPECTRE organizes the plot instead of the Russians. Bond gets off the Orient Express much earlier, creating two new, outdoor action sequences, including a helicopter dive bombing 007 at a remote location, much like the crop duster plane that went after Cary Grant in North by Northwest. Bond’s final faceoff with Rose Klebb occurs in Venice, rather than Paris and the film lacks the cliffhanger ending of Fleming’s original. On the latter point, given the filmmakers changed the order of books they used, that’s just as well but it’s still a deviation. SCORE: 7.5
Goldfinger: The third film in the Eon series makes changes that improve upon Fleming’s 1959 novel. At the top of the list, Auric Goldfinger intends to detonate an atomic bomb inside of Fort Knox, robbing the U.S. of its gold supply, making the villain‘s gold much more valuable. In the novel, Goldfinger really wanted to steal it (on behalf of the Soviet Union). The atomic bomb is still very escapist but somewhat more plausible than the source material. Screenwriter Maibaum felt the novel’s buzz saw corny and a cliche, so the now-famous laser beam was introduced instead. The Maibuam-Paul Dehn script also has Goldfinger in an alliance with China, rather than working for the Russians. SCORE: 6
Thunderball: The fourth Eon film is not only based on Fleming’s novel but scripts developed for a never-produced movie preceded the book. The novel introduced SPECTRE and its chief, Ernst Stavro Blofeld. Blofeld is still pulling the strings here, with Emilo Largo being the operational commander. Maibaum and co-screenwriter John Hopkins make things more complicated by having SPECTRE substitute a double for a NATO pilot, rather than just having SPECTRE buy off off the pilot. The climatic underwater fight takes place in the middle of the day (probably to make things easier to film, a difficult enough undertaking in 1965) rather than at night. And Fleming never dreamed up having Bond use a jet pack, which is still one of the highlights of the half-century old Eon series. SCORE: 7
Casino Royale: In the 21st Century, Eon screenwriters Neal Purvis and Robert Wade (with Paul Haggis doing dialogue polishes while sharing the screenplay credit) add considerably to the basic story of Fleming’s 1953 novel. Also, Vesper’s suicide is transformed from just taking an overdose of pills to being part of a huge action set piece. Still, the main part of Fleming’s novel is there, including the torture sequence and “The bitch is dead” line. The main plot of Fleming’s novel doesn’t surface until about one-third of the way into the movie. And, as noted before, 007 makes wisecracks during his painful torture at the hands of Le Chiffre. Finally, the villains actually steal Bond’s winnings back, unlike Fleming’s novel. SCORE: 5.01
STRONG FLEMING INFLUENCE:
You can still find sequences, characters, or both, from Fleming stories. In some cases, parts of Fleming stories are intermingled with the imagination of screenwriters.
For Your Eyes Only: As the 1980s began, Eon Productions decided it was time to go back to Ian Fleming. The result was, arguably, the most Fleming-based Roger Moore film. For Your Eyes Only combined story elements from two Fleming short stories and included dialogue and situations from the short stories. To make it work, however, screenwriters Richard Maibaum and Michael G. Wilson devised a plot to marry the two Fleming storylines together. Because of that, FYEO falls just short of the “Best of the Rest” category. Still, the movie reintroduced Universal Exports as a cover for MI6. SCORE: 4.99
Die Another Day: This may prove a controversial choice for this category. The 40th anniversary James Bond film is remembered by some fans for its bloated second half of big action set pieces and an invisible car. But the first half was a de facto adapation of Fleming’s Moonraker novel, in which the name “Gustav Graves” is substituted for “Hugo Drax,” the Blades club setting is used (though for a sword fight, rather than a Bridge game) and a huge laser satellite takes the place of a missile. Graves shares the same boorish characteristics of Fleming’s Drax. There’s not as much Fleming influence as For Your Eyes Only, but there’s more Fleming content than the films in the following category. SCORE: 4.25 (mostly first half of the movie)
Skyfall: The third Daniel Craig 007 takes some bits from the Fleming stories. Bond is thought dead and M writes his obituary, with Judi Dench even typing some of the same words (switching Turkey for Japan) as the next-to-last chapter of You Only Live Twice. We’re taken to Bond’s ancestral home, and we see the names of Bond’s parents on a tombstone. At the same time, screenwriters Neal Purvis, Robert Wade and John Logan change the context of some this. In You Only Live Twice, Bond was hit a couple of times on the head and lost his memory. Here, Bond is mad because M ordered Eve Moneypenny “to take the bloody shot,” so he deserted. Some fans look at Silva as a revamped version of Scaramanga in The Man With the Golden Gun. The 50th anniversary 007 films was a huge hit, taking in more than $1 billion in worldwide box office. SCORE: 4
WEAK FLEMING INFLUENCE:
These films, in some cases, have Fleming characters but the plots have been significantly revised.
SPECTRE (New, added 11/7/15): Rebooted versions of Ernst Stavro Blofeld and the SPECTRE organization make their 21st century debut after the Kevin McClory estate reached a settlement with MGM and Danjaq in 2013. The 2015 film also references Hannes Oberhauser who, according to the Octopussy short story, taught Bond skiing when the future agent was in his teens. (“He was something of a father to me at a time I happened to need one.”). However, the movie — in a major deviation from Fleming — decides to link Blofeld and Oberhauser by making the former the son of the latter. The son killed the father and takes his mother’s name (Blofeld). The son resented it when Oberhauser took in Bond (a deeper relationship than in the short story), giving Blofeld a personal reason to hate 007. At one point, the movie was going to be a semi-remake of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, with a henchwoman named Irma Bunt and the last line of the movie being, “We have all the time in the world.” But those touches didn’t make the finished product. There’s a nod to the short story title The Hildebrand Rarity with a sign at a safe house. A torture scene was influenced by Colonel Sun (“The Estate of Kingsley Amis” gets a “special thanks” credit in the end titles), but that was written by Kinsley Amis so it doesn’t figure into this rating. SCORE: 2.5
Diamonds Are Forever: The first 30 to 35 minutes retain something of the flavor of Fleming’s 1956 novel. Bond takes the place of a diamond smuggler (he does the deed flying into Los Angeles rather than New York); he meets smuggler Tiffany Case, who acts as if she’s performing a personal Victoria’s Secret show for Bond; there are a couple of gay hit men/thugs named Wint and Kidd; and 007 ends up in Las Vegas. In the film, though, once in Vegas, things shift gears abruptly and we’re left to what Tom Mankiewicz, rewriting a Richard Maibaum script, could devise. Mankiewicz’s first draft actually contained more bits from Fleming’s fourth 007 novel, but these fell off as the script was rewritten. SCORE: 3.75
Live And Let Die: We have a smuggling plot, substituting drugs for long-lost gold. Mr. Big has been changed from an actual villain to an alias of Dr. Kananga, leader of Carriban nation San Monique. New Orleans replaces Florida as a setting. And the villains are black. There is a character named Solitaire, who has talent reading tarot cards. After that, not much in the way of Fleming influence, and one major sequence of the book gets tossed out, though it (a keel hauling sequence) would be used in For Your Eyes Only while other set pieces show up in Licence to Kill. Screenwriter Christopher Wood actually wanted to use the keel hauling sequence in Moonraker, but it was dropped and recycled in For Your Eyes Only. SCORE: 3.25
You Only Live Twice: The major setting (Japan) and some characters (Tiger Tanaka, Kissy Suzuki and Dikko Henderson) show up in the film but the main plot is tossed aside. Also, because Eon filmed the Fleming novels out of order, Bond hadn’t been married to Tracy. Thus, he hasn’t met her, so it would make no sense for him to be in a precarious mental state over the death of a character he has yet to encounter. In effect, Twice is a remake of Dr. No, but with a much larger budget, including the SPECTRE headquarters set that cost more than the entire budget of Dr. No. SCORE: 3.
The Man With The Golden Gun: Fleming villain Scaramanga shows up, albeit a more sophisticated character than Fleming’s original (who was pretty thuggish) while Mary Goodnight also makes an appearance, though played completely for laughs. The plot ignores Fleming’s original and is the result of Tom Mankiewicz and Richard Maibaum’s various scripting efforts. Sheriff J.W. Pepper, a character Mankiewicz invented to generate laughs in Live And Let Die, makes an encore. SCORE: 2.75
Octopussy: The 13th film in the Eon series utilizes two Fleming short stories, though there’s much less Fleming content than in For Your Eyes Only. Essentially, Fleming’s The Property of a Lady short story helps provide one scene (an auction where Bond tries to sniff out the villains) while his Octopussy short story supplies the back story of the film’s title character (Maud Adams). You could also argue a scene immediately after the titles, in which 009 is being pursued by twin killers in Berlin was Fleming inspired. SCORE: 3.75
The Living Daylights: The Fleming short story of the same name provides the basis of the sequence immediately following the main titles and little else. That sequence (set by Fleming in Berlin) was the most cinematic scene of the short story. Fans of the film feel Timothy Dalton embodied the spirit of the Fleming stories, but the filmmakers didn’t provide Dalton with much of Fleming’s text. The Living Daylights, though, has more of a Cold War feel than many Eon films, so you could call that Fleming inspired. SCORE: 3.25
Licence to Kill: A Fleming character (Milton Krest) from Fleming’s The Hildebrand Rarity short story appears in the person of actor Anthony Zerbe. In this film, Krest is the lackey of the film’s main villain, Franz Sanchez (Robert Davi). The film also utilizes two scenes from Fleming’s Live And Let Die novel, most prominently Felix Leiter getting chewed on by a shark. The script is credited to Michael G. Wilson and Richard Maibaum, but it’s mostly the work of Wilson while Maibaum’s contributions didn’t get past the plotting stage. The teaser trailer only credited Wilson; Maibaum got a co-writing credit before the film was released. SCORE: 2.75
Moonraker: There’s a villain named Hugo Drax, same as Fleming’s novel. He plays Bridge (though we’re told this and not shown it). And…well, not that much more. Some fans hate the movie while others admire it, but there’s not much Fleming, either way. Christopher Wood’s original draft included Live And Let Die’s keel hauling sequence. It also brought back Thunderball’s jet pack and an even more lethal version of the From Russia With Love briefcase. But even though Moonraker had a mammoth budget for its day, such sequences had to be dropped. SCORE: 1.5
MADE UP OF WHOLE CLOTH:
These films are original stories devised by screenwriters. Some elements may have been inspired by Fleming stories.
The Spy Who Loved Me: The official story, told time and again, is that the deal Eon Productions made with Fleming is that only the title of the author’s novel could be used. That’s understandable. Bond doesn’t appear until two-thirds of the way through of the novel and the story is told from the perspective of a young woman who has had her share of troubles in life.
The movie, from all accounts, was the first time Eon retained the services of a tag team of writers, including future director John Landis, author Anthony Burgess and DC Comics writer Cary Bates. The final script was credited to Christopher Wood, director Lewis Gilbert’s choice, and 007 veteran Richard Maibaum. It’s a virtual remake of You Only Live Twice (also directed by Gilbert). In a documentary on the film’s DVD, we’re told that superthug Jaws was inspired by Horror, a thug in the novel who wore braces. The film ended up being a big hit and re-established 007 as a popular movie figure at a time many critics wondered if he was washed up. SCORE: 1.49
A View To a Kill: The movie is viewed by some fans as yet another remake of Goldfinger. But the Richard Maibaum-Michael G. Wilson script seems to channel John Gardner’s continuation novels as much as Fleming (at least as much as they could get away with without paying for the privilege), including a scene set as the Ascot horse-racing track, also featured in Gardner’s License Renewed novel. That’s somewhat amusing given how Wilson has badmouthed Gardner’s novels, including at a 1995 fan convention in New York City. Then again, you can’t copyright locations, and as a result, you don’t have to pay royalties and rights fees. SCORE: 1.25
GoldenEye: Bond returned to movie screens in 1995, six years after his previous film adventure, Licence to Kill. Once more, Eon brought in multiple writers. Three got some form of credit: Michael France, Jeffrey Caine and Bruce Feirstein. One, Kevin Wade, didn’t, though he managed to have a CIA operative (played by Joe Don Baker) named after himself. The film also launched the seven-year tenure of Pierce Brosnan as Bond. France’s original script called for the film’s villain to be a former M and his scheme involved targeting the World Trade Center, the target of the real-life 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States. SCORE: 1
Tomorrow Never Dies: If it worked once (bringing in several writers), it can work again. At least that seemed to be Eon’s approach to Pierce Brosnan’s second 007 outing. Novelist Donald E. Westlake was among those employed at one point. Westlake’s involvement might have gone unnoticed except the author told an Indiana audience that he would be writing the film. That was news to Bruce Feirstein, standing next to Michael G. Wilson, when Wilson was asked about Westlake’s comments during a 1995 fan convention in New York City.
The film ended up with a “Written by Bruce Feirstein” credit but that was misleading. Other writers were brought in after Feirstein submitted a draft. Feirstein was summoned to finish things up as the film faced tight, frantic deadlines to ensure a Christmas 1997 release. SCORE: 1
The World Is Not Enough: By 1998 and 1999, Eon’s approach to film writing was well established: bring in enough writers and you can develop a workable story. This time, it began with Neal Purvis and Robert Wade, with Dana Stevens (wife of director Michael Apted) playing midwife and Bruce Feirstein finishing things up. All but Stevens would get a credit. Feirstein worked in a jokey reference to You Only Live Twice, where M tells Bond that villains in volanco headquarters with big-breasted women were a fantasy. It was filmed but not used in the movie. Feirstein had first used the gag in his initial draft for Tomorrow Never Dies. Purvis and Wade are familiar with Fleming and this had a bit more of a Fleming mood. SCORE: 1.25
Quantum of Solace: The 2008 007 movie follows a familiar pattern. The Purvis and Wade duo worked on the project at one point. Paul Haggis did the heavy lifting as the project faced a Writers Guild deadline for a strike. Another screenwriter, Joshua Zetumer, was brought in for final polishes. Haggis got top billing in the eventual writing credit followed by Purvis and Wade, with no mention of Zetumer.
In 2011, actor Daniel Craig claimed he and director Marc Forster rewrote much of the story. This is the same Daniel Craig who, in 2008, also claimed credit for selecting Quantum of Solace (the title of a Fleming short story) as the title of the movie, explaining that Fleming titles didn’t mean anything. That suggests Craig hasn’t done much, if any, reading of the Fleming originals, where the titles actually are explained.
The movie retains the Rene Mathis character from Casino Royale. However, the movie implies Mathis was a double agent afterall just before Mathis expires. That pretty much repudiates Fleming.
The film was a big hit, though some fans wondered if the movie was too heavily influenced by the Jason Bourne movies. In any case, nobody suggested the film had too many Ian Fleming influences. SCORE: 0.5
Copyright 2010, 2015 by William Koenig