On this day in 1962, ‘The Spy Who Loved Me’, the ninth novel in Ian Fleming’s James Bond series is published.
To celebrate this event, film journalist and screenwriter Matthew Chernov reviews the latest audio book version – read by Rosamund Pike — and explains why this book holds a very special place for him.
Words by Matthew Chernov
Like Vivienne Michel, the protagonist of Ian Fleming’s ‘The Spy Who Loved Me,’ James Bond entered my life suddenly, without warning and not a moment too soon.
It was late summer, 1977. I was an overly anxious kid who craved escapism. Comic books and fantasy films were more than just a way I passed the time. To me, they were a respite from excessive worrying. ‘Star Wars’ had opened a few months prior and taken the world by storm. The question wasn’t whether you’d seen it, but how many times. Naturally, I was amazed by its special effects, yet I never quite embraced its story and characters the way that everyone around me did. The whole thing just felt a bit too sunny. Too innocent.
While my parents were away on a trip, an aunt took me to the movies. She didn’t tell me what was playing, and I didn’t ask. Spending a few distracted hours in a dark theater was more than enough.
From the moment that Roger Moore strolled across that gun barrel to the sinister sound of Monty Norman’s classic theme, I was hooked. Watching ‘The Spy Who Loved Me’ unspool on a massive screen, without any idea that it was part of a larger series, changed the way that I experienced cinema. I forgot all about that whiny farm boy from the planet Tatooine. Bond was the real deal! He was suave, deadly and drove a car that turned into a submarine. What more could anyone ask for? Later that night, I vowed to track down the nine films preceding this one.
Then there were the novels. Being a voracious reader, it was crucial that I found them as soon as possible. A visit to the local library proved fruitless, but a trip to my grandmother’s miraculously well-stocked basement yielded a stack of old Fleming paperbacks that I’d overlooked for years. These were the Triad/Panther editions, with the notoriously sexy ‘Girls on Guns’ covers. My hands trembled as I flipped through the dog-eared pages. Since ‘The Spy Who Loved Me’ was still fresh in my mind, that’s the one I read first.
Ten pages in, I realized that it had nothing to do with the film. Instead of a British secret agent driving a submersible Lotus, there was a heartbroken Canadian girl cruising on a Vespa scooter. The movie’s spectacular underwater kingdom was replaced with a lonely motel in the Adirondack Mountains. And rather than a web-fingered villain with a plan for world domination, there were two thugs running an insurance scam.
And yet I wasn’t disappointed. The story was so suspenseful that I didn’t miss the film’s high-tech gadgets and outrageous helicopter stunts. This was closer in spirit to the crime and horror novels that I loved. The gloomy setting recalled Hitchcock’s ‘Psycho,’ while the woman-in-peril plot brought to mind Audrey Hepburn in ‘Wait Until Dark.’ To drive the point home, most of the action took place on a stormy night, and one of the gangsters was nicknamed ‘Horror.’ By the time that Bond arrived in the third act, I was already engrossed.
Years later, I was surprised to discover that the novel was considered, at best, a failed literary experiment. Critics and fans savaged it and Fleming himself sought to suppress the material, perhaps out of embarrassment. That reaction still baffles me, since it remains a personal favorite of mine. For although it’s not as sharp as ‘Casino Royale,’ as gripping as ‘From Russia with Love,’ or as visionary as ‘Moonraker,’ I’ve returned to it more than any other title in the series.
So it goes without saying that when a new collection of James Bond audio books was released digitally in the U.S. last year, the first one I downloaded was ‘The Spy Who Loved Me.’
Read by Rosamund Pike, the audio version of Fleming’s ninth novel is a fantastic addition to Bond’s literary history. Flawlessly produced by the author’s niece, actress Lucy Fleming, this 4 hour and 52 minute recording should go a long way in rehabilitating the book’s reputation.
Pike reads the novel’s first-person prose brilliantly, adding a subtle, open-vowel Canadian inflection to her words that I wasn’t expecting. The effect is striking. She brings the complex Vivienne to life with her wonderfully nuanced performance. Her voice is breathy yet resonant, filled with quiet desperation and hidden reserves of strength. After playing an icy villainess in the Bond adventure ‘Die Another Day,” and a sexy psycho in ‘Gone Girl,’ it’s a pleasure to hear Pike conjure up a woman who’s this vulnerable and sympathetic.
There’s a relaxed, conversational tone to Fleming’s text and Pike’s narration that grabs the listener from the moment she utters the novel’s deceptively simple first line: “I was running away.” This intimacy gives ‘The Spy Who Loved Me’ the feeling of an adult campfire tale being spun on a moonlit night. As the story continues and the tension builds, the novel racks up a surprisingly potent atmosphere of menace and dread. In her capable hands, even the book’s most infamous line – “All women love semi-rape” – seems tempered with an unexpected degree of injured humanity.
Although it’s the shortest novel in the series, there are a fair number of diverse characters scattered throughout its pages, and Pike handles them with the skill of a seasoned impressionist. I especially enjoyed her dastardly interpretation of Derek Mallaby, the young cad who takes Viv’s virginity and then mails her a breakup letter two weeks later. Pike gives the cocky Oxford student a clipped, shallow speech pattern that’s both obnoxious and hilarious. Even minor characters like Len Holbrook, the gruff Welshman who teaches Viv the ropes at the Clarion newspaper, come alive thanks to Pike’s witty accent work.
When the gruesome gangsters Sluggsy Morant and Sol ‘Horror’ Horowitz make their appearance in chapter 8, Pike truly shines. She slurs their words and lowers her naturally high register by several octaves, giving the killers a voice that’s part vaudeville, part freakshow. Their lascivious dialogue sounds even sleazier when croaked in this bizarre Dick Tracy patois.
And then there’s Bond himself. Anyone concerned that the Oscar nominated actress might have trouble capturing 007’s masculine presence and wolf-like intensity will be happy to learn that she pulls it off with aplomb. Pike gives the hero enough strength and confidence to make even the intractable Fleming proud. In many ways, Pike’s Bond is the most believable character in the audio book. He’s stalwart and reassuring; exactly what he needs to be in this dangerous situation.
In the exclusive interview at the end of the recording, Pike admits that she hadn’t read the book before signing on to the project, and remarks on how different the novel was from the 1977 film adaptation. She praises Fleming’s attempt at capturing a woman’s subjective point of view and admires his attention to detail and his keen descriptive powers. It’s fascinating to hear her discuss the physical process of voicing the characters, including changing her posture in the audio booth to better fit each unique persona.
Fans who haven’t yet delved into the 007 Reloaded audio book series are in for a major treat when they finally get around to listening to ‘The Spy Who Loved Me.’ Hopefully this top-notch recording will lead to a long-overdue reevaluation of Fleming’s highly unusual, yet highly enjoyable, James Bond thriller.
Matthew Chernov is a film journalist and screenwriter in Los Angeles. His work can be read in Variety and his films have premiered on NBC, the SyFy Channel, Lifetime Network, Spike TV, and the Hallmark Channel.
Buy ‘The Spy Who Loved Me’ audiobook (Blackstone)
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