We are delighted to welcome notable journalist and author Sean Egan in from the cold, to discuss his latest book, which takes a look into the enthralling story of how the espionage fantasies of a rather melancholy journalist came to captivate the world. It exposes the setbacks behind the triumphs, from Fleming’s increasing boredom with his own creation to regular crises over re-casting of the cinematic Bond and legal battles in the 1990s that almost destroyed the film franchise.
What was the journey that led to you writing this book and what were some of the challenges in covering so many aspects of the Bond oeuvre?
When I was aged ten, I read Live and Let Die, a book on my dad’s bookshelves. Not only did I love it, but it was a big reading milestone for me – such an adult work feels like a marathon when you’re that age. Funnily enough, though, this didn’t lead to me immediately immersing myself in Bond: I made the mistake of reading Casino Royale next. A book revolving around a card game is very boring to a child. But it put Bond into a significant place in my universe at a point where he wasn’t anything like as culturally prominent as he is now, what with it being 1975 before any Bond film made it to British TV.
The challenges of covering so many aspects of Bond included the proprietorial attitude of Eon. I got some good interviews with people like John Pearson, Roger Moore and Monty Norman, but I would have loved to have interviewed people currently working on the Bond films – especially Mr Craig, of course. However, there was no way they would have been allowed to assist with a non-official product.
Other difficulties came from covering the more obscure Bond stuff. The films and novels are easy to research and evaluate. Stuff like comics, merchandise, TV shows and the James Bond Jr. novel of 1967 were more difficult to find out facts on, and involved long hours scouring the web for titbits of information.
Ian Fleming had mixed success with bringing his creation to screen, in particularly television including the near mythical Moonraker screenplay. Do you believe this exists somewhere and could be revisited?
Difficult to say about the existence of the Moonraker screenplay. Fleming burnt all copies of his privately-published collection of poetry, so maybe he dispensed with the Moonraker script in a similar fit of disgust. Or perhaps he threw it out because he felt he’d used in the novel everything salvageable from the screenplay.
Of more interest to me would be the manuscript that almost became the first adult Bond continuation novel, Geoffrey Jenkins‘ Per Fine Ounce. I went into this subject in an early draft of my book, but had to cut that passage for space reasons. Even the redoubtable Jeremy Duns (another interviewee) couldn’t track down a Per Fine Ounce manuscript. He seemed to be close at one point, only to find it disappearing like a mirage in the desert.
You appear to have affection for some of Fleming’s short stories and how they have been worked into the films. Do you think there is more mileage left from these stories to adapt, as indeed, the novels?
Close to zero. There are passages of novels and even whole stories by Fleming not yet formally adapted, but the situation has been complicated by fragments of short stories and novels having found their way into unrelated films. For instance, I’d be surprised if there isn’t as much of the original Live and Let Die novel in the Licence to Kill screenplay as there is in the Live and Let Die film. What remains of Fleming’s corpus is the stuff unsuitable for adaptation (the ‘Quantum of Solace’ short story), but, even if Eon could find usable stuff, the screenwriters would have a job of navigating through all the previous Bond films to avoid repetition.
In what direction would you like to see the continuation novels continue in, such as continuing with Anthony Horowitz, or choosing new author each time?
It’s a difficult one. The employment of a new, name author each time out is intriguing – seeing how they fare when applying their trademark style to somebody else’s character. It’s definitely the process more likely to keep literary Bond in a prominent place: no one outside the core Bond fanbase cared about the Raymond Benson and John Gardner books, as they were considered formula works by second-tier writers.
Giving Anthony Horowitz or anyone else a second bite at the cherry might enable them to get it right – in my opinion, nobody has yet created a continuation Bond book as good as Fleming’s best novels. Yet a second Bond continuation book by Horowitz or anybody else is automatically robbed of its event status.
You mention the seemingly bullet-proof popularity of Bond in popular culture, but do you think there will be an end-game for both film and book Bond?
It’s difficult to imagine that, but then it was once impossible to imagine that cultural icons like Tarzan or The Saint would not always be phenomenally popular.
Like it or not, Bond’s longevity is not due to Fleming’s books. Were it not for the films, his works would now be considered just as much period pieces as the Saint books are, even though they’re better-written. The films themselves are still going because Eon have been careful to reflect changing tastes and societal realities. In recent years they’ve actually started mocking Bond tropes that some now consider outdated or offensive. It’s a neat trick that allows them to have their cake and eat it. Another reason for Bond’s longevity is that it so happens that Bond is an adjustable property: he can be recalibrated in a way that, say, Tarzan couldn’t. Tarzan was once the most successful film franchise in the world, but he ceased to be viable when the jungle stopped seeming exotic or mysterious to western eyes.
Although Eon and IFP have carefully nurtured Bond, it will be interesting to see what happens when Bond becomes public domain. Sherlock Holmes has actually benefited from going out of copyright. Some very good and/or successful takes on Holmes – the BBC’s Sherlock, CBS’ Elementary, Guy Ritchie’s irreverent movies – might never have been allowed by the Conan Doyle family. Holmes is a nineteenth-century character (or was), but instead of disappearing into history he’s still famous and visible today. It’s only a matter of a couple of decades before Bond can be treated in the same way. As with Sherlock Holmes, there’ll be a lot of substandard pastiche novels and some of the films will be ignorant about the character’s history, but the Sherlock Holmes example suggests there will be some good unofficial Bond works.
James Bond: The Secret History by Sean Egan is out now, published by John Blake Publishing in hardback and priced £16.99
Sean Egan has contributed to, among others, Billboard, Book Collector, Classic Rock, Record Collector, Tennis World, Total Film, Uncut and RollingStone.com. He has written or edited two dozen books, including works on The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Clash, Manchester United, Coronation Street, Tarzan and William Goldman. His critically acclaimed novel Sick of Being Me was published in 2003, while his 2008 collection of short stories Don’t Mess with the Best carried cover endorsements from Booker Prize winners Stanley Middleton and David Storey.
His 2002 book Jimi Hendrix and the Making of ‘Are You Experienced’ was nominated for an Award for Excellence in Historical Recorded Sound Research.