Casino Royale by Ian Fleming (Review)
Casino Royale by Ian Fleming
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Holy shit... I've always wanted to read the original James Bond novels, and after reading this first one, I think I'll definitely continue with the series. At least read all of the original ones that Fleming wrote (there are twelve of them, if I'm not mistaken). Although this is quite an old book being originally published in 1953, I know there are plenty of people out there like me who have only seen the movies and haven't read the novels (or are just getting into reading the novels which is why you might be reading this review). Like always, there are some major differences between the book and films, in order to point out those differences though, I'll have to reveal some critical plot points, and I will be spoiling the ending.
While the movies can be fairly predictable and formulaic, there were some twists here in the novel that I didn't quite expect, and do not remember there being sufficient enough analogs for from the films.
As much as I would like to evaluate the book on it's own merits, it's impossible not to make comparisons with the films. Near as I can tell, some of the plot points and characterizations in the Casino Royale novel were taken and used for 1962's Dr. No. But I haven't read the Doctor No novel, so I'm not sure if maybe there are just repeating elements and characters. Connery's Bond is definitely much closer to the original novel character than Daniel Craig's version, but the major plot points are there, with the exception of the ending and the background plot scaffolding. Obviously, the only explanation needed for the novel is “communism bad.”
First, I suppose I should say that all of the hallmark character traits for Bond are here, as are with the villains. Vesper, the female protagonist, however is much different than the way she is portrayed in the novel versus the Bond women of the films. Yes, I agree, Denise Richards made for one sexy scientist, but the majority of the Bond women in films (and maybe for the other books, I'll have to find out for myself) come in two flavors; damsel-in-distress or deadly-vixen, typical male power fantasy proxies, and objects used to increase the agency of the male protagonist rather than independent and intelligent characters with their own agency.
My wife has often teased me that Bond is just a womanizer and an idyllic vestige of a dying patriarchy. To a certain extent that's true. The character as well as the novel itself are a product of the early 1950s. Bond has been revised over the years, but also doesn't fundamentally change much. What amazed me the most was that this novel gives Bond a canonical reason for being a womanizer, and is not entirely related to the charade of being a spy, instead it's because Bond and Vesper fall deeply in love with each other. The relationship between Bond and Vesper in the film adaptation is a bit combative and not nearly as playfully flirty or romantic as it is shown to be in the book. There's practically an entire chapter where Bond lies in his hospital bed analyzing their relationship, and whether or not he wants to retire and get married, because he's just faced death and now has a reason to live.
For the most part, the 2006 movie adaptation follows the same three-act structure that the book does; casino section, torture section, and the healing and recovery portions with a final twist. Technically Bond does fall for Vesper, but the movie doesn't really sell you on it.
All of the espionage and action is finished up by the end of the second act, and roughly two-thirds of the way the through the book. Shockingly the torture scene in the second act of the book is just a brutal and horrific in print as it was watching Daniel Craig's balls get smashed, it's no wonder why Casino Royale wasn't chosen for any of the early movies, it would have been too graphic to translate in a 1:1 fashion.
The final third though is very mushy and romantic without much action, and then book abruptly ends on a massive downer. Vesper commits suicide as it's revealed that she was a double-agent. And that's it, that's the end of the book! We're led to believe in a false sense of “happily ever after” just to have it ripped away at the last second. The final line of the novel is:
“The bitch is dead now.”
It works well too, because there is an uneasiness to the pages, you're anticipating that SOMETHING is going to go wrong, her being a double-agent and working a long con would have been cliche, but could have worked... That's what they opted for in the movie. Having her take her own life just pushes the twist over the edge though, especially since the couple aren't in any immediate danger at the time. The deadliest threat to her life isn't a bullet, but rather her conscience and guilt.
Bond's cold womanizing nature is just reinforced because the one time that he lets his guard down his heart is absolutely ripped from his chest in more ways than just one. By the end of the book he is broken physically, mentally, and emotionally.
Other things that stood out to me were the gun and the car, the two accessories that define double-O seven. Beginning with Sean Connery we've been accustomed to seeing Aston Martin and Walther as the trademark brand names. He drives a DB5 beginning in Goldfinger (a car that makes re-appearances in Tomorrow Never Dies and the Casino Royale) and he carries a PPK chambered in .32 acp (described as 7.65mm x 17mm in the original theatrical trailer for Dr. No)... I could rant about how annoyed I am that Daniel Craig's Bond carries a Walther PDP chambered in 9x19mm, I would contend that a Glock 42 chambered in .380 acp is more likely and practical (threaded barrells are readily available and suitable for a small silencer), but that's probably an opine for another time.
Here, in the novel, Bond carries a Beretta 418 chambered in .25 acp and drives a 1930 Bentley 4 ½ Litre with a supercharger (the “Blower Bentley” engine). I find this incredibly fascinating; both the questionable lethality of the 418 and associated cartridge, as well as the maneuverability and top speed of the Bentley, leave a lot to be desired even for the early 1950s. It would seem to me that both are style over substance, whereas the Aston and the Walther from the Connery days are far more effective tools for an operative.
There is one scene in the novel where Bond grabs a Colt Single Action Army(sensibly chambered in God's cartridge, .45 acp) from the glove compartment of his car, and there's a line that reference the reason why the Colt was chosen, and it's because Bond knows he'll be accurate up to a hundred yards with it.
Perhaps the weak pistol and relatively lethargic motor carriage are meant to extenuate Bond's skills, it's less about the tools and more about the man who wields them.
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