Edinburgh Spy Week is in its sixth year of celebrating spy fiction, film and history. This year a Bond theme runs throughout the week (5th to 12th April), so three of the Spy Week team, Simon Cooke, Penny Fielding and David Sorfa, sat down to talk about Casino Royale.
001. Casino Royale was a new kind of thriller. What would readers have thought in 1953?The first thing to remember is that it was published less than a decade after the war. Rationing didn’t end until 1954 and the luxury goods in the novel would have really piqued readers’ consumerist imaginations. The casino where most of the action takes place is poised between nostalgia for an earlier period of British Imperial supremacy, and reminders of the war. It has ‘a strong whiff of Victorian elegance’ but it’s frequented by accountants for members of the Vichy regime in France. With the opening up of Europe for tourism, the early Bond novels restore an appetite for travel and luxury, but they also remind readers of the self-interest that the war generated.
Casino Royale is more of its historical time than we might think from the way Bond became iconic in the later 20th century. Fleming gets in a plug for the Special Relationship between the US and the UK even while the post-war Marshall Plan was still in operation. The novel marks the first appearance of CIA officer Felix Leiter who holds Bond’s organization ‘far above the mutual concerns of the North Atlantic Allies.’ The casino of the 2006 movie was moved to Montenegro. In the novel it’s in Northern France with its wartime echoes both of Dunkirk and of the Normandy Landings.
002. Casino Royale was the moment that Bond first appeared. What was that debut like?
In many ways, he’s the Bond that we recognise over the years. He’s already associated with consumer goods. He has a fetishised relationship with cars, for example, although in this case it’s not an Aston Martin but a Bentley with ‘the supercharger by Amherst Villiers’ that he experiences with ‘an almost sensual pleasure.’ Bond’s body is a kind of register for all the excessive material and consumer pleasures he enjoys—he smokes 70 cigarettes a day and his signature cocktail is specified even more carefully than it is in the films (Gordon’s gin, vodka made with grain not potatoes, Kina Lillet, shake and then add a slice of lemon peel). ‘I hate small portions of anything,’ he tells us.
003. What do we get from the novel that we don’t find in the films?If you come to the novel from the films, then there are some really surprising elements of Casino Royale that a re-reading awakens. In the middle of the action, Bond and Mathis sit down to have a philosophical conversation about ‘the nature of evil’ (also the title of the chapter). Bond has a kind of boiled-down Nietzschean view that good and evil are not absolutes or opposite poles. This is a bit of a moral crisis for Bond, but luckily Mathis steps in to tell him to personalise everything—‘the secret lies in personal experience’—and that he should use his anger against Le Chiffre to drive him on.
The scene ends with Mathis telling Bond that he’s a ‘wonderful machine’ but Fleming doesn’t really confirm this one way or the other. Bond calls after him, but the chapter closes with Mathis’ footsteps echoing down the corridor. You don’t get this lack of resolution in the films.
Both the novel and the 2006 film give a prominent position to the casino, but the novel is obsessed with it. This seems to be in part a way of controlling events in an uncertain world. Bond takes ‘careful note of the past history of each session’ and observes the mechanics of the roulette wheel—he’s restoring order to the temporal and technological word. It’s interesting that in the movie, roulette is replaced with poker, giving Bond a greater chance of affecting the odds.
004. The Bond franchise has been criticised for its gender politics. How does Casino Royale look in this context?One of the surprising things about Casino Royale is how passive Bond is. The novel drips with sado-masochism, and we can partly attribute this to its historical moment. The second world war marked the replacement of the male body with technology, and the novel restores the triumphant victory of the body in the face of catastrophic defeat. It’s a fantasy reworking of the recognition that war is not simply one male body pitted against another. Bond comes close to emasculation in the torture scene, and experiences ‘the certainty of impotence’, but he defeats Le Chiffre in the end.
The novel is openly pornographic, in the sense that it graphically presents sex to the visual imagination. It’s interesting to note that 1953 also saw the first issue of Playboy and the entry of pornography into mainstream culture.
The introduction of Vesper Lynd is a long paragraph in which the narrator describes her (literally) from top to bottom and her body is minutely scrutinised. When she looks straight at Bond, contrasting with the way we are encouraged to look at her, she gives him a look of ‘ironical disinterest’ which he wants ‘to shatter roughly’.
But Bond’s own body is also vulnerable and on display. A strong vein of homoeroticism runs through the novel, most noticeably when Bond feels a gun press ‘right into the cleft between his two buttocks’.Bond’s own body is also minutely studied. The 2006 movie revisits this with its echo of the Dr No film as Ursula Andress emerges from the sea, but this time it’s Daniel Craig in his baby-blue trunks. But things are even more complicated than that. In the novel, Bond is always watching his own body and scrutinising himself as part of his technique as a spy: ‘Bond explored his present physical sensations. He felt … the harsh, bad taste in his mouth and the slight sweat under his arms. He could feel his eyes filling their sockets.’
The last bit of that quotation is quite weird, as if Bond is somehow sensing his own eyes rather than looking out through them. This feeling of both looking and being looked at reminds us of the novel’s later life in the cinema. Bond is described as a man who ‘liked being an actor and spectator and from his chair to take part in other men’s dramas’. It’s almost as if Fleming was describing an audience of men watching a thriller and getting caught up in the action.
005. How is Bond featuring in Spy Week 2019?
We’re having an exciting film season at Edinburgh Filmhouse in which we’re screening every first Bond film featuring a new 007 actor. ‘The Seven Faces of Bond’ programme will include Dr. No (Sean Connery), Casino Royale (David Niven in 1967 and Daniel Craig in 2006), On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (George Lazenby), Live and Let Die (Roger Moore), The Living Daylights (Timothy Dalton) and GoldenEye (Pierce Brosnan).
We’re also holding an academic panel discussion at the University where we’ll be examining the ways in which each actor engages with and transforms the legacy of Bond.
We’ll also feature Anthony Horowitz, who’s giving a talk on writing two official Bond sequels, Trigger Mortis and Forever and a Day, a prequel to Casino Royale. We’ll be exploring how Bond changes over the decades from the cynical killing-machine of the early movies to the more self-conscious humour of the Roger Moore years, and to the later more serious reconfigurations of Bond at the turn of the 20th century.
Edinburgh Spy Week runs from 5th to 12th April. For the programme and tickets, go to www.spyweek.ed.ac.uk
2 thoughts on “James Bond at the Edinburgh Spy Week”
Good interview but this ‘Gender Politics ‘ business bores me rigid and not in good way!
Posthumous analysis of this point brings nothing.
Everything and everybody is a function of their time and experiences – to enjoy literature from the past you simply have to accept that and not psychoanalyse everything.
As somebody who read these books as they were published I can tell you that nobody ever thought they were anything else but great , literate thrillers.
Amen, David. Next we’ll have the #metoo movement banning the books with a burning ceremony on Arthur’s Seat…all because Bond made “inappropriate gestures” or “aggressively touched” or “looked crosseyed” at a Bond girl…
It’s all so tiring. Just read, don’t reinterpret to your own social mores. It’s a book. Fiction. Get on with it.